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The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua HeschelLast week I retweeted an article about the booming industry of cosmetic surgery in Saudi Arabia, and whether it's halal or haram.

Then, last night, I watched a roast for the 76-year-old comedian Joan Rivers on Comedy Central. Almost all the comedians focused their acts on her many facial reconstructions and sundry plastic surgeries. Yes, the barbs were brutal, but it jogged my memory about Rabbi A.J. Heschel's words about our growing vanity and narcissism and how it separates us from others, from ourselves, and even from God.

As we focus increasingly on ourselves, who do we leave behind, abandon? Heschel reflects on this in his essay “To Grow in Wisdom,” which was initially delivered at the 1961 White House Conference on Aging (yes, they still occur). It knocked me out in the first several paragraphs, talking about the idolatry of youth and the disregard for the elderly. His words couldn't have been more prescient, and personally challenging

"I see the sick and the despised, the defeated and the bitter, the rejected and the lonely. I see them clustered together and alone, clinging to a hope for somebody’s affection that does not come to pass. I hear them pray for the release that comes with death. I see them deprived and forgotten, masters yesterday, outcasts today.

What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten. What they deserve is preference, yet we do not even grant them equality. One father finds it possible to sustain a dozen children, yet a dozen children find it impossible to sustain one father.

Perhaps this is the most distressing aspect of the situation. The care for the old is regarded as an act of charity rather than as a supreme privilege. In the never dying utterance of the Ten Commandments, the God of Israel did not proclaim: Honor Me, Revere Me. He proclaimed instead: Revere your father and your mother. There is no reverence for God without reverence for father and mother.

In Jewish tradition the honor for father and mother is a commandment, the perfect fulfillment of which surpasses the power of man. There is no limit to what one ought to do in carrying out this privilege of devotion. God is invisible, but my mother is His presence…."

Heschel's book of essays, The Insecurity of Freedom, contain many of these kinds of reflection. It's a wonderful introduction to his thought and poetic approach to life and faith. If you've been wanting to read him but were daunted by The Prophets — or even if you've never heard of him before — I highly recommend revisiting his relevant outlook on the society he saw developing before his very eyes.

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7 Comments

I love Heschel but had never seen this passage and haven't read that book. Thank you so much for sharing it.

You are welcome. I'm glad to share and learn more about Heschel at every turn.

Like Judaism, in the Hindu tradition it's expected--and even an honor--to continue to revere the elderly as they become incapacitated with age. We don't see this normally in the US... here, it's casual and sometimes expected to send your folks to a retirement center/home. It's interesting how much wisdom is passed up when we discard our elders, as if they're a burden to our busy lives. Really though, is it worth getting mom and pops off our shoulders just to continue with our careers?

That's what this entry made me think about--thanks!

How about a SOF program on Heschel's book of essays--he sounds like a very wise man.

He was both wise and kind. I met him in 1967. I was a young seminary student, who had the honor of walking Rabbi Heschel, to my dorm. I realized we had some fresh cookies just out of the oven. Wanting to be a good hostess to this esteemed visiting professor, I offered him the cookies, in all sincerity. He honored my sincerity, took two cookies, thanked me and said,"I will take these on my trip with me." Only as he left, did I remember that he was a kosher living rabbi. The cookies had not been baked in a kosher kitchen. He was both kind and truthful. He did not embarrass me,but he never said he would eat them, so he remained truthful.

This is very moving to an 84 year old. I recall my lack of reverence for my aged Ps, and by so doing, sowing the seeds of the indifference which now comes full circle.

Mazel tov on reaching 84! I'm moved by your admission and find myself facing a similar quandary: respecting and revering my elders and also finding ways to challenge accepted thinking from the preceding generation without offending or negating that experience. My best to you and thanks for sharing this.