There are certain writers who speak to us and, for some ineffable reason, touch a soft spot in our hearts.
For me there are two Jewish thinkers who resonate with me. One is Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) and the other is a woman named Simone Weil, (1909-1943), whom I shall write about in a future column. Both of these individuals are “creative,” that is, they go way beyond the confines of convention and break new ground in our understanding of religion understood as “what counts most in life.”
Heschel (H.) first saw the light of day in Warsaw and descended from as long line of rabbis or rebbes, that is, rabbinical leaders in the Hasidic tradition. Hasidism arose in the 18th century in the Western part of the Ukraine and spread to Eastern Europe as a pietistic movement in the 18th century led by Baal Shem Tov, (Best), a charismatic individual.
The BeShT spoke of the direct relationship with the divine found in every action and every waking hour, a thought that inspired H. in his many writings. H. was also influenced by Rabbi Zalman of Lindi (1746-1813), who wrote that we must use wisdom and knowledge to overcome evil, and by the Kotzk rebbe of Hasidism in the 19th century, who wrote the book "A Passion for Truth."
H.’s writings themselves made a significant contribution to the spiritual renewal of Judaism in the 20th century. He calls Judaism a religion of dissent and he characterizes Hasidism as a movement of dissent that inspired Jewish life. Dissent goes back to the prophets of ancient Israel such as Jeremiah, who wrote against people who would act in their own self-interest, as opposed to pleasing Adonai, or the Lord. H. notes that dissenters in Judaism today speak quietly in a voice that the Jewish establishment cannot hear. H. cannot comprehend how we squander the earth’s resources while more than a billion people go to bed hungry. He wants not only Jews but all of humanity to focus on tuning up their spiritual life by living a life of prayer, faith, and working for social justice.
In teaching courses on the Eastern and Western religions for over 30 years, I told my students that if I were born to Jewish parents, I would be an observant Jew today. Why so? Judaism makes eminent sense to me and if I lived as a Jew, my life would be pleasing to the Almighty One.
As a “dissenting Jew,” I would point out that there’s the Covid-19 in the U.S. and everywhere in the world and as a country we’re spending trillions of dollars on fighting wars in Afghanistan, China, Iran, and Iraq. Instead of being constructive in helping other countries, we see ourselves as the “bullies of the world.’ This forces other countries to view us as the greatest threat to world peace.
H. defines a Jew as one who witnesses to the presence, majesty, and transcendence of God. In this sense, I can proudly be called a Jew. He adds that a Jew is “a person in whose life Abraham would feel at home,” and a person “of whom the Jewish martyrs of all ages” would be proud. As a Christian, I would fit that bill insofar as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all called “Abrahamic” or “desert” religions.
H. reminds us that just as no individual is an island, so too, no religion is an island. For example, Jews, Muslims, and Christians are all in this together. We live in a globalized, interconnected world. He counsels us to pray for each other’s help and health in preserving our common legacy. The world religions must live in harmony while simultaneously rejecting bigotry and in-fighting. In today’s complex world, anti-Semitism is anti-Christianity and conversely, anti-Christianity is anti-Semitism. We can’t do it alone. No religion is superior to other religions. Just as no individual or religion has a monopoly on wisdom, so mutatis mutandis, no individual or religion has a monopoly on ignorance.
Most of this essay comes from a book edited by Susannah Heschel, daughter of Abraham J. Heschel, who teaches religion at Dartmouth College. Her outstanding book, "Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings," (Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 2011), is available on Amazon as a paperback and I highly recommend it. I intend in the future to write another column or two on Dr. Heschel, a person of great wisdom, one sorely needed in today’s fractious and complex world.
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus- Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.