Recently I heard a wonderful program on National Public Radio about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I was struck by one of his quotes: ‘Some are guilty, but all are responsible.’
I pray for the victims and families in Newtown and Aurora and Virginia Tech and Red Lake and Columbine and Minneapolis and Norway and Webster and all the other lesser known atrocities — and for my country.
—John Patrick Egelhof, lead FBI agent of the Red Lake High School massacre, from his excellent if not challenging commentary in the Star Tribune. Read it.
The NPR program to which Mr. Egelhof is referring is On Being with Krista Tippett, which is the radio program I’ve edited and produced for the last nine years. The show he’s culling from: “The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua Heschel.”
One of the most gratifying aspects of working on this project is seeing this type of practical impact. Many times it’s difficult to quantify the influence our work is having in the world; seeing a key law enforcement official who has faced unbelievable tragedy use these pearls of wisdom to inform his own thinking and being breathes new life into the work that I do. It’s all the thanks I need.
The dream of the prophets is not for conquest, power, or wealth. The dream of the prophets is of peace. A civilized society does not live by the sword, but by principles of justice, and those principles require a clear and careful articulation. Words do create worlds.
— Susannah Heschel, from “Palin Cries ‘Blood Libel’: Can Words Harm Us?” in Religion Dispatches.
The professor of Jewish Studies at Darmouth College and daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel traces the history of the phrase “blood libel” and the danger of using the “anti-Semitic canard” in the current politically-charged climate.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
All things have a home: the bird has a nest, the fox has a hole, the bee has a hive. A soul without prayer is a soul without a home…Such a home is prayer. Continuity, permanence, intimacy, authenticity, earnestness are its attributes. For the soul, home is where prayer is…How marvelous is my home. I enter as a supplicant and emerge as a witness; I enter as a stranger and emerge as next of kin. I may enter spiritually shapeless, inwardly disfigured, and emerge wholly changed.
— from the essay “On Prayer” by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Joseph Coen, a listener in Valley Stream, New York, wrote to us with a similar version of this Heschel quote. Coen first encountered Heschel’s words on a prayer card he received at a retreat, and they continue to speak to him years later. For me, Heschel’s reflections on prayer resonated with our New Year’s weekend broadcast, “Approaching Prayer” featuring musician Anoushka Shankar, writer/translator Stephen Mitchell, and religion scholar Roberta Bondi.
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
As We Age, Do We Turn Our Backs on the Elderly?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Last week I retweeted an article about the booming industry of cosmetic surgery in Saudi Arabia, and whether it’s halal or haram. And then, last night, I watched a roast for the 76-year-old comedian Joan Rivers on Comedy Central. Almost all the comedians focused their acts on her many facial reconstructions and sundry plastic surgeries. Yes, the barbs were brutal, but it jogged my memory about Rabbi A.J. Heschel’s words about our growing vanity and narcissism and how it separates us from others, from ourselves, and even from God.
As we focus increasingly on ourselves, who do we leave behind, abandon? Heschel reflects on this in his essay “To Grow in Wisdom,” which was initially delivered at the 1961 White House Conference on Aging (yes, they still occur). It knocked me out in the first several paragraphs, talking about the idolatry of youth and the disregard for the elderly. His words couldn’t have been more prescient, and personally challenging:
“I see the sick and the despised, the defeated and the bitter, the rejected and the lonely. I see them clustered together and alone, clinging to a hope for somebody’s affection that does not come to pass. I hear them pray for the release that comes with death. I see them deprived and forgotten, masters yesterday, outcasts today.
What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten. What they deserve is preference, yet we do not even grant them equality. One father finds it possible to sustain a dozen children, yet a dozen children find it impossible to sustain one father.
Perhaps this is the most distressing aspect of the situation. The care for the old is regarded as an act of charity rather than as a supreme privilege. In the never dying utterance of the Ten Commandments, the God of Israel did not proclaim: Honor Me, Revere Me. He proclaimed instead: Revere your father and your mother. There is no reverence for God without reverence for father and mother.
In Jewish tradition the honor for father and mother is a commandment, the perfect fulfillment of which surpasses the power of man. There is no limit to what one ought to do in carrying out this privilege of devotion. God is invisible, but my mother is His presence….”
Heschel’s book of essays, The Insecurity of Freedom, contain many of these kinds of reflection. It’s a wonderful introduction to his thought and poetic approach to life and faith. If you’ve been wanting to read him but were daunted by The Prophets — or even if you’ve never heard of him before — I highly recommend revisiting his relevant outlook on the society he saw developing before his very eyes.
President Obama Evokes Rabbi Heschel?
Colleen Scheck, Producer
From a Guardian story about President Obama’s press conference at the G20 Summit yesterday:
Asked whether he thought the US should shoulder the blame for causing the crisis, Obama replied America had some accounting to do. But he said he was “a great believer in looking forward rather than looking back”, citing his American law school professor who told him “some are to blame, but all are responsible”.
Surely his law school professor was evoking the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel — “Some are guilty, but all are responsible” — right? Again we feel Heschel’s present-day relevance.
Niebuhr, Heschel — which other SOF biographical series subject will President Obama evoke next? Perhaps Einstein’s post World War II comment: ”…there is no escape into easy comfort, there is no distance ahead for proceeding little by little and delaying the necessary changes into an indefinite future. The situation calls for a courageous effort, for a radical change in our whole attitude in the entire political content.”
The measure of man’s life lies in perfecting the universe.
—Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as tweeted by Rabbi Aaron Spiegel
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Today I viewed hundreds of photos looking for an image that might help convey the critical perspective of Binyavanga Wainaina in our upcoming program on the ethics of aid in Africa, and more specifically Kenya. I was left a bit heavy-hearted. And then I saw this inspiring quote from a new friend in Indianapolis. I can’t thank him enough (and, if you’re interested, he’s got a great recommendation for cigars in Indy).
Words Make Worlds
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Searching the term “heschel” on Flickr turned up a Heschel-Merton peace protest, some previously published photos of Heschel standing next to MLK at Selma, and a few portraits. And then there’s the image you see here, which puzzled me as I was scanning a list of thumbnails: ‘Why did somebody tag that image with the rabbi’s name?’
The answer was in the caption:
The tragedy of religion is partly due to its isolation from life,
as if God could be segregated.
Abraham Joshua Heschel
Through this brief caption a gleaning of another person’s mind. These encounters help me to see things differently, to expand my limited scope, as I search for images that encapsulate some kernel of wisdom or sensibility of what’s being discussed in a particular program. I’ve learned to stop and look rather than dismiss and move on.
Although this photo won’t make it onto the site, Markus Krisetya, the photographer, opened up another way of seeing Heschel, of finding new meaning in his writings (taken from his 1966 essay “Choose Life!”) and the graffitied bridge I pass by daily. How do you find relevance in Heschel’s words and action?
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
“You gotta kill your darlings.” That was one of those sayings that permeated our discussions back in film school, something our teachers would tell us during the editing of our film projects. It means you have to be willing to let go of that shot or that sequence that you invested so much time, effort, and probably money into making but, for some reason, slows down the pace of the story or isn’t as strong as our hope for it. In some weird way, it’s like that Buddhist saying, “If you ever meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” Don’t turn the Buddha or your “darlings” into idols that bar your path to enlightenment or a perfect film.
I’m now editing an interview for a show we are so eager to put out there about the 20th-century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., and equally provocative and challenging.
Sometimes we record an interview, and we have little trouble finding places to edit out. Sometimes the interview digresses from its core and we have to wrangle it back by cutting out some material. Other times, you listen to an interview, and it seems like every word is a darling. For myself, I count the interviews with Jean Vanier and Janna Levin in that category.
The other day, as we were doing our pre-edit listen of an interview with Arnold Eisen, chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, who was greatly influenced by the late rabbi, there were more than a few times when I thought I’d burst into tears, whether from Arnold Eisen’s own storytelling or from his reading of choice Heschel excerpts. I’ve highlighted a few in this audio excerpt:
- The first part features Arnold Eisen talking about Heschel’s advice to young people, his encouragement to them; it’s something that echoes with the self-doubt I felt for many years in my twenties.
- Following that is one for the SOF blooper reel.
- The last part is Arnold Eisen reading from Heschel’s writing. It’s gorgeous.
There’s another reading, in the interview, that comes after this one. It renders me helpless and it’s too good to spoil by throwing it out as a teaser, so you’ll just have to listen to the final show, which is a few weeks away.
Meanwhile, as I edit all this great material, I’m afraid that some of it will have to be lost for the sake of time constraints. But what do you let go, when it’s all gold? I’m having serious trouble killing my darlings.
“I Tried to Be a Good Man”
by Trent Gilliss, online editor
One of the more fabulous aspects of working at SOF is being surrounded by a crazy number of talented people from other other regional and national programs that are part of our parent company, American Public Media (if you’d like, I can try to explain the complexity of the public radio world and distributors some time). I’m overwhelmed by the wide array of topics and material being produced and, unfortunately, never get to hear.
Our colleagues next door at American RadioWorks just released a riveting documentary about the last year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. As a bonus, the executive editor Stephen Smith presented a live performance for his colleagues — a 35-minute pictorial narrative he had given at a commemorative event in historic Riverside Church in New York.
It’s not often that our topic area overlaps so overtly with our next-door neighbors’ material. In this case, King’s religious and moral language wasn’t ignored or minimized for the political, the historical, the newsiness of it all. It wasn’t an anecdote. Sitting in a small crowd of 50 with my colleagues, I was engaged from the first photo, an image of King preaching with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel sitting in the background.
I was overtaken by his recorded words from a sermon given at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1968, shortly before his assassination. I had never heard King like that before.
King’s context was the 60s and civil rights. His legacy today is more than that. His ability is to relate to one’s personal failures and struggles and say, “It’s alright. Keep on trying.” As a husband and a father and a journalist, “I want to be a good man.”