Repairing the World:
God and Humankind as Partners
The idea of repairing or restoring a broken world is central to much of Heschel’s thought, particularly that surrounding the prophets and the prophetic tradition. Heschel conceived of God and humankind as partners in restoring the things that were broken in the world, especially relationships. When it came to civil and human rights, there was no question for Heschel as to what he was called to do. The example of the prophets and the terms of the ancient covenant between God and Israel made clear that we are to stand with others for justice and righteousness and to address oppression and injustice wherever they are to be found.
One of Heschel’s most visible and most important public moments came when, at no small risk to himself and his reputation within parts of the Jewish community, he joined Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Black leaders to march for justice in Selma, Alabama. In so doing, he said he felt like “my legs were praying”—that, in joining the march, Heschel was combining physical action with soul action, walking in the metaphorical steps of his Hasidic forebears, as his daughter, Susannah, has written.
Questions to Consider
- Congressman John Lewis, who led the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama in 1965, points out that many African-Americans identified with the Jewish experience, particularly that of being a people in Why might this have been an important connection for the civil rights movement?
On the other hand, Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, remembers her father saying that, if there were any hope for Judaism in America, it would come from the Black church. What did Heschel mean by that?
- Scholar Cornel West implies in the film that, in coming to Selma in March 1965 to march beside Martin Luther King, Jr., Heschel “wasn’t just uttering words. He was putting it all on the ” Why was it important to King and other leaders that Heschel be there, and why was it important to Heschel? How did Heschel’s presence at Selma, and the dangers associated with it, reflect his commitment to the tradition represented by the ancient Hebrew prophets whom he had studied? In what ways was Heschel’s presence also a critique of certain contemporary Jewish perspectives, as West suggests?
- What does Rabbi Sharon Brous mean when, reflecting on Heschel at Selma, she asserts that “you can’t take Torah seriously, you can’t take the Hebrew Bible seriously and not then translate the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh into the immediate, into understanding what was happening with race relations in “
What public issues or concerns today would lead you to speak out in a prophetic way?
- What does Rabbi Brous mean when she says that Heschel knew it was important for him and for other Jews to be part of the American civil rights movement because of the Holocaust? How did the experience of the Holocaust possibly influence Heschel’s thinking and that of other Jews with regard to what was happening to Blacks in America? Is there an irony in the fact that many Jews like Heschel stood with Christians in America in the 1960s, while most Christians in 1930s Germany did not stand with Jews like Heschel and his family?
- What do you think Sax means when, thinking of Heschel and King, he says that “prophets are the ones that take people out of their sense of comfort and complicity with everyday life and problematize it, so that they start thinking beyond their own needs”? In what ways are both Heschel and King taking people out of their comfort zones and “problematizing” the status quo of everyday life in America in the 1960s?
- Heschel famously wrote that, in marching with King at Selma he felt like his legs “were praying.” What do you think Heschel meant by that? In what way might his involvement at Selma be seen as prayer? How did Heschel connect piety and action, and how does that reflect his understanding of the Hebrew prophets?
- A number of civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Andrew Young, saw Heschel’s presence at Selma as lending a unique spiritual authority to an event that had strong political and social overtones. It was important for leaders like King and Young that the civil rights movement be grounded in a spiritual foundation. How did Heschel’s presence and support help with that?
- Why, according to civil rights historian Taylor Branch, was Heschel’s involvement with King and other Christian leaders so controversial within parts of the Jewish community? What risks was Heschel taking in engaging with these Christian leaders? How was that complicated by the fact that King and others of these leaders were Black?
- What does Taylor Branch mean when, interpreting Heschel, he says that the prophets “were the first men in history to regard power and justice as opposites”? How does that reflect Heschel’s understanding of the prophetic tradition and his reasons for being involved in the American civil rights movement?
- At a time when so much turmoil is underway in America, what does Heschel’s life and legacy show us about the need for individuals to seek inner spiritual depth while at the same time being present on the streets demanding social change? Are they connected? Do the social movements of today recognize the need for individual spiritual growth?
- What does Shai Held mean when he says that, for Heschel, “overcoming the sin of indifference was everything,” especially in light of the Holocaust? How might a concern about indifference—to segregation and discrimination—have led Heschel to march at Selma in 1965? And why did Heschel in his later year take up the cause of Soviet Jews again raising concerns about indifference?
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