by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
What were the Jewish origins of the spiritual and moral values that guided the fashioning of my vision of Kehilla Community Synagogue? Four prominent modern Jewish teachers influenced my life at crucial times during the 1960s, and the values I learned from them became vital to the founding of Kehilla. These teachers were Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, Rabbi Arthur Green, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. In this series of articles I hope to illuminate the lives, thought and activism of these teachers, and to share some personal memories of how they affected my life.
Abraham Heschel was a scholar in many fields of Jewish thought, and all together he authored twenty volumes and scores of articles in four languages. He relished his time in the library and in his study, but he also gave himself to public issues that concerned him, never hesitating to speak out on controversial subjects. I was a student of Heschel’s from 1961-1966, and there were times in class when he would read from speeches that he had given. I wasn’t fully aware of his public activities, however, until years later.
Heschel is remembered today for the courageous stands he took on the question of civil rights for all of America’s citizens, and for his public opposition to the Viet-Nam war. What is not so well known is that he influenced his friend, Martin Luther King Jr., to join the anti-war movement. I was unsure of whether I should protest the war or not, and it was Heschel’s stance that gave me the courage to join the anti-war movement.
During President Richard Nixon’s first term, Heschel denounced the corruption in the White House and the president’s escalation of the war. The Nixon administration had been extremely friendly to Israel, and when Heschel spoke out against the president and the war, he was virtually ostracized by Jewish leaders and rabbinic colleagues. During the last few months of Heschel’s life, he came out publicly for the democratic candidate, George McGovern, who had promised to end the war if he were elected.
Heschel also spoke publically about a variety of moral and spiritual issues. He chastised Jewish philanthropists for not being concerned with Jewish learning and worship. He reprimanded Catholics for having a church next to Auschwitz that had given communion to the Nazi officers involved in the genocide. He spoke to physicians at the American Medical Association, telling them that they needed to recognize the full personhood of their patients and not merely treat symptoms. He told religious leaders that their institutions suffered from a severe cold and desperately needed spiritual renewal. He spoke at White House conferences dedicated to the issues of children and youth and aging.
The Soviet Union did not allow its citizens to practice religion freely. In 1963 Heschel began to speak up for the rights of Soviet Jewry, helping to launch a campaign that eventually improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews. I answered Heschel’s call by joining the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, an activist organization founded by Jacob Birnbaum in 1964.
The Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and held in Rome, was dedicated to the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. Heschel was chosen by the American Jewish Committee, a major Jewish advocacy organization, to represent world Jewry at the Council. Working hand in hand with Augustin Cardinal Bea, Rabbi Heschel strongly influenced the wording of the Schema on the Jews, which condemned as false the ancient charge that the Jew shad killed Christ. Heschel also succeeded in persuading the Pope, the cardinals and the bishops to end the ancient mission to convert the Jews to Christianity.
In 1965, Heschel became a visiting professor at the Union Theological Seminary, perhaps the most prestigious Protestant seminary in Manhattan. In his inaugural lecture he stressed that no religion is an island and that today Jews and Christians are all involved with and influenced by one another.
He suggested that the members of each faith should pray for one another and help one another in preserving their respective legacies. He made the point that “Holiness is not the monopoly of any particular religion or tradition,” and went so far as to say that diversity in our forms of devotion and commitments might very well be the will of God. At the same time he acknowledged that all of religion’s answers to human questions are provisional because “we can speak only in the tentative language of man.” None of this seems radical to us today, but for a traditional Jew, born in Poland in a Hasidic family, these sentiments were indeed revolutionary.