Spiritual Audacity

Hezbollah, Heschel, and Hope
Rabbi Daniel Brenner
August 27, 2006
Presbyterian Church
Rensellearville, New York

Last summer, Lisa and I and our three children were in Israel, visiting a kibbutz on the border of Lebanon to see my cousins’ new home. It was Friday night, and we were seated around a table on the porch watching the sun set over the green hills. There were three generations gathered at the table and we all sang the Sabbath hymn to the messengers of peace. We drank a local wine, and after the meal my cousins’ step-father pulled three different quarts of ice cream from the freezer. At that moment, we were all faced with the difficult decision of which flavor to choose—especially the dieters among us, who pledged publicly that they were “just going to have a little taste.” Those of us paralyzed by the thought of deciding which flavor to choose bypassed the decision making process altogether and indulged in all three. It was a time of familial love and abundant celebration in one of the most calm and tranquil places imaginable. The next morning, as we walked the grounds of Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, my eight-year old sons pried open the metal door of a rusty bomb shelter and peeked in. “Can we go down there?” they asked. There was broken glass on the steps, so like any half decent parent I said no – it was not a place for children. I explained to them what a shelter was in historical terms, saying “a long time ago there were missiles. When the missiles came people would go down there to be safe.” The shelter looked like a relic, like an old piece of agricultural equipment, or an obsolete adding machine, it seemed that its’ purpose had been fulfilled long ago and now it sat gathering dust.

How wrong I was. This summer, children across northern Israel cowered in shelters. Hundreds of thousands of them either fled from the war or hid below it. Over three thousand rockets landed in Israel, killing Jews, Christians, and Muslims, destroying 6,000 homes, forcing a half million people to flee. Rockets hit Kibbutz Gesher Haziv. A few miles North, Lebanese children were also being introduced to dark nights interrupted by sonic booms and artillery fire. And the children of Lebanon suffered greatly. A new generation is now forged by fear of war, images of war’s destruction of human life, and countless nightmares.
In the words of Lamentations: “my groans are many and my heart is sick with sorrow”
I want to speak today about war, and about what it does. Not about the tragic toll it takes on victims, or the enormous economical and ecological impacts, but on the effect of war on the way in which we as a society and as individuals view our fellow human beings. If you watched CNN or FOX, listened to NPR or talk radio, read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal this summer, then you might have asked yourself, in your heart: How can people do this to other people? Are claims to territory or ideology irreconcilable? Are humans ever truly capable of peace? Has there been any progress as we move through history? Are we going backward? Have we learned anything?

I have seen the photographs of the victims of this war and my heart has been overrun by sadness, mourning, and despair. Looking at Lebanese families trapped in rubble or Israeli families in the emergency room, I sympathize with each victim of this war.

But as I speak about compassion, I also want to be honest about my anger. My gut response at the beginning of this war was rage toward the militants who distort Islam for political gain, use petroleum and heroin profits to fund their guerilla armies and dance in the streets celebrating the killing of Jews. Launching rockets at civilians from civilian targets is particularly reprehensible.

My greatest fear, as a Jew, is that the world does not want coexistence and a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, but secretly wishes that Israel, and the Jewish people altogether will disappear. The more Muslims worldwide make the liberation of all of Palestine their main media sound-bite, and removal of Jews from soil they claim to belong to Muslims, the more people believe that militant Muslims will simply simmer down once the Jews are gone. One need only look at the 3,000 victims of Shia-Sunna violence each month in Iraq to dispel this myth. Or watch the rise once again of the Taliban. On read the paper in Lagos. Or hear the stories of the parents of children who were massacred in Beslan as a result of Chechan separatists. Militants who use Islam as a tool do not wish only for Israel’s destruction, but for a world submitted to their rule.

But I am not here today to dwell on politics.

Months ago, when there was relative calm in Israel, I had planned to deliver this sermon on the legacy of one of the twentieth century’s great rabbis, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was a mystic, a modern Chasidic master, and a passionate spiritual soul. When the war in Lebanon broke out in July, I thought that I’d have to change my sermon topic. How could one speak of esoteric mysteries, about the awe produced by a sunset when bombs were falling from the skies? But the more of Heschel I read this summer, the more I realized that he had something important to say about humanity and war. Though he wrote very few overtly political essays, and unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not write a book addressing the holocaust, the existential questions of war were the questions that animated his theology, most likely because he was a young boy during the first World War and a refugee of the second.

Today, as we sit in this beautiful sanctuary, it is good to turn to a voice from another era for some spiritual guidance.

So, who was Heschel and what did he have to say?

Heschel was born in 1907, the son of a rabbi and a descendent of a long line of great rabbinic minds. The youngest of six children, he was trained in a traditional Polish Yeshivah where he excelled in his studies and by sixteen his community already dubbed him a rabbi. But his heart yearned for something more than the provincial religious world. He began writing poetry, and sending it to a secular Yiddish journal at the age of 17. Many of the men in the community felt that he should be married off young so that he could regain his focus on the fold – but his mother refused to give in to their demands. 4 Instead, she sent Heschel off to do what his heart desired, to study in Vilna. In Vilna, Heschel had what we would call today an extreme makeover. He shaved off the beard that marked him as Chasidic Jew and spent time hanging out with the late-night literati and artists that made up the Jewish worker’s union. But in a secular, urban environment he retained the soul of a mystic. Here are some of the words of poetry he wrote during those early years:

I don't want to plaster posters of God on all wide-open street corners, but instead, celebrate the birthday of eternity in the tiny corner of every moment.

Viewing the poverty of the city, he wrote:

"God's tears lie on the cheeks / of shamed, weakened people. / Let me wipe away His lament."

Heschel eventually earned a doctorate at the University of Berlin, choosing as his Ph.D. thesis a long reflection on the spiritual, social and political message of the prophets. Recognizing Heschel to be one of the rising stars in Europe, a prominent Reform Jewish scholar in the U.S. was able to arrange his escape. Heschel went off to England, then to the U.S. As he began to teach in the U.S. he moved from the Reform seminary in Cincinnati to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, located across the street from Auburn Theological Seminary. Heschel thrived in New York. But back home, Heschel’s mother and sisters were murdered in the camps. Writing about his own life, Heschel remarked:

I speak as a person who was able to leave Warsaw, the city in which I was born, just six weeks before the disaster began. My destination was New York, it would have been Auschwitz or Treblinka. I am a brand plucked from the fire, in which my people was burned to death. I am a brand plucked from the fire of an altar of Satan on which millions of human lives were exterminated to evil's greater glory.

How can a theologian and poet who has enjoyed the great academies of Germany explain a God who sits by while a nation murders 1.2 million children? What type of God would allow such a thing? 6 In reaction to the holocaust, many Jewish philosophers and theologians, like Eliezer Berkovits, decided to articulate a more rationalist, deistic position – articulating a God who created the world, but since then has hovered above, allowing free will to play its course. Others, like Richard Rubenstein, rejected God’s role in history outright. Heschel, however, took a very different approach.

The altar of Satan of Heschel’s time was a godless, technology driven, racist, fascist nationalist empire – the third Reich. So Heschel set out to preach a God loving, nature attuned, humanistic, democratic, global Judaism. Heschel believed that the holocaust was not God’s failure – but the ultimate human failure – the failure to address evil, the failure to speak out. And who did he choose as his model for ‘the one who speaks out’? The prophets. Particularly Isaiah, Micah, and Amos.

In an essay entitled The Meaning of This War written in February of 1944, Heschel argued:
"We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.... Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.... Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed? . . .
Heschel pointed the fingers at our collective failure to address starvation and economic distress –and he called for introspection. In a few weeks, Jews around the world will join together on Yom Kippur to read one such text, Isaiah 58

5 Is such the fast I desire,A day for men to starve their bodies?Is it bowing the head like a bulrushAnd lying in sackcloth and ashes?Do you call that a fast,A day when the Lord is favorable?6 No, this is the fast I desire:To unlock the fetters of wickedness,And untie the cords of the yokeTo let the oppressed go free;To break off every yoke.7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,And to take the destitute poor into your home.
From the prophets, Heschel articulated a new relationship between God and Man. In Heschel’s vision God created Man, God needed humanity, to redeem the world. Building on the kabbalistic tradition now known by many as ‘tikkun olam’ Heschel taught that being created in the image of God meant living with a profound paradox. To be like God means that we vacillate between polarities of justice and mercy, self and selflessness, we have the choice to destroy life or create life in each moment. And Heschel felt that each human soul is either distanced from God or bringing God into the world. And the key to bring God into the here and now is the ability to experience the deep awe – to feel the transcendent in each moment.

A Chasidic parable:

A young man is immersed in his morning prayers. He wears his prayer shawl, talit, and the leather boxes containing the shema, the tefillin, are strapped to his head and arm. Just then a horse and buggy come down the road. The buggy loses a wheel and crashes. The young man runs outside. He checks to see that everyone is alright, and then he begins to help the driver fix the wheel.

Two rabbis walk by and see the sight. One rabbi says “Does this young man have any respect for the holy prayer garments? He wears them as he stands in the mud and fixes a wheel? What an idiot.” The other rabbi replies. “No, he is a genius. He is showing the world that fixing a wheel in the mud is a holy act!”

Heschel wrote:
As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. …(and) … Awareness of the divine begins with wonder.

Back to his life story. Heschel eventually married, at the age of 39, and had a daughter, Susannah, who now teaches history at Brown University. And he took many students on as disciples, my teacher Rabbi Art Green, being one of them. In the early 1960s, he became friends with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and King considered Heschel to be one of his great teachers. When Heschel marched with King in Selma, Alabama, the rabbi told the world “I felt like my feet were praying.”

In the last decade of his life, Heschel rallied against the war in Vietnam. His death, in 1972, at the age of 65, was a great loss to the Jewish people.

But let us return to the questions I raised earlier. What can Heschel teach us at a time like this – a time when we, as a nation are bogged down in what seems like an endless, bloody occupation of Iraq, a disintegrating leadership in Afghanistan, and the threat of confrontation with Iran?

In 1946, Heschel taught the following parable:

A group of inexperienced hikers fall into a pit. They find themselves set upon by a swarm of angry snakes. Every crevice becomes alive with fanged, hissing things. But the more noise they make striking the snakes, the more snakes awake from their slumber to attack. Strangely enough, one man stands aside from the fight, running back and forth. His friends yell out “Why aren’t you fighting? He calls back: We’ll die before we kill all these snakes. I am searching for a way of escape from the pit for all of us.”

My fear is that so many feel that escalation is inevitable – we see Hezbollah racing to re-arm, Israel preparing for round two, America is sword rattling on the border of Iran, Iran pursuing military exercises, Bin Ladin is sending out more videotapes. What we need is someone to say – is there a way out of this pit?

I am an optimist. I believe that in two years we will have a President in the U.S. who is able to work with the international community, who can restore our reputation as a nation that places a high value on human rights. I believe that there are leaders in Iran who do not wish to sharpen the swords of Hezbollah – and that they will, G-d willing, talk some sense to Ahmadinejad. And I know for a fact that there are millions in Israel who desire only peace, and are willing to make great sacrifices to forge a lasting two-state solution.

But to get to a world where tensions de-escalate will take the continued efforts of each one of us here. Snakes are real, and sometimes we must stop them before they bite. But we must learn to move quietly through the world, to continue in our efforts to understand the other, to reach out to the other with compassion, and to invite the other to the table.

I conclude with some words from a young Iraqi teenager I met this summer. Abdullah was a participant in Auburn’s Face to Face/Faith to Faith multifaith youth leadership program. In July, we walked down to Ground Zero together, and spoke as we stared into the pit where so many had lost their lives. At the end of the two-week summer program, he wrote the following poem about the importance of listening:

JUST listen…

I speak out of sadness and frustration,
Because since the beginning of creation,
Peace was lost in translation,
And people stopped listening and started accusation,
And friendship forgot its beautiful sensation
When pride in our hearts began invasion,
JUST listen…

Just listen and with a smile in your face begin,
And tell me if pureness shouldn’t come from within?
JUST listen…

Waiting for us to stop taking things personally,
And attacking others directly,
And fighting hard eternally,
This is not humanity,
And it’s driving us to INSANITY…

Yet, for all of that, I will say and sing,
That goodbye…is only the beginning,
If we listen…

My prayer today is that we will learn to listen, and in doing so, perhaps we will fulfill the promise of Isaiah, ‘If you banish the Yoke from your midst, offer compassion, satisfy the hungry, then your light shall shine in the darkness.”