We must renew religious politics of King and Heschel

Friday, Jan. 16 (18 Tevet) will be Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's 25th yahrzeit. On Monday, Jan. 19, Americans will celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King's birthday. The confluence brings together again two of the wisest American religious leaders of the past generation. Both fused a sense of the joyful, awesome presence of God in their lives with a sense of God's call for healing American society.

On many occasions, King and Heschel stood together and marched together against American racism and against the American war in Vietnam. For months, the Shalom Center has been reminding the Jewish community of this confluence and preparing materials on Heschel to use in observing his 25th yahrzeit. The response has been extraordinary — from more than 250 rabbis, teachers and scholars, not only in North America but in Jerusalem, Berlin, London, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo.

Why such a warm response? Because to our cynical age, Rabbenu Heschel is a reminder: It is possible to carry on politics as if it were prayer — and it is necessary to carry out prayer as if it were politics. Not only did Heschel take part in the great voting-rights march in Selma, Ala., but he came back saying that he felt as if his legs were praying. This statement came from deep in his Chassidic rearing , for he knew that all our bones can pray, must pray — not just our jawbones.

What made him different from his Chassidic forebears was his honoring of non-Jewish prayer, the prayers of a black Baptist, alongside his own — and his sensing holiness in a certain kind of politics. For, he said, "The beginning of prayer is praise. The power of worship is song. To worship is to join the cosmos in praising God…Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision." To the Chassid he joined the prophet, and made them one.

During these 25 years since Rabbenu Heschel died, his Chassidic neshamah (soul) must have been dancing to see an extraordinary renaissance in the encounter of American Jews with God and Torah: new midrash and whole new ways of creating midrash; new music, dance and drama; new categories of body-thought; feminist theology and eco-Judaism; dialogical davening and ecstatic chanting; the reawakening of a new Chassidic energy and the legitimation of Jewish studies in secular academia.

But his prophetic arms and legs have had much less to celebrate, for there has not yet been an analogous renaissance in the creation of a prayerful Jewish politics. The Heschel who acclaimed Shabbat as the "day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization," the Heschel who cried out that our "victories in the war with nature…have come to resemble defeats" — that Heschel calls us to prophetic prayer.

How do we turn our reading of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years into a great movement to insist that everyone and the Earth itself must have the time, the income, the freedom, the obligation, to rest and reflect, to love and make family, to dance in community? How do we turn our reading of the Book of Ruth into a great movement to insist that everyone, even and especially the despised and outcast of our society, is entitled not to a dole but to a worthy job at worthy rates of pay? How do we — like King and Heschel — again turn our Torah of the nonviolent midwives who resisted Pharaoh into still newer, still more effective forms of nonviolence? How do we turn such visions into daily practice?

*Our hands might pray by building new houses for the poor, by joining in projects of Habitat for Humanity. Habitat has recently reached out to the Jewish community from its own strongly Christian roots, setting up a Shalom Fund and inviting affirmatively Jewish participation.

*The Shefa Fund has organized the Tzedek Economic Development Campaign, through which Jewish institutions can pool money for loans to grassroots minority enterprises. Synagogues, federations and many other Jewish groups could lend both some of their endowment and savings reserves, and the trained business experts to advise such firms.

*In many cities, efforts have begun to enact "living wage" laws that would require businesses that receive contracts from city and state governments to pay wages that bring their recipients above the poverty line — typically, at this point, about $7.50 an hour. In Heschel's "sabbatical" spirit, we might urge that such laws also require time for quiet "non-work" each day at the workplace and paid leave each week for workers to volunteer for nonprofit community service.

*Jewish groups could help defend hard-won protections for health, safety and the right to join unions in the new workfare programs and in the garment industry, scene of so much Jewish sweat and blood.

*Where parts of earth like the Redwood National Forest, Chesapeake Bay, the Hudson River, the airy ocean of our global atmosphere — are being subjected to corporate rape, Jewish groups could appear. They could wave the palms and willow branches of Sukkot, planting trees in inconvenient spots like corporate driveways, using our arms and hands as Rabbenu Heschel used his legs at Selma: to pray.

Not till we have poured Chassid and prophet together into one mighty stream can we say that our generation has actually learned from the life and the teaching of Rabbenu Heschel.