09 Jan 2018

Tuesday Morning Torah – January 9, 2018

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On January 14th, 1963, nearly fifty five years ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered a speech in Chicago on Religion and Race that would forever influence the relationship between the Jewish and African American communities in this country. It was at this conference where Rabbi Heschel first met Dr. King and the two began to forge a friendship as they began to collaborate on issues related to segregation.  It was this first meeting that led Dr. King to invite Rabbi Heschel to March with him in Selma- a march which Heschel famously described as “praying with my legs.” (For more on this relationship, click here).
Earlier this year I came across Rabbi Heschel’s remarks at this first conference.. As we begin to look forward towards our national day of remembering Dr. King, as well as our community celebration coming up this Wednesday at 7:30pm, I wanted to share a few short quotes from Heschel’s address that, unfortunately, remain all too relevant today. While we have made much progress in issues related to racism and segregation in this country- it is clear that there is much more that we can do as we work to create a society where people are not judged, as Dr. King famously said, by the color of their skin, but rather by the content of their character.
On Religion And Race- January 14, 1963, Rabbi, Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel
There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.
The prophets’ great contribution to humanity was the discovery of the evil of indifference. One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful….
What is the essence of being a prophet? A prophet is a person who holds God and men in one thought at one time, at all times. Our tragedy begins with the segregation of God, with the bifurcation of the secular and sacred….
There are, of course, many among us whose record in dealing with the Negroes and other minority groups is unspotted. However, an honest estimation of the moral state of our society will disclose: Some are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the public climate of opinion, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, racial discrimination would be infrequent rather than common….
Equality as a religious commandment goes beyond the principle of equality before the law. Equality as a religious commandment means personal involvement, fellowship, mutual reverence and concern. It means my being hurt when a Negro is offended. It means that I am bereaved whenever a Negro is disfranchised…
The greatest heresy is despair, despair of men’s power for goodness, men’s power for love. It is not enough for us to exhort the Government. What we must do is to set an example, not merely to acknowledge the Negro but to welcome him, not grudgingly but joyously, to take delight in enabling him to enjoy what is due to him. We are all Pharaohs or slaves of Pharaohs. It is sad to be a slave of Pharaoh. It is horrible to be a Pharaoh.
Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? Let there be a grain of prophet in every man! Our concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally; not only publicly, but also privately; not only occasionally, but regularly.
To read the speech in its entirety- click here.


 Heschel’s “Torah” when it comes to issues of race continues to call on us today. As we begin to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. King, we are reminded not to remain indifferent. We are reminded that we must be regularly concerned with those who feel marginalized in our society. Instead of trying to be right, or acting defensive when it comes to issues of race-Heschel reminds us famously that some are guilty, but all are responsible. We have a responsibility to listen. We have a responsibility to learn about other people’s truths. We have a responsibility to dialogue with those who look, think, and behave differently than we do. We have a responsibility to act to bring equality into this world. We have a responsibility to confront our own biases, regardless of how uncomfortable they may make us feel. We have a sacred duty to ask, each day, what we have done to alleviate the humiliation of any human being regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.  It is a lofty goal that Heschel sets for us- but it is one that we must strive for nevertheless. We must not remain indifferent. 
As we begin the book of Exodus, and prepare to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. let us remember our sacred calling as a people who were once slaves.   And though the work is tiring and never ending, let us always remember that our greatest gift as divine creatures made in God’s image lies in our capacity to love one another.
May each of us strive to live up to these lofty goals as we work to create a world in which all of God’s creations are treated as such.
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