Friday, January 17, 2020

Shabbat-O-Gram: MLK - Heschel Shabbat; Spiritual Audacity; Moses and the Mysterious Midwives


The first conference on religion and race took place in Egypt. The main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses said, “Thus saith the God of Israel, ‘Let My people go.’” And Pharaoh answered, “Who is the Lord that I should heed His word? I will not let them go.” The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began, but it is far from being complete. 

-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Abraham Joshua Heschel at a convocation at Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA in the 1960s.   That's my father, Cantor Michal Hammerman, leading the procession.

We received this lovely thank-you note from the staff of Building 1 Community 
after the holiday party we prepared for them in December. B1C  facilitiates the successful immigration of immigrants and their families to our area. We are proud to work with them toward that end, so that all who reach our golden shores will feel embraced by their community.

Shabbat Shalom

Every so often the stars align, where MLK Weekend coincides with the yahrzeit for Abraham Joshua Heschel and the portion of Shemot - the first portion of the book of Exodus.  That's the part where the Israelites are enslaved and Moses receives the call the prophecy.  Such is the case this year.  Heschel's yahrzeit was this week, on the 15th - coinciding with King's actual birthday.  In honor of that yahrzeit, I'm focusing on Heschel in this O-Gram.

Both great leaders were prophets who spoke a lot about the ancient Israelite prophets, who, according to Heschel, were the ones who first commented on the evil of indifference.  They also walked together in Selma.


On Friday night, Beth Styles will again join us, and she has produced a very special MLK Weekend service, assisted by Jason Terry and the New World Chorus.  It will be a Gospel-Jewish Mashup, worthy of Heschel, King, and, for that matter, Moses.  This is something I approached her with months ago - a way to celebrate this special weekend as it needs to be celebrated: with a love that reaches beyond one faith group within our community.  We will be sprinkling in relevant quotes and thoughts related to one of Dr King's most lasting speeches, culled from the Talmud of MLK, a recent project of the innovative Jewish startup, "Repair the World."

Not to be outdone, on Shabbat morning we'll have another Shabbat-in-the-Round, where I will be joined by Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray.  As we explore the portion of Shemot, a special point of emphasis will be the role of heroes, both known and unknown, in particular, Moses himself and the heroic Israelite (or Egyptian?) midwives Shifra and Puah, who saved Israelite boys from drowning at the hands of Pharaoh's evil decree.  Join us for breakfast - service begins at 9:45, and then a kiddush lunch follows.  Read more about those mysterious midwives from and the Jewish Women's Archive, and here's another feminist take on the story. And preview the parsha packet here.

Also on my recommended reading list this week:
Secular Synagogues Taking Root in Israel (Tablet magazine) My own take on this phenomenon is that it's not far off from what many congregations here are doing, echoing ideas expressed a century ago by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, author of "Judaism as a Civilization."
How Shall We Pray During Impeachment? (Religion and Politics)  
Bitterly Funny Eretz Nehederet Israeli Show Spoofs "Elections 2030" and Absurd Political Reality (JPost)  I watched it on Israeli TV - really funny - and it's good to know that Israelis still know how to laugh at themselves.  Over here, SNL is still struggling to find its voice.
Fifth World Holocaust Forum (Yad Vashem website) will take place on Jan 23, next Thurs., and world leaders will converge on Jerusalem as the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz the following week. The event will include speeches by will include speeches by Heads of State from France, Great Britain, Russia (yes, Putin will be there), the United States (VP Pence) and Germany.  

Middah Yomi:  Daily Dosage of Jewish Values for 2020
This week's focal point for character building:  

Spiritual Audacity: 
The Legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel


So what is there to say about Abraham Joshua Heschel's legacy, 48 years after his passing?  
His accusations against the American Jewish establishment were piercing, often characterizing it as shallow, materialistic and indifferent.  He was also critical of rabbis and synagogues, saying:
Quote #1: "Has the synagogue become the graveyard where prayer is buried?  Are we, the spiritual leaders of American Jewry, members of a burial society?  There are many who labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray, or how to inspire others to pray?  There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks; but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of a soul?"    

His daughter, Susannah Heschel, wrote the following in Tikkun on the occasion of his 25th yarhzeit, summing up his many contributions:

Quote #2"So much of what Jews have created in the last 25 years stems from Heschel's inspiration: the Havurah movement, social-conscious political activism, the revival of Jewish spirituality, renewed interest in Hasidism, creative Jewish theology, the renewed pride in being Jewish.  What we are missing today, however, is the voice of moral leadership that we heard with Heschel, and, I add, with Martin Luther King. His prophetic tradition has been replaced by voices of witness that describe anti-Semitism, voices of doom that decry statistics of assimilation, and voices of anger that insist on narrow definitions of Judaism.  They leave us with a cynical taste in our mouths; none that gives us the transcendent vision we need.  Today, in celebrating my father's memory, we have to bring to life the joyful and thoughtful aspects of Judaism he taught and exemplified: that we are all made in the image of God, that God's creation is filled with wonder and awe and that God needs us as partners in caring for our fellow human beings and all of creation."

And now, with a full generation having grown to adulthood since Heschel's death, it is easier to see just how profound and lasting his influence has been. The activism that this generation of rabbis (and many of their congregants) espouse is Heschelian activism, as distinguished from the New Dealism that characterized the prior generation.  It still trends to the left politically, but it is based on a vision steeped in Heschel's Hasidic roots, his joyous spirituality, his unabashed love of Judaism and his unbending willingness to speak truth to power.  Heschel practically invented the modern notion of "Tikkun Olam," joining it to Martin Luther King's bending the arc of history.  He was the one who "prayed with his feet" at Selma and who, in protesting against the Vietnam War, said famously:

Quote #3 "In a free society, some our guilty, all are responsible."

Heschel was an unashamed Zionist and even saw glimpses of messianic fulfillment in Israel's 1967 reunification of Jerusalem.  Still, he was clear that "We do not worship the soil," meaning that the land is not holy; it is, he affirmed, a place where holiness is to be created. So, although he did not live to see the results of Israel's continuing possession of the Territories and the failed attempts at peace, it is fair to speculate that he would not be a supporter of holding on to the biblical land of Israel for religious purposes. It is also fair to say to suggest that Heschel's activist legacy is directly responsible for the civil disobedience of the "Women of the Wall," which has long sought opening of the Western Wall to egalitarian prayer.

In his essay, "Existence and Celebration," (found in the collection "Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity," Heschel distinguishes between Jewish survival and renewal. It is an important distinction, one that we should draw, because American Jews have gotten stuck in a survivalist trap.  Heschel writes that it is more productive to be preoccupied with enhancing the present than to nurture fears about the future. Here we are, living not in the moment, not in awe of the moment and of God's presence in this moment, but living in utter fear of whether our great grandchildren will have a Christmas tree.  Heschel would advise us to let the future take care of itself.  He scoffed at surveys. 

Quote #4: "Our community is in spiritual distress," he said, "and some of our organizations are often too concerned with digits."  He bristled at the stifling of criticism within organizational life, the "dogma of infallibility," as he called it. The true problem, he said, is not how to survive, but what to survive for.

Heschel did not live in a world of potential Iranian nukes, but Israel was no safer then than it is now. The existential dangers to Jewish survival are, in fact, far less severe now than at any time in Heschel's life. But even while the Holocaust was still going on, he quoted the Ba'al Shem Tov in stating,

Quote #5: "If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what is shown to him is also within him." 

To that Heschel added:

Quote #6: "Soldiers in the horror of battle offer solemn testimony that life is not a hunt for pleasure, but an engagement for service; that there are things more valuable than life.... Either we make (the world) an altar for God or it is invaded by demons. There can be no neutrality. Either we are ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil. Let the blasphemy of our time not become an eternal scandal. Let future generations not loathe us for having failed to preserve what prophets and saints, martyrs and scholars have created in thousands of years."

In words spoken at the General Assembly of North American Federations toward the end of his life, he waxed prophetic about what it meant to be part of a Jewish community in America. What Heschel said then, and what is true now, is that Jewish institutions have fallen victim to what he calls "a campaign of spiritual liquidation," a malaise of hopelessness that leads only to more blaming and bitterness, to a basic view of Jewish existence that sees only the negative, that speaks only in material terms.   He said:

Quote #7: "Our institutions maintain too many beauty parlors.  Our people need a language and we offer them cosmetics.  Our people need style, learning, conviction, exaltation and we are concerned about not being admitted to certain country clubs.  To paraphrase the words of Isaiah: What is to me the multitude of your organizations says the Lord.  I have had enough of your vicarious loyalty.  Bring me no more vain offerings; generosity without wisdom is an evasion, an alibi for conscience....We are ingenious in fund raising, which is good; we are shipwrecked in raising our children, which is tragic.  We may claim to be a success, but in the eyes of Jewish history we may be regarded as a failure."


If we are to bring the spirit of Heschel into our Jewish communities, we must place spiritual growth above all other goals, including survival itself.  For without God, without a sense of covenant, without Torah and Sinai in our midst, there is nothing to survive for.  The human being without God, he exclaims, is merely a torso.  We have built a fine midsection.  Have we lost the head?  Have we lost the heart?  Have we lost the soul?

Shabbat Shalom  

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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