Abraham Heschel died on December 23, 1972. Three days earlier, on a bitterly cold day, he had stood outside the gates of Danbury prison about 70 miles from New York City. Aged 65 at the time, he embraced my late friend Philip Berrigan who had done 40 months in prison for resisting the nuclear arms race. both men were powerful examples of the biblical prophetic.
Heschel was a Moses man, one who took the covenant absolutely seriously; Philip was a radical disciple of Jesus. They were “the Jewish” and “the Christian” – both absolutely authentic towering religious figures of the 20th century. Heschel had stunned the rabbinate in 1965 by telling his cohorts that a Torah which did not accompany the marginalized black community south was irrelevant. The goal he said was “to do justice and love mercy.” And so he marched beside Dr. King, deeply upsetting rabbis who had grown comfortable in middle-class suburbs. Philip paid a great price for his radical peacemaking in the Vietnam years.
These men are mentioned here because they knew in their bones that vox victimarum, vox dei, the voice of the victims, was the voice of God. Heschel had written that “the prophets had disdain for those to whom God was comfort and security; to them God was a challenge, an incessant demand. He is compassion but not a compromise.” For the great Hasidic rabbi, religion declined “not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”
Now when we scan the horizon, we see the churches and synagogues emptied of young people for similar reasons. In my own communion, institutional leaders were always absent in the justice struggles of the last 40 years. The Comfortable Pew with the odd delightful exception was the norm. The synagogue was no better. Gone were the Eisendraths, Slonims and Feinbergs replaced by decent but hardly inspiring leaders who sadly remained silent as Israel grabbed almost all the Palestinian land.
As secular Israeli prophet Jeff Halper wrote” “imprisoning and impoverishing them in tiny enclaves in both Israel and the Occupied Territory, after burying the Palestinian presence and patrimony under Israeli-only cities, towns, kibbutzim and national parks, after assassinating its leaders and leaving its youth with no hope of a future, it now brings the full force of one of the best-equipped militaries in the world against two million poor people living in an area the size of Mobile, Alabama.”
The brave Israeli writer another prophet Amira Hass
The Palestinians are fighting for their life, in the full sense of the word. We Israeli Jews are fighting for our privilege as a nation of masters, in the full ugliness of the term. That we notice there’s a war on only when Jews are murdered does not cancel out the fact that Palestinians are being killed all the time, and that all the time we are doing everything in our power to make their lives unbearable. Most of the time it is a unilateral war, waged by us, to get them to say ‘yes’ to the master, thank you very much for keeping us alive in our reservations. When something in the war’s one-sidedness is disturbed, and Jews are murdered, then we pay attention.”
All this is well known in the diaspora, but courage seems in short supply.
No shul would dare invite great Israeli prophets when they came to Toronto – Gideon levy, Amira Hass, Jeff Halper, Max blumenthal, Miko Peled, Ilan Pappé, and American Jewish dissenters Noam Chomsky, Marc Ellis, Norman Finkelstein and Sara Roy. All were personae non gratae in shuls where signs read “Time to stand up for Israel” and “support the JNF.”
The prophetic had departed from synagogues where Jewish identity had tragically been equated with Zionism, where the powerful biblical faith had been emptied of its “challenge and incessant demand” that rabbi Heschel had proclaimed. The deep ethical values of Judaism had been suborned by a false messianism, which in the words of london rabbi David Goldberg, “It can be said without fear of contradiction that Zionism, founded in the knowledge that it would have to resort to ethnic cleansing to achieve its goal, never had a moral compass.”