Rabbi Heschel on Religion and Race

My ancestors were not from Norway, but they were slaves in Egypt.

It is this simple, foundational story in Jewish tradition that reminds us on a daily basis to remember the stranger, to lift up the oppressed, to do good works for the widow and the orphan and the homeless and the hungry.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 Poland – 1972 US), one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, was perhaps best known for marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in 1965. At the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963, Rabbi Heschel said the following (as reprinted in his 1967 collection of essays, The Insecurity of Freedomp. 89):

It is not within the power of God to forgive the sins committed toward men. We must first ask for forgiveness of those whom our society has wronged before asking for the forgiveness of God.

Daily we patronize institutions which are visible manifestations of arrogance toward those whose skin differs from ours. Daily we cooperate with people who are guilty of active discrimination.

How long will I continue to be tolerant of, even a participant in, acts of embarrassing and humiliating human beings, in restaurants, hotels, buses, or parks, employment agencies, public schools and universities? One ought rather be shamed than put others to shame.

Our rabbis taught: “Those who are insulted but do not insult, hear themselves reviled without answering, act through love and rejoice in suffering, of them Scripture says: ‘They who love the Lord are as the sun when rising in full splendor’ (Judges 5:31).”

Let us cease to be apologetic, cautious, timid. Racial tension and strife is both sin and punishment. The Negro’s plight, the blighted areas in the large cities, are they not the fruit of our sins?

By negligence and silence we have all become accessory before the God of mercy to the injustice committed against the Negroes by men of our nation. Our derelictions are many. We have failed to demand, to insist, to challenge, to chastise.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

(Although Rabbi Heschel used the terms “men” and “Negroes,” we should feel free to mentally substitute more inclusive/appropriate language and not be distracted by outmoded terms.)

As Heschel moves smoothly from the Talmud to Thomas Jefferson, I too tremble for our country when I recall that one of our primary imperatives as Jews is to fulfill the Torah’s words: “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof” – “Justice: you shall pursue justice” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The vision shared by Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel is still alive, but far from completion; let us keep tzedeq / justice in front of us as we continue to not be silent, to not be complacent, to not let the strife of the moment prevent us from working toward a better society, a better United States of America, and a better world.

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