by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
As important as social justice was to my teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, he would not have labeled himself a “political activist.” He saw his activism as spiritual practice: He wrote that
. . . for many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.
Like his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., Heschel’s activism came out of his religious understanding, a worldview that came directly from the attitude of spiritual audacity demonstrated by the biblical prophets. And this, in turn, was inspired by Heschel’s core connection with God, which manifested so deeply in his prayer life. Let me share a personal reminiscence with you that comes from my student days at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
It was the evening of Simhat Torah, the holy day of rejoicing with the Torah, and I was celebrating together with my fellow students and members of the Seminary faculty. As the special ritual began, worshippers took all of the scrolls of the Torah from the ark at the front of the synagogue and carried them around the auditorium in seven joyful processionals, accompanied by ritual chant. Between each of these hakafot (processionals) the entire congregation would sing and dance ecstatically with the Torah.
I remember the Vice-Chancellor standing at the microphone, facilitating the hakafot. The hour was late, and he kept looking at his watch. When the dancers failed to stop he spoke into the microphone: “Okay, we have to go on now . . . please sit down . . . please sit down . . .” The dancers, lost in their exaltation, were oblivious to his words. A few minutes later the Vice-Chancellor repeated his request, this time with more urgency.
I watched Abraham Heschel holding a Torah in his arms. He was not dancing but rather swaying with it as if he were cradling a baby. His eyes were closed, his face on fire, and it seemed to me at that moment that he was truly free in God.
Heschel seldom wrote memoir, nor did he compose his books and essays in the first person. Nevertheless, when I read Heschel’s books I can clearly sense my teacher’s own personal experiences in his descriptions of the inner spiritual life of the person devoted to the Spirit. In one memorable passage Heschel describes prayer as self-surrender, an immersion in God. One feels touched by the waters, he writes, drowned in the sea of mercy. In another place he writes,
Prayer is spiritual ecstasy. It is as if all our vital thoughts in fierce ardor would burst the mind to stream toward God. A keen single force draws our yearning for the utmost out of the seclusion of the soul. We try to see our visions in His light, to feel our life as His affair . . .
This is the kind of divine-centered ecstasy that we aim for in Jewish Renewal prayer. Heschel criticized liberal American synagogues because of the lack of experiences of exaltation, and he sought the spiritual renewal of Jewish worship. In this way Heschel is in part responsible for the kind of radical innovations in worship brought by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the major founder of Jewish Renewal. Reb Zalman saw Heschel as a major mentor, and both men came from Hasidic backgrounds in Poland. You can witness these innovations at Kehilla services.
Nonetheless, as Heschel makes clear, for the truly spiritual person ecstasy and joy are by no means limited to the hour of prayer. He writes,
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement . . . get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.
In one of his books, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that
. . . inner freedom is spiritual ecstasy, the state of being beyond all interests and selfishness. Inner freedom is a miracle of the soul.
It is in passages such as these that one senses the indelible imprint of the Ba’al Shem Tov on Heschel’s inner life. Like the founder of Hasidism, Heschel sought, in the words of Shai Held, “to reorient human life away from self-centeredness and toward God-centeredness. This . . . is the animating passion of everything that he wrote and taught.”