Krista's Journal: Learning to Be Surprised

December 3, 2009

A list of Abraham Joshua Heschel's books alone is evocative — among them God in Search of Man, Man Is Not Alone, and his epic works The Prophets and The Sabbath.

His daughter Susannah, an esteemed scholar of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, has titled her seminal collection of his writings and speeches, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, after a stunning line of her father's that we also drew on for the title of this show. In a telegram to President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Heschel wrote, "We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate negroes… The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity."

Abraham Joshua Heschel is not as widely known today as the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who was one of his closest friends, nor as vividly remembered as Martin Luther King Jr., with whom Heschel marched in Selma and also knew as a friend. I love the story that I learned while creating this show, that when Heschel introduced King as the keynote speaker to the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative rabbis sang "We Shall Overcome" to him — in Hebrew, the language of the biblical prophets who both King and Heschel came to embody for that generation. King would have shared the Passover Seder dinner with the Heschel family had he not died two weeks after that speech.

Looking back now, Abraham Joshua Heschel appears dramatically prescient — prophetic in every sense of that word — on watershed shifts that began in the 1960s and continue to reverberate and unfold in the present.

Of course, we can't predict what Heschel would say about the details of our contemporary crises, such as the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the way he analyzed the morality of U.S. military engagement in Vietnam might guide us. He studied the situation in Vietnam. He saw misery, corruption, and despair in the population of South Vietnam, which could be traced back to colonial exploitation. He wrote, "It became clear to me that in regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty while all are responsible."

We can't, similarly, know how Heschel would approach dialogue with Islam in the post-September 11 world. But Arnold Eisen, who leads us through Heschel's thought and its resonance in modern life in this program, says Heschel would undoubtedly urge us to take creative initiative.

I find Heschel's writings on interfaith encounter arresting in their boldness and originality, even in this later world in which pluralism is a fraught but essential reality of life. Heschel didn't advocate that people of different faiths should tolerate each other; he believed that they need one another. He coined the term "depth theology" to describe "prerequisites" of faith that should underpin interfaith encounter — such as a sense of the mystery in all of life on which no tradition could claim a monopoly.

Most strikingly and instructively, perhaps, Heschel's passion for taking people of other faiths seriously was not at odds with his profound Jewish identity. It emerged, rather, from the heart of his religious observance and sensibility, his sense of the ineffable before which even the most devout faith was "insufficient." In other words, because Heschel was steeped in and formed by ancient Jewish tradition he recognized the holiness of the Christians with whom he marched in Selma. In that moment, he wrote famously, "I felt my legs were praying."

This program must be taken as an introduction. It is surely a test of Heschel's prophetic mettle that his words remain so provocative even now, and that his life and writings continue to echo in unexpected ways through modern lives both Jewish and non-Jewish. There is much I've left unsaid in this short essay, but I will add a mention of one final aspect of Heschel's personality that riveted me during this production adventure. Even at his most earnest and profound, he displayed a vast warmth and humor. I'll leave you with the words you'll hear in Heschel's own voice near the beginning of our program:

"I would say about individuals: an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. What keeps me alive — spiritually, emotionally, intellectually — is my ability to be surprised. I say, I take nothing for granted. I am surprised every morning that I see the sun shine again. When I see an act of evil, I am not accommodated — I don't accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I'm still surprised. That's why I'm against it; why I can fight against it. We must learn how to be surprised, not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society."

Recommended Reading

Image of Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays
Author: Abraham Joshua Heschel
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1997)
Binding: Paperback, 464 pages

This is a feast of poetic theology, mystical revelation, and social and political challenge. It includes passages from some of Heschel's pivotal speeches, of which you'll hear brief segments in the program. This book opens with a biographical essay and is a wonderful introduction to the world of thought and action of a religious leader whose legacy deserves wider studying and pondering in this century.

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Eisen is the chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

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