The 46th yohrzeit -- death-anniversary – of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most fruitful Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, in the Jewish calendar is 18 Tevet. It falls this year on the evening of December 25 through the day of December 26.
The quotation that entitles this Shalom Report comes from Heschel, repeated over and over during his spiritually rooted activism of the 1960s -- - often side by side with Dr. Martin Lutherr King, as here, when they were protesting the US War against Vietnam -- .
That teaching -- "All are responsible" -- has its seed in a much earlier essay (1944) that asked who was responsible for the bloodbath of World War II. He named who was guilty -- and then said all of us were responsible. It is that essay that I suggest we explore to honor Heschel's yohrzeit.
His yohrzeit comes during the week when Jews begin the reading of the Book of Exodus, the Torah portion known in Hebrew as Sh’mot, where the struggle begins for freedom from slavery to Pharaoh. That timing is especially appropriate because Rabbi Heschel spent much of the last ten years of his life struggling against the Pharaohs of racism and war. He joined his intellectual and spiritual commitment to the ancient Hebrew Prophets with his own prophetic physical activism on the streets -- demanding voting rights for Southern Blacks and opposing the US War against Vietnam.
And this year it is especially appropriate for us to honor him on his yohrzeit, because the present US government embodies Pharaoh -- espousing white nationalism, making racism official policy, and enabling a cruel war against the people of Yemen. And because we are witnessing the birth and growth of a vigorous Resistance that Heschel would have joined.
Two years ago, facing the victory of a proto-fascist presidential candidate, I chose to offer for study the same essay, which he published in February 1944 on “The Meaning of this War” [World War II]). In it he examined the responsibility of liberal Westerners in Germany, Europe, and perhaps America, in not responding to the pain and despair of the suffering Germans who chose to support Nazism. (The essay appears on pp. 210-212 of a brilliant selection of Rabbi Heschel’s writings edited by his daughter, Susannah Heschel -- Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity [Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996]).
"Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience,” he wrote. "Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation?
"When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?"
Two years ago, I asked the question, what had we liberal Americans failed to see or do while the sense of defeat, demoralization, despair were turning into rage among millions of rural and small-town Americans who had been robbed of their jobs and their sense of personal worth, spiritual and cultural values -- and even their life expectancy?
Were we reexamining our selves, our own willingness to enhance our own comfort while ignoring their pain? Were we rallying to meet their needs, or looking down our noses at them as outdated members of a lost America? –
Could we have insisted on including them not instead of but in addition to the full inclusion in America of Blacks, Latinx, women, immigrants, LGBTQ folk, Muslims, Jews? Insisting that no one should be left out of America?
Heschel continued, "Good and evil, which were once as real as day and night, have become a blurred mist. In our everyday life we worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite. The vision of the sacred has all but died in the soul of man."
Why do I urge us once again, today, to study this out of all Heschel’s wisdom? Because now we must look to the future, not the past. We have seen our country begin to turn the corner away from fascism. Vigorous nonviolent actions like the Poor People's Campaign and the young climate activists Sunrise have inspired and connected with a newer generation of electoral candidates, many of them women previously outside political activism. They affirm the need not to go back to the one-eyed neo-liberalism of the past, but to open our eyes, our hearts, and our hands to imagine and enact a new society.
[Sit-in at Speaker-elect Pelosi's office by Sunrise activists demanding a Green New Deal, joined by Congresswoman-elect Cortez]
There lies before us still another election. Can this new vision succeed? Can it affirm and respond to the angst felt by many of the “forgotten Americans” who turned their angst into hatred?
Can we like alchemists of heart and soul turn their leaden weight of fear and hatred into the gold of active hope and hopeful change?
Can we do this with a vision that speaks not only to them but also to millions of other “forgotten Americans” –- some among the Black, Latinx, and young communities –- who have given up on politics altogether – whether in the voting booth or marching on the streets -- and in despair or overwhelm stay home?
I have suggested that we might cut through old barriers of race and class and gender by including in a Green New Deal a Neighborhood Solarization Administration, bringing grant money, job training, and well-paid jobs to co-ops in urban and rural neighborhoods alike, as the old New Deal brought the Rural Electrification Act to co-ops of farmers who had been left out of what was then the new technology.
And I have suggested that these same co-ops become centers of community, of cultural festivals that enrich not only the pockets but the souls of their members, and embody in their community a commitment to the Community of Earth that their solar energy is helping heal.
This is a hunch, a hypothesis. I welcome your thoughts and comments.
I suggest that to honor Heschel this week, we read this essay at https://theshalomcenter.org/node/63> and discuss these questions. And I suggest we take this moment to gather study groups to read together, essay by essay, Susannah Heschel’s collection of them in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.
Meanwhile, if our lifting up for you this Heschel-Torah brings you into a new exploration within your self -- then please right now, as the old year ends, make a tax-deductible gift to The Shalom Center.
It takes unfreezing the frozen energy of money to keep us thinking, researching, writing, -- even to keep getting arrested to test out these ideas -- and to keep mailing these thoughts to you. You can do this by making a contribution through the maroon "Contribute" button on the left-hand margin of this page.