- Posted by Suzie Jacobson
- On July 24, 2019
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- congregational read, High Holy Days, Library, Rabbi Jacobson
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century deeply believed that we live in a world where God is in search of humanity. To Heschel, doctrine was unimportant compared to religious wonder, gratitude, and acts of kindness, as “God is waiting for us to redeem the world.” Born in Poland and a refugee to America during the Holocaust, much of Heschel’s work is influenced by the complex spiritual and political milieu of his time. Rather than succumbing to fear or pessimism, Heschel’s writings push us all towards a spirituality of hope and call upon us to continue the prophetic tradition of our ancestors.
This High Holy Day season the Temple Israel community will dive into a collection of his important essays, entitled Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. This essential collection captures the best of Heschel’s thought and speaks directly to the spiritual, political and moral issues of our day. All are invited to flip read through this book of essays to find what is personally meaningful, or to follow our suggested study guide.
We will be using the d’vrei Torah during the Shabbatot of Elul to lift up essential ideas from this book and then we will have the opportunity join together in communal study during Slichot and Yom Kippur afternoon.
Copies of the book can be borrowed from the Temple Israel Library
Essays on Jewish Spirituality and Prayer
1. “The Spirit of Jewish Prayer,” pp. 100-126
In this essay, Heschel outlines his critique of modern prayer – namely, that we are too concerned with efficiency and decorum, and not sufficiently concerned with what he terms the “adventure of the soul.” In one metaphor, Heschel says that “the modern synagogue suffers from a severe cold” (p.101). We all keep a respectful distance from the prayerbook as if avoiding a virus, instead of drawing close to prayer and allowing it to become personal, soul deep.
Here are a few questions to consider as you read:
- Do you find that you “pray by proxy” (p.101)? What keeps you from engaging more deeply in prayer?
- Heschel argues against the idea that prayer is “the identification of the worshipper with the people of Israel” (p.104). Instead he pushes us to find something personal beyond the communal. Other Jewish thinkers such as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan say the opposite, and define Jewish prayer as primarily a meaningful way to engage with Jewish civilization and history. What do you think?
- On pages 108-110, Heschel defines prayer vis-a-vis the rabbinic dictum “Know before Whom you stand.” What in his discussion resonates with you?
- Heschel writes that to “live without prayer is to live without God, to live without a soul” (p.108). Do you agree? Heschel is a firm believer in God – do you find his theology meaningful? Alienating? Compelling but difficult?
2. “Yom Kippur,” (pp 146-7)
In this deeply personal essay, Rabbi Heschel reflects on his own experiences of Yom Kippur including the idea that on Yom Kippur we are all “angelic,” or somehow transcending the human sphere. Here are few questions as you read:
- Heschel says that people are pretentious – “Everybody looks proud; inside he is heartbroken” (p. 146). How can Yom Kippur help you dive deeper into your current life and concerns?
- Rabbi Heschel teaches here that the key to understanding our unanswerable human questions is cultivating a sense of “embarrassment,” or humility. When we are embarrassed, we can become creative and believe in our ability to change. What changes would you like to make this coming year?
Essays on Jewish Morality and Justice
1. “No Time for Neutrality,” (pp 75-9)
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel believed deeply in the Jew’s moral responsibility to respond to the political issues of the day. For him that meant struggling with the moral and theological questions of a post fascist, post holocaust world and later, an opposition to the war in Vietnam. His context was different from our own, but his understanding of moral responsibility still resonates deeply. Some questions for thought:
- Heschel writes, “This is no time for neutrality. We Jews cannot remain aloof or indifferent. We, too, are either misters of the sacred or slaves of evil,” (p.75). What contemporary issues come to mind as you read this? How can the high holidays be a time when we recommit ourselves to living our values?
- On pages 76-7 Heschel defines mitzvot (commandment), as a way to achieve righteousness, or “open one’s eyes to the abundant possibilities of creating the good.” How does Judaism encourage you to live a life of integrity and responsibility?
2. “The Reasons for my Involvement in the Peace Movement,” (pp.224-6)
This piece was written in 1973 in response to the Vietnam War, in particular the presidency and leadership of Lyndon Johnson. Here, Rabbi Heschel describes why he made the decision to move from a religious scholar who “served in the realm of privacy,” (p.224) to a public leader in pursuit of his own vision of peace and justice. Do these words from decades ago resonate with you today?
- He writes, “indifference to evil is worse than evil itself” (p.224). Do you agree?
- Rabbi Heschel believed that sometimes peaceful resistance to authority is necessary. Among other things this lead him to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. He writes here: “Although Jewish tradition enjoins our people to obey scrupulously the decrees issued by the government of the land, whenever a decree is unambiguously immoral, one nevertheless has a duty to disobey it” (p.226). The high holiday season is meant to disrupt our complacency and invite us to live a more righteous life. How might you peacefully disturb the status quo of your life this coming year?
Further Themes and Suggestions
“We Cannot Force People to Believe” (pp 44-6)
On the Crisis of faith in the modern world
“A Preface to an Understanding of Revelation” (pp 185-90)
An Introduction to Heschel’s Theology
“God, Torah, and Israel” (pp 191-205)
On the Essential Jewish Beliefs