News & Politics

Profiting from the Prophets

The death anniversary of a great spiritual leader provides insight into the distinction between "good" and "evil" and what passes for "religious" today.
Are you familiar with the word yohrzeit? It's Yiddish for "year-time," or death anniversary, typically observed with prayer and memorial candles.

This week I'm lighting a candle and offering prayers in remembrance of one of my intellectual and spiritual heroes, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose 34th yohrzeit is today.

This Thursday also happens to be Heschel's centennial birthday anniversary. Yup, Heschel's birth and death come during the same week that observant Jews read from the Parashat Sh'mot, which is the beginning part of the book of Exodus; namely the midwives nonviolent resistance to Pharoah's baby-killing orders -- an epoch that re-names G-d and marks the beginning of liberation from slavery. How's that for timing?

Yohrzeits are part of a Jewish custom that, instead of commemorating a person's birthday, the death date is honored -- because, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow explains it, "we can't know fully who a person is until the end."

Born in 1907 Warsaw, Poland, Heschel was the son of a Hasidic rabbi, honorifically referred to as the Pelzovizner rebbe. As a young boy, Heschel was called "illuy" (genius). And it was his intellectual promise that saved him from Hitler's genocidal grasp. His mother and three sisters weren't so lucky.

Even before arriving in the United States in 1940, Heschel was a respected, if not revered, scholar in both Reform and Orthodox circles.

In times of personal crisis, I've often profited from his slender volume of penetrating insights "I Asked For Wonder." I've also feasted on "God in Search of Man" several times. But my favorite Heschel book is "The Prophets," probably because of my own childhood fascination with the iconoclastic lives and fiery words of the biblical prophets, especially Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah and Jonah.

To oversimplify Heschel's sublime thought, he first lays down what a prophet is not -- "a prophet is neither a messenger, an oracle, a seer, nor an ecstatic," Jerry Falwell's visions aside. No, as Heschel defines it, a prophet is "a witness to the divine pathos, one who bears testimony to God's concern for human beings."

Arguing historical details or quibbling over theism-versus-rationalism is to miss the point. "The prophet is a person, not a microphone."

Heschel's scholarly excavations turned up an important insight, not just for the "chosen" but for all of us: "the situation of a person immersed in the prophets' words is one of being exposed to a ceaseless shattering of indifference, and one needs a skull of stone to remain callous to such blows."

In fact, that's Heschel's main contribution in my eyes. The opposite of good, he wrote, is not evil, but indifference! That's why I'm more concerned with indifferent Americans than evil terrorists.

You have to know the books of the prophets to fully appreciate what Heschel is saying because, as he points out, "in the course of listening to their words one cannot long retain the security of a prudent, impartial observer. The prophets do not offer reflections about ideas in general. Their words are onslaughts, scuttling illusions of false security, challenging evasions, calling faith to account, questioning prudence and impartiality."

It's worth quoting Heschel at length, if only for the lesson in articulate expression. "The prophet was an individual who said No to society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism. He was often compelled to proclaim the very opposite of what his heart expected."

"The prophets endure and can only be ignored at the risk of our own despair. It is for us to decide whether freedom is self-assertion or response to a demand; whether the ultimate situation is conflict or concern."

Heschel, who marched with Dr. King and founded the peace organization Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, really blew my mind with this: "to speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam [Iraq] is blasphemous."

Imagine -- if the millions of so-called religious folks in America saw our ultimate situation with prophetic concern and not myopic conflict, if only they saw freedom as a "response to a demand" (for compassion) and not military self-assertion, then maybe Marxists, terrorists, sinners, evil-doers, even Richard Dawkins might say: Hey, religion doesn't have to be the opiate of the people. It can be prophetic.

You can find more information about Heschel online.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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