Divine Pathos: Abraham Joshua Heschel


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 24, 2023

“There goes God!” The words were enthusiastically declared by an onlooker who, in 1965 in Selma, Alabama, saw Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in the front ranks of the civil rights struggle with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Horace Westwood, then the minister of this congregation, was there. Speaking to the members of First Unitarian Universalist afterwards, he recalled his experience of being part of a group of “ministers, nuns, rabbis … young people” who “stood nose to nose” with the “troopers, the city police, and the sheriff’s posse … fifteen deep” and helped to usher in the Voting Rights Act.

It’s been a long
A long time comin’
A change gon’ come
Oh, yes it will

Westwood believed that a change was going to come. And that it would be a “revolution.” He thought that anyone of good heart who wanted to see it through might be called on, in the words of Paul’s letter to the Romans, “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” He knew something of which he spoke. His colleague, the Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb, was murdered in Selma. So were the Unitarian Universalist laywoman Viola Liuzzo and the civil rights activist and Baptist deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Jackson’s death provided some of the inspiration for the civil rights marches in Selma. Westwood praised the marches for “the genuineness of … [their] ecumenity” and power to bring together “priests … Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians … a Unitarian minister from Hawaii and a Rabbi from Montreal.”

“There goes God!”

Many of them, regardless of religious orientation, were inspired by the man who King called “my rabbi” and others named “Father Abraham.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel blended a profound sense of piety, a belief that religious practice was about unlocking the “enormous store of not-knowing, of being puzzled, of wonder, of radical amazement” found within each human soul, with the heat of prophetic fire.

Religion is about “bringing us closer to God,” he taught. For him this meant embracing that perspective so dear to both Judaism and classical Unitarianism, the belief we humans have been created in the “likeness of God.”

“To imitate God, to act as … [God] acts in mercy and love, is the way of enhancing our likeness.” The words are Heschel’s, but they could have easily come from the nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing. Channing, after all, preached “that the great work of religion is … to unfold the divine likeness within us.”

Heschel argued that “Judaism stands and falls with the idea of the absolute relevance of human deeds … Imitatio dei [, the imitation of God,] is in deeds. The deed is the source of holiness.” Again, whether atheist or theist, neo-pagan or Buddhist, the Unitarian Universalist would say much the same thing. “Deeds not creeds,” our position is occasionally summarized.

In Selma, Heschel famously condensed such sentiments into a single sentence, “I felt like my legs were praying.”

I felt like my legs were praying. Have you ever had that kind of experience? Where time breaks open and the work, the moment, the space you inhabit, the thing you are doing feels holy, feels like a prayer. At such moments, the finite disappears into the infinite and the significance of the individual action takes on a universal hue.

“[M]any human beings are serving as one in a sacred cause,” again Heschel reflects on his time in the civil rights movement. It is a declaration that the mystical can be found in pursuit of justice.

A mystic is one, the great scholar of religion and preacher Howard Thurman told us, who finds something within their own “experience that opens up into the infinite.” In our sermon series “Lives of the Spirit,” we are considering some of the great spiritual activists of the twentieth century. Diverse in their philosophies and theologies, they were people like Heschel who, each in their own particular way, found a sense of the mystic–a connection to the infinite–within the quotidian work of justice making. Some, like Heschel, named the infinite the divine. Others, such as the Detroit based activist Grace Lee Boggs, called it the experience of “a leap in faith in what it means to be human.”

“There goes God!”

You might recall that our sermon series is animated by the questions: What does it mean to lead a good life? What are the resources that will allow me to lead such a life? How shall I know I am leading one?

Fully aware of the crises of his hour, Heschel eloquently shared these questions in a different way. “The most important problem which a human being must face daily is,” he wrote, “How to maintain one’s integrity in a world where power, success and money are valued above all else? How to remain clean amidst the mud of falsehood and malice that soil our society?”

You might phrase our questions otherwise. For my part, it is difficult to deny that the human good is constantly in danger of being sucked into the mud of falsehood and malice. Almost sixty years ago, Horace Westwood could preach in this pulpit, “America is awakened … suffering is not in vain.” Heschel could write of his time in “Selma was a day of sanctification.” And Sam Cooke could sing:

It’s been a long
A long time comin’, but I know
A change gon’ come
Oh, yes it will

But today we can read in the Guardian about efforts right here in Texas, in Galveston county, to destroy what remains of the Voting Rights Act. In a federal trial, the county Republicans are seeking to eliminate the sole precinct with a Black and Brown majority and return the commissioners court to all White rule. If the plaintiffs have their way, the case will make its way to the Roberts Supreme Court. There they hope that the court’s majority’s penchant for assaulting women’s rights, attacking LGBTQ communities, and undermining the gains, or shall I say prayers, of the civil rights movement will deal a serious blow to democracy.

Hate crimes everywhere, but especially in Texas, are on the rise. Just this past week saw the symbols of terror deployed in our own neighborhood. Someone hung Black plastic bodies from Third Ward trees. Meanwhile, in the last four months, two Unitarian Universalist congregations in Texas have been targeted–one experiencing arson and the other an armed incursion. In the last two months, throughout the country, almost fifty synagogues have had to be evacuated because of bomb threats.

The mud of falsehood and malice, the question remains, how shall I lead a good life? How shall you lead one? This month we turn to Heschel, not because he answered such questions in easy times. He sought his answers during hard ones.

More than anything, he believed that to be created in the image of God meant to be blessed with free will, the ability to choose. Offering his interpretation of Moses’s encounter with the divine on Mt. Sinai, he imagined God telling the prophet, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.”

Choose life, for Heschel was not a misogynistic slogan. It was a reflection of his belief that because we each contain the image of the divine, “God has a stake in the life of every” human. “Religion’s task is to cultivate distrust for violence, sensitivity to other people’s suffering, the love of peace,” he wrote. Any religion that did otherwise was, in his mind, a false religion.

He came to this belief through his understanding of the holy. God was a pathos, a personality, that yes, had gifted humans with free will but over, and over, and over again, tried to call us to pick love over hate. It is through “acts … [of] mercy and love” that we can experience “a communion with the divine consciousness” and enhance our likeness to God.

“There goes God!”

The words were offered up to Heschel as he strode by the crowds in Selma perhaps because he looked how some people imagined the part. A rabbi from the Hasidic tradition, with his long white hair and flowing beard resembled the deity on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

He deeply believed in the prophetic tradition. His profound prayer life and constant religious practice led him to a sense of “fellowship with the feelings of God.” It caused him to do what he could “to convey the word of God.” Andrew Young, one of Martin King’s closest companions, described Heschel as “one of the prophets.” His words today have lost little of the force they have to trouble the powers and principalities of the world. Listen to what he offered in 1966 on “the anniversary of the death of President Kennedy.”

“[I]t made no impact on our laws and customs,” he protested. “No lesson was learned, no conclusion was drawn. Guns are still available [cash on delivery]. Mass killing in Chicago, in Houston, Texas, in Arizona … is becoming a favorite pastime.”

Guns are still available, let us turn to a biographical sketch of this man, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who could so name the mud of falsehood and malice which beset the country fifty years ago and continues to beset us today.

He was born in 1907 in Warsaw, Poland. At the time Warsaw was one of the capitals of the Jewish world. Perhaps as much a third of the city was Jewish. His family Hasidic. The Hasidim are a branch of Judaism easily recognizable for their distinctive dress. The men have black clothing and wear black hats, beards, and ear locks. The women practice a form of sartorial modesty.

The tradition is devoted to the belief that the divine is everywhere. It is present even in the most mundane and banal parts of life. Religious practice is the search for connection to this sense of divinity throughout all that we humans do. This sentiment is caught in Heschel’s early poem “God Follows Me Everywhere”:

God follows me everywhere–
Spins a net of glances round me,
Shines upon my sightless back like a sun.

God follows me everywhere, for Heschel the experience of seeking, searching, questing after God came almost as soon as he was conscious of life. Named after his great great grandfather Rebbe Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, one of the most significant rabbis of the eighteenth century, he was a child prodigy. Even before his Bar Mitzvah, he was called upon to offer interpretations of the Torah, Judaism’s sacred text. He was ordained into the rabbinate at the age of sixteen.

Shortly thereafter he left Warsaw for the University of Berlin where he earned a doctorate. His dissertation was on the Hebrew prophets and later formed the basis of his most famous text, The Prophets. In it, he sought to understand those biblical figures who had experienced “the overwhelming impact of the divine” and found within it not a call away from the world but, instead, a call into it to demand justice.

His time in Germany coincided with the rise of the Nazism. Amid the atmosphere of ever-growing antisemitism, he found himself caught with the question, “How to be holy.”

He taught and wrote in Germany until 1938 when he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported back to Warsaw. After ten months there, he received an invitation to serve on the faculty of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He left Poland a scant six weeks before the Nazi invasion. Most of immediate family perished. Afterwards, when asked to describe himself, he would say, “I am a brand plucked from the fire, in which my people was burned to death.”

I am brand plucked from the fire, that horror animated his theology. “Since Auschwitz I have only one rule … for what I say: Would it be acceptable to those who were burned there?,” he wrote.

Princeton professor Julian Zelizer has summarized Heschel’s quest to answer this question as a “need for a spiritual religion to help rid the world of evil and ensure that such depravity did not happen again.” He pursued it over his remaining days. They took him from Cincinnati to New York, where he served on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote numerous books, and became convinced that his answers were to be found through the civil rights and anti-war movements.

“I felt like my legs were praying.”
“There goes God!”
“The mud of falsehood and malice,” Heschel synthesized tradition and cultural creativity. Devoted to the essence of Hasidic mysticism–“I go with my reveries as with a secret / In a long corridor through the world– / and sometimes I glimpse high above, the faceless face of God”–he reinterpreted it for the world in which he lived.

The religious community he had known had turned to smoke and ash in the horrors of Europe. He did not try to reconstruct it in Cincinnati or New York. He re-imagined it. He and his wife Sylvia, a concert pianist, had one daughter, Susannah Heschel. Perhaps because he was a father, he broke with the gender norms of the Hasidic. He and his Sylvia held a Bat Mitzvah for Susannah and he encouraged her to pursue a life of Jewish scholarship.

Today, she is one of the most important Jewish feminist theologians. She is convinced that if her father had lived past 1972, he would have come to be understood as an advocate for feminist theology. For her part, Susannah has been responsible for one of the most significant additions to the Passover Haggadah–the teaching about holiday–in the last hundred years. This is the placement of an orange on the seder plate.

The symbolism of this is sometimes misinterpreted with a story that circulates about the orange resulting from some man saying to Susannah “that a woman belongs on the bimah as much as an orange on the Seder plate.” This is not the orange’s origin. Instead, she shares that the orange was originally meant as a symbol of solidarity with queer communities. She writes, “an orange … [is] the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life. In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out–a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia of Judaism.”

God follows me like a forest everywhere.
My lips, always amazed, are truly numb, dumb,
Like a child who blunders upon an ancient holy place.

My lips, always amazed, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s poem “God Follows Me Everywhere,” offers a sketch of the fullness of his thought. We are called to live a life “of radical amazement” and, experiencing life as amazing, we are challenged to “[s]ee how prophetic visions are scattered in the streets.”

“… let justice well up like water,
Righteousness like an unfailing stream,” said Amos.

“And in that day,
The mountains shall drip with wine,
The hills shall flow with milk,
And all the watercourses … shall flow with water;
A spring shall issue from the House of the Lord,” preached Joel.

“[The] wise will consider these words,
… [the] prudent will take note of them.
For the paths of the Lord are smooth;
the righteous can walk on them,” proclaim Hosea.

It’s been a long
A long time comin’
A change gon’ come
Oh, yes it will

How might we understand, engage with, draw from this prophet, this mystic, this spiritual activist, in our own quest to answer the question of the good life? For my part, I find two notes that sound in my own life’s song. In these days, the mud of falsehood and malice might be particularly deep. It might be hard to believe that there is truth in Sam Cooke’s words. We might, like my friend Tony Pinn, believe that the myth of Sisyphus, is more apropos of our era than the Hebrew prophets, but there is still something to be gained from Heschel’s wisdom.

Sisyphus, you might remember, was cursed to forever roll a stone up a hill. Each time he brought it to the top, it slide back down. He repeated his task eternally. The philosopher Albert Camus imagined Sisyphus strangely satisfied with his unending task. Tony interprets the story as something like the quest for justice, writing, “Things are not ‘well’ … the threat has not been tamed, but … we persist. We should work to make life better, and in so doing we imagine ourselves, like Sisyphus, happy.”

The quest for justice might be, as Tony argues, never ending, never complete, never truly to be experienced in a moment when the mountains forever drip with wine or the hills flow with milk. But, but, there are two notes from Heschel that I hear which can help us on our way: radical amazement and the prophetic.

“My lips, always amazed, are truly numb, dumb,” I sometimes speak of this in terms of the resurrection of the living. Heschel taught, and I believe, that the purpose of religion is to help us to wake up to the world as it is. Beauty is everywhere. It can be found in almost every moment. Each breath is precious. Life is filled with blessings. It is amazing to be alive.

This is a teaching we shall hear echoed again, and again, in the lives of the spiritual activists we encounter this year. Within each of their own experiences they caught something of the infinite. And became aware of the connection to the universal that dwells within each of us.

Find it, for a moment, now. Your breath connects you to all being. Breath in the air of the world. Take it in you, let it circulate, let it become you, and breath out your own breath into the world. Your very spirit, and mine, for breath is nothing more and nothing less than life’s spirit, is intrinsically, ever connect to all that is.

“See how prophetic visions are scattered in the streets,” this sense of wonder, this experience of waking up to the world as it is, this thing I name the resurrection of the living and Heschel spoke to being “always amazed,” can lead us to seek to build a better world for all. Deep calls to deep and the beauty of the beauty of the world calls us to create more beauty.

In his time, this experience of what Heschel named as being “stunned by that which is and cannot be put into words,” led him to speak out against racism and white supremacy, to speak in favor of peace, to speak in opposition to violence, and call for end to poverty–in a small sermon we can only brush upon the life of so profound a man.

What does it mean to lead a good life? For Heschel the answer was to be inspired by awe and beauty and cry out against the politics of cruelty. He would have it that awe and beauty inspired us to do the same in this hour.

“God follows me in tramways, in cafes.
Oh, it is only with the backs of the pupils of one’s eyes that one can see
how secrets ripen, how visions come to be,” says Heschel.

Let us close then, with a prayer,
oh, Spirit of Life,
which Heschel called God,
and which we might call by other names,
breath flowing between
human and human
plant and animal
sacred circulatory system of being,
stir within us today,
and each day,
something of the power of awe and wonder
that life draws us to:
awe and wonder
at human beauty,
awe and wonder
at the majesty of trees,
awe and wonder
at the blue of water,
awe and wonder
in the cafes,
on the streets,
in the long corridor of the world,
awe and wonder,
and, in feeling this sense of awe and wonder,
may we each be inspired
to greater compassion,
greater empathy,
a greater desire,
in Heschel’s words,
to “acts in mercy and love,”
so that we might enact the vision of the better world,
“my feet were praying,”
and, as service of praise to the glory of creation,
choose justice,
choose righteousness,
choose to be part of an upwelling of hope,
joy, peace,
and, let me say it again,

“There goes God!”

May we grow ever in the spirit of the divine–
however we might know it–
through deeds of mercy and love.

That it might be so,
I invite the congregation to say, Amen.

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1 comment

  • A truly lovely reflection on Heschel’s project in the world. I really appreciated how you connected so many disparate part of his writing and work–from his sense of Jewish past and mission to radical amazement to the moral imperative for engaging in social justice. Thank you!

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