Like Rabbi Heschel, We Must See Social Activism As A Goal Of Religion
I have great admiration for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was a leading American rabbi whose works continue to inspire. He wrote about the spiritual power we can discover in the Sabbath, in setting aside a day for God infused reflection. He spoke about awe and wonder as the starting points for grasping wisdom. I continue to read his books. I continue to discover enlightenment in his words.
And yet I admire Heschel even more because of his social activism. He marched in behalf of civil rights. In fact there is an iconic picture of him marching through the streets of Selma, arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke out against the Vietnam War. He castigated his fellow rabbis who he believed were more concerned with the minutia of the Jewish dietary laws than with the blood of innocent Vietnamese. His colleagues wondered how he found time for the required prayers when he was so busy marching.
He famously responded: “I was praying with my feet.”
Jews now find themselves in between the two holiest days in their calendar, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Synagogues are packed with people. Rabbis labor over sermons. This is their great, yearly chance to speak to everyone in their congregations. What is the most important message we wish to convey?
It is this. Judaism has relevance. Religion can uplift our lives. Our sermons all revolve around this contention. We wish to convince everyone, and perhaps remind ourselves, that this tradition to which we have committed our lives, has meaning. Faith can transform you. It can offer you guidance. After all these thousands of years, it is still relevant.
It can move your feet.
Do we speak about politics? Do we criticize our president? Do we speak about Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians? Venture into the contemporary arena and some will applaud while others will send angry emails. Heschel never served a congregation! Sometimes it is easier, and safer, to speak about God.
Glimpse a rabbi’s inner debate. Delve into a preacher’s struggles.
And here is my worry. If we ignore contemporary events: the rise of antisemitism, the threat of Islamist terror, the failures of President Trump’s leadership, the propriety of athletes’ protests, the increase in catastrophic storms, the threats to immigrants, the problems of hunger and homelessness (need I continue?), we suggest that our extraordinary and multifaceted traditions have little to say about the greatest challenges facing our world.
If religion is only about the inner life, we suggest that that it is like some precious piece of jewelry that is far too valuable to ever get soiled and leave our homes. If these treasured books, revered by generations, remain only in our houses of worship and never once offer us wisdom for how we are to walk into the streets, then my greatest fear is realized.
These beautiful traditions have become irrelevant.
The Bible commands: “You shall not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22) We are commanded not to turn aside from the problems of the world. The Hebrew language conveys even more. It suggests that we are not to make ourselves hidden. The word hidden shares the same root as world.
We have a moral choice. Do we allow the world to remain hidden from our list of responsibilities? That is always a possibility. It is hinted at by the Hebrew. It is so tempting to hide from the world, to shut out the noise and tumult of its problems, catastrophes and challenges.
And yet this is our duty. We must not hide. We must not remain indifferent. This is our most profound spiritual quest: to reach out to the world around us and bring to our fractured home a measure of good.
Everyone is now asking how do I respond to the chaos of the world. How do I understand the barrage of daily news that gives many the feeling that the earth is teetering? Where do I begin?
We must not remain indifferent to the cries. We must not hide.
I would rather a thousand angry emails than one person who quietly thinks, “This is irrelevant.”
That is all I really wish to demonstrate–each and every year, with each and every sermon. That is what the world requires.
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