Abraham Joshua Heschel
We are all Pharaohs or slaves of Pharaohs. It is sad to be a slave of a Pharaoh. It is horrible to be a Pharaoh. Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? Let there be a grain of prophet in every person!
That is from today's Bruderhof e-mail, "Weekly Dig." To it, I can only say "Amen."
Rabbi Heschel, of most sincerely blessed memory, was the author of one/two (it depends on the edition) of the three or four books that have made the greatest impression on me. His work The Prophets is simply majesterial. It changed my life.
I read him first in religion classes in college -- Concordia College, Moorhead, MN, to be exact. Whether it was the context (nice, safe, conservative, pietist school) or the professor (sincere, demanding, supportive) or the political era (Vietnam, need I say more), I was inexorably drawn to Heschel's portrait of the prophetic life, message, and destiny. The books continue to influence my thinking about all manner of theological issues, from biblical interpretation to liturgical theology.
From Heschel, I learned that prophecy, in the Biblical sense, is not fortunetelling or peering into the future. It is "speaking for" -- bringing a message from the LORD. That makes a whole lot of difference for how one understands what's being spoken. It helps, in the days of Left Behind and other off-kilter apocalypticism, sanely to parse the Scriptures for the truth -- rather than for the proof texts for one's idiosycratic political (and even venal) orientation.
From Heschel I learned that the people of God is one people -- not a conglomeration of individuals who happen to hang around together because they are alike. (That's the practical ecclesiology of 95% of pew-Lutherans and pastors, I'm convinced.) The good suffer with the bad. The suffering is related to a lack of faith -- faith, not as mind-stuff, but faith as living in the saved condition in a way that is true to the saved condition. Beautiful Amos, with his masterful opening rhetoric. Hosea, with his whore-wife and his proclamation of the seductive LORD. Isaiah, with his saving suffering servant of the LORD -- not just a prediction of Jesus, but an insight into why Jesus' suffering was salvific.
From Heschel, I learned (without being able to articulate it at the time) that the work of the people of God is not to "win souls" or to achieve their own salvation. It is to live as God's instrument for overcoming sin in the world. (This conforms very nicely to Tom Wright's discussion of Paul's theology in What Paul Really Said, which The Thinklings are reading right now.) It is other-directed (i.e., God-directed) and other-focussed (i.e., toward the world.) To fulfill that "mission," Israel was called to live a life free of sin -- of the things that made life hell. So, she was expected to practice justice, to safeguard the undefended, to care for those of little means. There is, in the prophets, I think a definite sense that God's salvation involves a preferential option for the poor. And when that is forgotten, exile is the discipline.
All of that is, of course, not just relevant for the Christian Church, but directly instructive. We are not among that people of God. The same stuff -- promise and caution -- attends to us. We are not handly Enlightenment masses of autonomy who happen to get along for our own well-being and comfort. We are one people: Check the second reading from last Sunday's mass: "One you were no people; now you are God's people" from Peter. We are not our own; our lives are not our own; our everyday decisions are not own own.
One hagiagrapher has said of Rabbi Heschel, "He walked on a higher plane than most of us." I'm not sure I agree -- I certainly don't agree with the suggestion (not intended by the writer) that he was somehow "above the fray." I think he was deeper into the stuff of life than most. That same writer said, "Some people are like commas in the text of Jewish life; Heschel was an exclamation point.) Amen.
All this from this simple reminder, provided by the Bruherhof -- who themselves embody the very witness that Heschel wrote of so beautifully.
Heschel's feast day in my calendar is 23 December, the day of his death (in 1972 -- the year I began seminary training). I invite you to light a candle in his honor that day.