October 6, 2019
Speaker: Rev. Taryn Struass
In our yearning for the unattainable, we must relinquish all human confidence that we might understand all there is to know. Ever a moral critic, Heschel demands the true believer must access eternal empathy for human suffering, while wrestling with the holy embarrassment of having power and knowledge, but not nearly enough of either to affect lasting change as individuals.
What we lack is not a will to believe, but a will to wonder, says Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Heschel’s concern for the quality of religious practice, and humanity’s obligation to God’s love, set him apart from his Hassidic counterparts, making him a dissenter and somewhat of an outcast in his own faith. But as we will explore in this worship series, this is the marker of prophethood, as one who cries out in the wilderness, not one who is adored and believed and welcomed by her/his own people. You can hear echoes of Heschel’s theology and writing in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, and Dr. Cornel West, and Rev. William Barber II, among others.
In his own words, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s theology of wonder
The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder, the state of maladjustment to word and notions, is therefore, a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that is. Standing eye to eye with being as being, We can look at the world with two faculties-with reason and with wonder.
Through the first we try to explain or adapt the world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt our minds to the world.
In this morning’s story from Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, the boy understands his connection to the wind, to the earth, the oceans and stars. His heart knowledge gives him language to speak to all of these elements, and eventually, connecting with elemental wisdom and a mystical sense that love moves through all things and all beings reach towards love, he becomes the wind, establishing a new series of events, causing the captives to be freed and new destinies to reconcile.
This is how Heschel would have Jews practice their faith, from a sense of obligation to God, and to creation.
The holocaust, for Heschel, was not an issue of theodicy (why does God let bad things happen?) but of anthropodicy: how could God keep faith in us after the atrocities we have committed?
Religion, Heschel writes, begins with the certainty that something is asked of us.” Religion does not come to provide us with assurance, nor is it about generating guilt or shame.
Religion may begin with a sense of mystery, awe, wonder, and fear, but religion itself is concerned with “what to do with the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder, or fear.” Other Jewish theologians of Heschel’s day often omitted the sense of obligation.
In his daughter Susannah’s memories, At home, he was religiously orthodox. Some Jews are described as “strictly observant,” she writes. my father, was lovingly observant.
We think we are in search of an elusive God, not realizing that it is God who is in search of us. How do we retrieve God’s longing for us? There is in us more kinship with the divine than we are able to believe. The souls of humans are candles of God.”
Literal-mindedness an obstacle to faith- religious behaviorism
He once asked his rabbinical students at the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, “Is gelatin kosher?” which sparked a lively discussion, but when he then asked “Are nuclear weapons kosher?” the students were silent; they didn’t know how to begin to answer. Heschel was critical of many synagogues, and felt God was in exile in those congregations, replaced by “customs and ceremonies.” His spiritual home was the world of prayer, and wherever he was, he stopped for the afternoon prayers.
Again, his daughter Susannah tells a story: a journalist once asked my father why he had come to a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. I am here because I cannot pray, my father told him. Confused and annoyed, the journalist asked him, what do you mean you can’t pray so you come to a demonstration against the war?” And my father replied, “whenever I open the prayerbook, I see before me images of children burning from napalm.”
What is prayer? To Heschel, Prayer is meaningless unless it is subservive. The opposite of good, is not evil, it is indifference.
For Heschel, Political issues were moral issues and religious imperatives- Vietnam was a grave moral issue, as was the racism in American society, which horrified him. In 1963, after speaking at a conference on Religion and Race, he met Martin Luther King Jr. and formed an extraordinary friendship. The bond they felt was religious, and what linked them was the Bible, especially the prophets.
Theirs was a relationship on the level of what Heschel called “Depth theology,” the fear and trembling in the hearts of pious people, regardless of their religion. My father said he was reminded at the 1965 Voting Rights march in Selma, Alalbama, of what it had been like walking with Hasidic rebbes in Europe; he felt a sense of holiness in this Semla march. At Selma, he said, “I felt my legs were praying.”
Heschel was clear about the quality of religious practice, and the need for interreligious understanding. I believe he would related to and connected with Unitarian Universalism today.
What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, and god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol. Faith in god is not simply an afterlife insurance policy. Racial bigotry must be recognized for what it is: satanism, blasphemy.
Heschel felt many Jews were too worried more about the purity of dogma than the integrity of love.
Some are guilty, but all are responsible. That equality is a good thing, a fine goal, may be generally accepted. What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality.
The history of interracial relations is a nightmare. Equality of all people, a platitude to some minds, remains a scandal to many hearts.
Equality as a religious commandment means personal involvement, fellowship, mutual reverence, and concern.
So we take Heschel’s mystic activism, his sense that God’s faith in humanity obligates humans to act always in care of one another. We incorporate this into these days of Awe, this time for reflection.
In the words of another rabbi, Ariana Katz, the rabbi of Hinenu, the Baltimore justice shteitl,
This is the time talking and reflecting on teshuvah. In its simplest form, that word teshuvah, repent, it is the “making of a return.” In practice, it is a kind of repair. A noticing of the parts that are worn down in ourselves and our relationships and in need of mending. But things in need of repair are broken. We are not broken–we are as whole as we ever were. Perhaps our relationships, or our work in this world, or the imbalance of power is broken, but you, inherently, are not broken. We do not yearn for a different self, but for deeper connection.
The year stretches out before us–focus on the holiness of choice, of doing good in relationships, in our city, in this world. We should all grow, mend, strengthen, return, but not from a place of shame, but with an obligation to our divine destiny, as Heschel would ask of us.
So maybe, maybe this is the World to Come. Where everyone in this room is whole, enough, not waiting for the next year when you promise you’ll finally earn your place. Maybe this is the year, in its freshness, earnestness, opportunity, trepidation. This is the time, we are not yearning for a far off place where everything is perfect, or figured out. What if this was it, life in all its struggles and all its perfections, and it wasn’t because you are broken or wrong.
Grandeur and mystery confronts us everywhere at all times, we do not have to go to the end of reasoning to encounter it. We just have to behold, with radical amazement, those moments of transformation, acts of justice, shifts in communication, demonstrations of growth and deeper understanding, as imperceptibly as the wind sweeping across the plain. Let wonder into your heart during these days of awe, and live with radical amazement, both at the gift of life, and the many ways we do not live up to the obligation of that gift.
Our companion, Rainer Marie Rilke:
I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
May we be blessed this year with opportunities to take shape
May we be blessed to deepen into wonderment
May we find ourselves home in our city, our bodies, or our community
May we continue to become, to grow, to unfold