Thursday, January 5, 2023

In This Moment: Heschel's Audacity and Hamlin's Injury

In This Moment

This coming week is Abraham Joshua Heschel's 50th Yahrzeit,

Over the next couple of Shabbats,

we'll celebrate the powerful combined legacy

Of Rabbi Heschel and Rev. King

Heschel's Audacity and Hamlin's Injury

Shabbat Shalom.

A half century ago, American Jewry lost arguably its leading spiritual light. There are others who deserve a spot on that Mount Sinai/Rushmore, but it's hard to deny Heschel's place on the pantheon. His inspiration parallels that of his contemporary and friend, Martin Luther King, Jr. Heschel challenged us in a manner that American Jews were not used to being challenged. His famous catchphrase, "Moral grandeur and spiritual audacity," came as part of a much more caustic telegram to President Kennedy on June 16, 1963. He wrote, "We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity."

Heschel pulled no punches, excoriating American Jews for their worship of technical culture and materialism, which he equated with paganism. "Our disease is the loss of character and commitment, and the cure of our plight cannot be derived from charts and diagrams," he wrote. "Our institutions have 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." He also said, "We may claim to be a success, but in the eyes of Jewish history, we may be regarded as a failure." He cried out like the ancient prophets he so admired - and his cry was heard. His message resonated especially in the intensely secular '60s, and, aside from the awkward lack of inclusivity in his language, his words have aged very well. if anything, they ring more true today. Although his influence has been keenly felt in the areas of social action and spirituality, our communities are still haunted by a pervasive stench of superficiality and hollowness. I hope we've made strides, but it's hard to say whether the advances I see are clouded by outbursts of wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, I was struck by a Tweet-thread by an outspoken clergy colleague in Massachusetts, who took on a Heschelian posture following the shocking injury to Buffalo Bills' safety Damar Hamlin last Monday night. Hamlin is showing signs of improvement, thankfully.

I don't agree with all that she says, and I admit to being a more than casual fan who would have trouble giving up football, no matter what how lethal it turns out to be. But these comments, made while the incident was playing out before our eyes, gave me pause. It should be noted that the game was not resumed, as we believed it would be at that time, based on confusing signals being sent by the league. The NFL thankfully did not take the macho route and continue the game. Grown men were allowed to cry and the world did not come to an end.

What role, exactly, does football play in our society? Why are we so inclined to pile human beings into that meat grinder? is there a racial element to this? Do certain lives not matter as much? Is this no better than the gladiator games of ancient Rome?

We know that the NFL minimized the dangers of CTE when they first were known, and that Hamlin's injury was much more freakish. But the dangers of concussions and spinal and other injuries seem to be on the increase, as does our willingness to look the other way.

On Monday night, America could no longer look the other way. Rev. Everett reminded us what's at stake. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity, and we must ask the same question that Abraham Joshua Heschel asked the President of the United States: Have we forfeited the right to worship God in how we've brought pain to our fellow human beings?

I'm going to reserve most of this Shabbat-O-Gram for Heschel's words today, as I share some of his most challenging pleas, calls that still ring true a half century later.

See below a photo of Dr. Heschel (extreme right) at a convocation in my home synagogue, with my father, Cantor Michal Hammerman (on the left)

leading the procession.


Abraham Joshua Heschel


What does a person expect to attain when entering a Temple? In the pursuit of learning one goes to a library; for esthetic enrichment one goes to the art museum; for pure music, to the concert hall. What then is the purpose of going to the Temple?


Many are the facilities which help us to acquire the important worldly virtues, skills, and techniques. But where should one learn about the insights of the spirit? Many are the opportunities for public speech; where are the occasions for inner silence? It is easy to find people who will teach us how to be eloquent; but who will teach us how to be still? It is surely important to develop a sense of humor; but is it not also important to have a sense of reverence?


Where should one learn the eternal wisdom of compassion? The fear of being cruel? The danger of being callous? Where should one learn that the greatest truth is found in contribution? Important and precious as the development of our intellectual faculties, the cultivation of a sensitive conscience is indispensable. We are all in danger of sinking into the darkness of vanity; we are all involved in worshipping our own egos. Where should we become sensitive to the pitfalls of cleverness, or to the realization that expedience is not the acme of wisdom?


We are constantly in need of experiencing moments in which the spiritual is as relevant and as concrete, for example as the esthetic. Everyone has a sense of beauty; everyone is capable of distinguishing between the beautiful and the ugly. But we must learn to be sensitive to the spirit. It is in the Temple where we must try to acquire such inwardness, such sensitivity.


From "Existence and Celebration"

Abraham Joshua Heschel

From "The Sabbath"

From "Existence and Celebration"

From "No Religion is an Island"

One of the results of the rapid depersonalization of our age is a crisis of speech, profanation of language. We have trifled with the name of God, we have taken the name and the word of the Holy in vain. Language has been reduced to labels, talk has become double-talk. We are in the process of losing faith in the reality of words.

Yet prayer can happen only when words reverberate with power and inner life, when uttered as an earnest, as a promise. On the other hand, there is a high degree of obsolescence in the traditional language of the theology of prayer. Renewal of prayer calls for a renewal of language, of cleansing the words, of revival of meanings.

The strength of faith is in silence, and in words that hibernate and wait. Uttered faith must come out as a surplus of silence, as the fruit of lived faith, of enduring intimacy.

Theological education must deepen privacy, strive for daily renewal of innerness, cultivate ingredients of religious existence, reverence and responsibility.

Recommended Reading...

See this week's essay on Substack - and subscribe to my feed!

Popular Parsha Packets for Vayechi

In the Wake of the Asian Tsunami Disaster - Poems, prayers and reflections on the great natural disaster that killed tens of thousands.

How Antisemitism Distorts Our Vision - "I hate what antisemitism does to Jews. I hate the fear that it instills."

Patrilineal Possibilities - Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh were products of intermarriage, and patrilineal descent. What gives?

Dying Desires: Jacob,, Joseph and the Five Wishes Letting your loved ones know what you would want for yourself and them, as the end draws near.

Why Was Joseph Snubbed? - A dialogue on why Joseph is not counted as one of the patriarchs of Genesis. includes my ideas.


  • For this week's Hebrew front page, below, we feature the visit to the Temple Mount by new minister and veteran flame thrower Itamar Ben Gvir. It employs a play on words, saying, Ben Gvir's visit to the Temple Mount: Harsh criticism from the world. The words for "visit" and "criticism" are nearly identical. Which makes sense. To visit (or in some cases, revisit) something is to inquire about it, and an investigation typically leads to passing some sort of judgment. Bikur - the word for visit, can be a mitzvah, as in bikur holim, visiting the sick. in this case it is a simple demonstration of power, and yet another reason why with this particular government, it can't be "business as usual" for those of us who love Israel. incidentally, the sidebar column (lower right) is by Avi Issacharoff, veteran journalist and co-creator of "Fauda." The headline? Before the storm.

  • And see just below the front page, the Rabbinical Assembly's statement responding to to the judicial reforms that the new government is already trying to enact.

  • Several hundred prominent U.S. rabbis have signed a letter pledging not to allow members of the Religious Zionist bloc to speak in their communities. “When those who tout racism and bigotry claim to speak in the name of Israel, but deny our rights, our heritage, and the rights of the most vulnerable among us, we must take action,” the letter stated. I am among the hundreds who have signed it. 
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