Monday, December 07, 2009

"the Exodus is alive and happening right in front of us"

From Selma to Montgomery

On March 21, 1965, civil rights leaders began marching from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. Accompanying Martin Luther King Jr. on his left are Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel was the subject of a recent American Public Media show that looks at the man, his work, and his mission in light of the Judaic prophetic tradition. It's a great interview with Arnold Eisen (Chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary) that includes snippets from some of Heschel's talks.

Is it a stretch to see relevance to Milton here? His work is suffused with the impetus of the Judaic activist tradition, even as he uses every tool of classical Greek and Roman art, science, rhetoric and philosophy in the making of his epic. Above all, he would seem to share with Heschel a commitment to struggle in a world in which faith in a creator at every turn is at odds with profound indifference. Below are a few moments from the show, the whole of which is worth a listen.(transcript) (podcast)
Mr. Eisen: You read Heschel and the story comes to life. For Heschel the story of the Exodus is alive and happening right in front of us...

... had [Martin Luther] King …not been murdered that day in Memphis, he would have been at Abraham Joshua Heschel's Passover Seder. The two became very, very close. They became allies not just in the civil rights struggle, but in opposition to the war in Vietnam. And this was a precious alleviation of the loneliness that both of them must have felt, that they had each other in the world. And it was all the more precious because they came from different faiths. As it were, it was a validation of God's concern for all the world, of God's speaking through people of various religious traditions and not just one....
He wrote, "I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility, of contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind's reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God's commandment, while stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith."
Within the poetry of his language and thought, Abraham Joshua Heschel often used the word "embarrassment." "The cure of the soul," he wrote, for example, "begins with a sense of embarrassment, embarrassment at our pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit; embarrassment at the profanation of life. A world that is full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival."
There's this absolute insistence that what we are talking about here is in ineffable, will always defy words, and yet an insistence, as you said he said to you, words matter. Susannah Heschel has talked about how her father would say that, you know, she said, "He used to remind me that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, with tanks and guns. It began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. 'Words create worlds,' he used to tell me when I was a child."
Mr. Eisen: When he said words create worlds, he was paraphrasing one of the most important daily prayers that Jews say: "Blessed is God who spoke and the world came into being." And Heschel was a master of words. He was a master of words not just in English but in German, Yiddish, Hebrew. I don't know enough to judge the Polish. But Heschel knew that what we say matters. That's one of the things he taught. He's a man who wants to summon something in us beyond our rational, logical faculties. He wants to summon our care.
Rabbi Heschel: I would say to young people a number of things, and I have only one minute. I would say, let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can do — every one — our share to redeem the world despite of all absurdities and all the frustration and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to live life as it if were a work of art. You're not a machine. When you are young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence.

 For Charles Laubheim.

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