Be bold like Rabbi Heschel

In looking at the topic of Heschel and social activism, I would like to present a perspective based on my personal and professional experience.

Let me start with a bit of history. I was born in 1949 on the West Side of Chicago. My parents were first generation Americans born to Russian immigrants. Like the East Side of New York and the East End of London, the West Side of Chicago was settled by recent immigrants.

During the 1960s the Civil Rights and Peace Movement profoundly affected me as it did many others of my generation. At University I took a course called Judaism 101. We sat in our torn-off jeans and Che T-shirts, chewing gum and waxing lyrical about how it was possible to save the world. A certain Rabbi J. Goldberg, who I am sure would have been a disciple of Heschel’s, taught the class, helping us to make the connection between our idealism and being Jewish.

In the early 1970’s I moved to Britain. In some sense, I felt like I was a political exile from the America of the late 1960s. I am not suggesting that I was at any risk because of my views. Nor was it just that my political heart was more comfortable elsewhere, but the enthusiasm and the optimism of the early 60s had given way to despair that our endeavours to create a more just world had come to nothing.

I left an America, still recovering from the poison of 1950s McCarthyism, which was rife with political conflict: thanks to the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam; and a black population still disenfranchised from the American Dream; it was an America where student and political unrest was too often met by violent responses by the state and was scarred by the assassination of three of its most eloquent icons: John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

I also left an America where Jews, whether religious or secular, played a disproportionate role in many of the social movements struggling to create a country which embodied humane domestic and foreign policy. This was the world that Heschel inhabited.

The Britain I had moved to was, unlike the America I left, a country which had institutionalised outstanding social provision through the creation of its welfare state and National Health Service. But paradoxically the Jewish community I found in Britain was, unlike my American experience, less involved in an overt way in issues of social justice, even if individual Jews played (as they have done in many parts of the world) a disproportionate role.

It was in this climate that I started in 1976 The Jewish Council for Racial Equality, known then as the Jewish Social Responsibility Council, spurred on by a Jewish woman who said “I’m glad you do the Christian thing of love your neighbour!”

I remember then, a rabbi saying to me, your concern for social justice is wonderful ,but where is God in all of this? Well over 30 years on I am afraid that I still can’t answer that question. So where does that put me, and many others like me as far as carrying out the legacy of Heschel is concerned?

Yet, at the same time, I was often asked, (including today by my Jewish husband) why bother to have the J in JCORE? Given that there are numerous anti-racist organisations, and given that our community can at times be just that bit difficult to work in, why did I bother to make the organisation Jewish?

What was it that made me fight to keep Jewishness at the centre of my social action?

Heschel combined, par excellence the concern for the universal together with the concern for the particular. The reality seems that many stand on either side of the divide for it is difficult to have a foot in both camps. I do think however that those of us who identify with the universal, sincerely believe that putting social justice at the heart of being Jewish is ultimately the best way to preserve Jewishness.

If we are going to be more successful in carrying out Heschel’s legacy, a number of contradictions need examining. For example;

1) Why do so many secular Jews still recognise the ethical impulse within Jewishness?

2) How do we get those many Jews who are involved with social justice but find absolutely no identification with any aspect of Jewishness, to find some identification? How do we make more room for those many who sit on the margins?

3) If social justice is meant to be one of the core values in Judaism, why is it that so many observant Jews do not involve themselves in social Issues? Susannah Heschel wrote that throughout those years when her father was heavily involved in civil rights and the peace movement he received warnings and complaints from some members of the Jewish community, who felt his protests were endangering American government support for the State of Israel.

4) And why, that even though a disproportionate number of progressive Jewish involve themselves in social issues, most do not. Why not? This is troubling and perplexing as much is made of the fact that the prophetic tradition is paramount within progressive Judaism.

5) Where are the voices in our Jewish world that are speaking up for an inclusive, tolerant Judaism where dissent and questioning are seen as absolute virtues, in fact the very cornerstones of our tradition? The voices are increasingly necessary to off set those who want to shut down debate.

6) How do we recognise our Jewish heroes? Not super-human beings but those people who, like Heschel, articulated positive Jewish ethical values both within and outside the Jewish world. There have been rabbis for example, Hugo Gryn, John Rayner, Albert Friedlander, Cyril Harris who carried on the tradition of Heschel in a very public way as others still do today. However we need many more rabbis, more teachers, and more role models who follow in this tradition. I know I feel a certain sense of pride(and I am not alone)when I read (mainly in the Guardian obituaries)about the life and times of prominent Jewish anti apartheid activists and, I know how uneasy I feel when I see, week after week in the Jewish press articles extolling the virtues of those individuals who make lots of money.

7) How do we ensure that our children grow up in an environment which encourages them to see the connection between Judaism and social issues such as racism? Several times when I have visited Jewish schools, I have asked pupils the question “What does Judaism have to say about our responsibility towards others?” This question was more often than not met with an embarrassed silence. Heschel wrote in his diary: "I felt again what I have been thinking about for years - that Jewish religious institutions have again missed a great opportunity, namely, to interpret a civil-rights movement in terms of Judaism. The vast majority of Jews participating actively in it are totally unaware of what the movement means in terms of the prophetic traditions”.

8)Why is it so easy to forget our own history as well as our tradition? I meet with a wry smile those protests from fellow Jews about how unworthy today’ immigrants and asylum seekers are, compared to how we were. Why do we forget that the first anti-immigration legislation was directed against Jewish immigrants in 1905?

9) So how can we actually carry out Heschel’s principles? What are the factors which are stopping us from modelling ourselves after such an exemplary figure? How do we get beyond our day to day concerns, communal politics and bickering and compassion fatigue?

I want my Jewish world to be a place where social justice is the norm, rather than the exception. I don’t want this to happen at the expense of other aspects of being Jewish, but as something which is part and parcel of that Jewishness.

Heschel operated in an environment which was (if you excuse the expression) more black and white than things are in today’s world. Both the stark inequality which characterised the civil right movements in the US as well as the war in Vietnam are different from social issues we face today (though we do have the war in Iraq) But even if the issues are different they are no less urgent and the moral imperatives are the same.

To truly honour Heschel we must of course do more than pay mere lip service to his ideals and aspirations. We need to

  • Be bolder. And here I have a special request to Rabbis .Your title rabbi carries a lot of weight (you may not always feel that way when dealing with your congregants) but outside of the Jewish community the title does carry clout. Also it is important that the chief rabbi is not the only rabbinic voice we hear (particularly when it comes to the topic of multiculturalism)!

  • Rediscover the passion and the clarity which Heschel brought to the issues he fought for. Jeremy Gordon reminds us that what made Heschel stand out was not just his opposition to injustice but also his ability to articulate its horror.

  • Help to create another more positive narrative so that we to stop seeing victimhood as the key characteristic of Jewish identity

  • Reclaim and celebrate Jewish Social Activism as part (an integral part) of a proud tradition.

  • Vigorously defend and promote concepts such as Human Rights and Social Justice as values which are consistent with Jewish values. Do so from the pulpit, from the lectern, within the pages of our favourite Jewish weekly newspaper.

  • Demonstrate that Human Rights are universal and indivisible and need to be upheld without exception in any part of the world in which they are being violated.

  • Be much more proactive in articulating a Jewish voice on the many social issues which confront us both at home and abroad be it poverty, asylum , fair trade, the environment.

In conclusion, how can we keep alive the legacy of Heschel‘s involvement in social action? Do we need perhaps to create a new theology of social justice analogous to liberation theology? Perhaps this could be a positive way to help those Jews who do engage in social action, to have a more profound understanding of its roots within Jewish teaching and help those Jews who are deeply rooted in Jewish teaching to see the centrality of social action within it?