Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Search for Meaning on 9/11: Missing the Wisdom of Abraham Joshua Heschel

I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility, of contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind’s reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God’s commandment. . . .
--Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

As I write this, our nation prepares once again to commemorate the tragedy and loss experienced on September 11, 2001. During the past nine years, we have embarked on two wars, buried over 5,660 American soldiers, and we continue to deploy more than 150,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are embroiled in a national debate over the meaning of religious freedom and the limits of the First Amendment. Muslim-Americans throughout the country feel under attack, blamed unfairly for the atrocities of their most radical brethren. Plans to build mosques in several states are opposed by vocal mobs chanting anti-Islamic slogans, mirroring the controversy over the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero. A lunatic fringe, led by a fundamentalist “preacher” in Florida, disgracefully talks of burning the Koran (their plans canceled for now), thereby insulting and inflaming the world’s Muslims.

My oldest daughter, Jennifer, was born twenty years ago today. On her eleventh birthday, the meaning of September 11 was forever altered and serves now as a timely reminder that our lives are short, the search for meaning more urgent, as the world is so much grander than each of us. This year, as well, September 11 overlaps with the Jewish High Holy Days, starting with Rosh Hashanah, which calls upon Jews the world over to engage in further reflection and contemplation. What better time, then, to turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel – rabbi, theologian, social activist, and mystic, widely admired by Christians and Jews alike – for counsel and guidance in these troubled times.

Although he died in 1972, I believe we need Heschel’s prophetic voice now more than ever. So much of what he said in his lifetime is relevant today. For the families of those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and for others seeking to make sense of it all, Heschel’s experience in the Holocaust – he lost two sisters at Treblinka and his mother died of a heart attack when the Nazis came to her door – and his words of spiritual healing and enlightenment despite these experiences, speak deeply. Unlike many of his contemporaries following World War II, Heschel never blamed God for the Holocaust. God did not commit the evil perpetrated in the concentration camps and gas chambers, he argued. It was, rather, the depravity of human beings acting in defiance of God and of faith. Heschel contended that God suffered with the victims, and would today teach us that the atrocities and evil committed on 9/11 were inflicted not by God, nor by Islam, but by nineteen fanatics who misinterpreted their religion and blasphemed God.

If Islam committed any crime on 9/11, it was the same crime committed by Christianity during the Holocaust – that of silence, the failure of peace-loving Muslims to speak out with sufficient force against the misguided members of their faith, far too many of whom believe that the Koran requires acts of martyrdom and violence against perceived infidels. “The opposite of good is not evil,” Heschel declared often, “the opposite of good is indifference.” Heschel understood that only human beings could challenge injustice, that God needed humans to correct the wrongs in society. Having lived through the rise of Hitler in Germany, he was all too aware of the capacities of mass silence and indifference. “How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person? . . . In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Of course, Heschel was a man of action and not merely words. He fought all forms of anti-Semitism, campaigning for the rights of Soviet Jews and lobbying the Pope during the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s to renounce church teachings that demeaned Jews or anticipated their conversion. He fought racism and segregation, marching arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. If history were any guide, he would today have spoken forcefully against the rising tide of Islamophobia in the United States.

Heschel saw the divine in every person and emphasized the holiness and sanctity of every human being. “We are called upon to be an image of God . . . and the task of a human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God.” Heschel believed that what ailed modern society was the lack of a personal awareness of God. He spoke convincingly of encounters with the mystery of the “divine” that is both within each of us and beyond us; that “discloses unity where we see diversity; . . . peace where we are involved in discord.”

Heschel connected with the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and with King in particular because he believed, like King, that the God of the Bible struggles with us, suffers with us, and is affected by how human beings treat one another. “God stands in an intimate relationship to the world,” Heschel believed, and thus God “has a stake in the human situation.” Because God is “intimately affected” by the treatment human beings afford each other, “God is never neutral, never beyond good and evil.” The political implications of Heschel’s theology are clear: created in God’s image, we are each a reminder of God’s presence; when we engage in acts of violence and murder, we commit such acts against God’s divine likeness. “Whatever I do to man, I do to God,” Heschel explained. “When I hurt a human being, I injure God.”

In an age when religion divides people and nations, Heschel emphasized the common underpinnings of faith. Although profoundly devoted to his own tradition, he believed deeply that people of different faiths must talk to one another in a spirit of humility and respect, not to change or convert the other, but to better understand one another. “We must choose between interfaith and internihilism,” he often said, “No religion is an island.” Although most of Heschel’s ecumenical dealings were with Catholics and Protestants, shortly before his death he flew to Rome (against his doctor’s orders) to attend a conference of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders on the future of Jerusalem. “It is important to remember now,” Heschel said, “that, while I have prayed from the heart for Muslims all my life, I have never prayed with them before, or been face-to-face with them to talk about God . . . we must go further.”

Rabbi Arthur Green, a professor at Brandeis University and former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, has explained that Heschel

. . . [L]iked to tell the Hasidic tale of Rabbi Raphael of Bershad who invited a group of disciples to come share with him in a ride in his coach. “But there is not enough room!” a disciple cried out, “the rebbe will be crowded.” The master replied: “Then we shall have to love each other more. If we love each other more, there will be room for us all.” Heschel understood that all of humanity rides in that coach, one that can be either the divine chariot of God or the crowded, sealed railway car. The choice, he insisted, is a human one, and we who have escaped the terrors of hell are here to help all our fellow humans make that choice. [From the essay Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Memoir]

Heschel taught that God depended upon humanity to repair and heal the world. The God of the Bible was like the parent of all humanity, “who cannot stand to see the suffering of God’s children.” For Heschel, it was very simple. God needs his children to take care of each other.

For a society obsessed with non-stop consumerism and technologically driven noise, Heschel taught the value of the Sabbath as a sanctuary in time, when “we are called upon . . . to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation.” The concept of the Sabbath urges a day of rest, reflection, study and prayer that is essential to the dignity of human beings and the nourishment of the soul. “The modern man does not know how to stand still, how to appreciate a moment, an event for its own sake.”

Throughout his life, Heschel remained devoted and secure in his Jewish faith, though he openly acknowledged the depth and beauty of other faith traditions. He gave us the tools for religious dialogue, believing that no one possessed a monopoly on the truth. It was clear to Heschel that people of different faiths needed one another. His interfaith involvements extended beyond his alliance with King and the civil rights movement, and included his work with the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council, and a visiting professorship at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he developed a close kinship with the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Heschel understood in all of these encounters that, although their religious beliefs and practices differed, all lived in the presence of God. “There is no human being,” Heschel said in 1961, “who does not carry a treasure in his soul; a moment of insight, a memory of love, a dream of excellence, a call to worship.”

Regardless of one’s age, race, religion, or ethnicity, Heschel believed we must never lose sight of our humanity, for we all possess a soul, a spirit, a heart, and a mind, and it is imperative that we use them. His wisdom transcended generations, cultures, and religions, and the quest for common ground inspired his theology. “Oceans divide us, God’s presence unites us,” he said. “God is present wherever man is afflicted, and all of humanity is embroiled in every agony wherever it may be.”

Because Heschel spoke so eloquently on Christian-Jewish relations and the need for dialogue, I am certain that, were he alive today, he would have spoken with equal passion about Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations. To Heschel, each and every person was sacred. “To meet a human being is an opportunity to sense the image of God, the presence of God.” His voice is sorely missed in today’s world; if only the power of his words could be felt by the likes of radical jihadists, intolerant fundamentalist preachers, and others who remain closed to sharing, learning, and listening to people of different cultures and faiths. “Unless we learn how to help one another, we will only weaken each other.”

He opposed religious parochialism. “Should we refuse to be on speaking terms with one another and hope for each other’s failure? Or should we pray for each other’s health, and help one another in preserving our respective legacies, in preserving a common legacy?” For Heschel, as for us all, the answer is obvious: “The world is too small for anything but mutual care and deep respect; the world is too great for anything but responsibility for one another.”

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