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2006 blog


Susannah Heschel explains 
her rabbi father's concept
of 'praying with my legs', March 10, 2006

By Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—Author Susannah Heschel took a spellbound audience back to the day in 1965 when she was a young girl and her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,  was about to become the Civil Rights Movement icon who symbolized the common quest by Blacks and Jews for justice.

She told an audience at  the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center on Thursday evening, March 9, that the Heschel family was at home in New York City, with her father in his study, and her classical pianist mother, Sylvia, the one who answered the door when a telegram came on a Friday afternoon from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King "asking my father to come to Selma right away—the march was going to be on Sunday."

Rabbi Heshel, who was shomer Shabbas, quickly packed a suitcase and reserved a Saturday night flight.  "There had been a lot of terrible things happening in Selma," recalled Susannah, who today chairs Jewish Studies at Dartmouth.  "The Alabama state police had rioted when the marchers tried to cross the Pettis Bridge just a couple of weeks earlier.  It was frightening; those were frightening days."

Her voice thickening as she told the story, she said, "when he walked, my father, to the taxi on Saturday night after Shabbat, and I kissed him goodbye, and I remember very vividly, he turned around and walked to the cab, and I thought, 'I may never see him again.'  But I also had the sense that he had given me that going to Selma was the most important thing that a person could do at that moment.  That was being a witness, a witness to God's presence.

"And when my father came back from Selma and told us about the march, he said he felt a sense of the holy, a sense of holiness walking arm and arm with Doctor King.  He said, 'I felt my legs were praying.'"

The march in Selma was a quintessential moment in the life of the rabbi, who won world renown as a religious philosopher. Susannah Heschel said one of his favorite midrashes, which he returned to often in his writings, was the saying, "I am God and you are My witness, and if you are not My witness, then I am not God."

Her father taught that "God needs us to be His witness," that His intent in creating man in His image was to remind man of His presence.  "There are many ways to pray, many ways to be witnesses to God," she said. "I think the march in Selma was when a lot of Americans were reminded of God....It was a very powerful moment."

RABBIS' CHILDREN—Susannah Heschel, daughter of the late Rabbi 
Abraham Joshua Heschel, is flanked by Raphael and Jerry Levens, sons of 
the late Rabbi Monroe Levens of San Diego, a longtime San Diego rabbi
who was an acquaintance of Heschel's.  (Donald H. Harrison photo)

The professor's appearance served to promote Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, a book of her father's essays which she edited.  Additionally, it introduced a film about her father, Praying With My Legs, which is now being made by Steve Brand, who produced the docudrama Kaddish.  Clips from the film included interviews with fellow anti-Vietnam War activists as the Rev. William Sloane Coffin and Daniel Berrigan, as well as with three Benedictine monks who live in a priory in Vermont.  Describing a visit, Rabbi Heschel once paid them, one of the monks began to cry as he remembered the intensity with which Heschel prayed.

At another point in the movie, the audience laughed when Heschel quipped, "The idea of judging a person by black, brown or white—it is an eye disease!"

This remarkable man, whose embrace took in all the branches of Judaism as well brothers in faith from other religions, was born in Warsaw, the son of a Chassidic rebbe.  A child prodigy, his father's Chassidim would stand him on a table and listen as he lectured on the Torah portion of the week.  He went to Berlin where he studied at both the Orthodox and Reform seminary (which, his daughter noted wryly, were both located on Artillery Street).  

His German professors—some of them under the sway of the Nazis—sometimes questioned whether the Hebrew Bible should be eliminated from Scriptures because it was Jewish, and in their opinion worthless.  They described the Hebrew prophets as outcasts and epileptics, yet Heschel nevertheless wrote his doctoral thesis about the prophets,  beginning his life-long exegesis on the concept of Divine Need.

Heschel was one of five religious figures that the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati was able to bring out of Germany. After teaching at the Reform institution, he moved onto New York, where he became part of the faculty of the Jewish Theological Society, a Conservative institution.  While he loved and admired all forms of Judaism, in his personal life he was strictly Orthodox.

Susannah Heschel said her father believed in intellectually challenging his audiences, rather than in telling them what they wanted to hear.  Because of that, she suggested that Rabbi Heschel today in death is probably more popular than he was while alive.  She recalled that he sometimes would ask rabbinical students whether gelatin is kosher, and they would argue based upon this or that citation in the Halachah.  And then he would ask, "are nuclear weapons kosher?" and the students would suddenly be silent; "they didn't have the language to describe that."

Her father believed that the opposite of good was not evil, rather it was indifference. If humans were made in God's image, then they had to question what was being done in their name.  How could they be indifferent when napalm was being dropped on children in Vietnam?  Heschel believed deeply that compassion was the central teaching of Judaism—"the compassion God feels for us, the compassion we feel for others, the compassion we feel for God."

Asked what her father would march for today, she responded "he would march for peace, for human understanding."  She recalled that when her father went to meet the Pope, there was controversy in the Jewish world.  Why should he go to see the Pope, when over the centuries the teachings of the Catholic Church had been so formative for anti-Semitism.  Heschel was resolute.  None of that history should deter the visit, he said, "if it saves one life."

Raphael Levens, son of the late Conservative Rabbi Monroe Levens of San Diego, inquired whether there were issues that she and her father disagreed about..  Known today as a feminist, Susannah Heschel responded that she didn't like the fact that at the Jewish Theological Seminary where her father taught, little boys could march with the Torah, but little girls couldn't.  Yet, even that was not a real disagreement, because her father responded that things have to change.  He even suggested that she consider becoming  a rabbi, predicting that in the future JTS would ordain women.

She told how in their household her mother insisted that they listen only to classical music. Susannah Heschel recalled that she wanted to purchase a record album her school friends were talking about, "Meet the Beatles,"  One day when she had to have her teeth pulled, her father felt sorry for her, and asked what he might do for her.  She asked him to buy her the record, which he did. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Her mother was horrified.

Among San Diegans in the audience were Richard and Susan Ulevitch, whom Susannah Heschel identified as cousins.  Susan later explained that Richard's mother and Sylvia's mother were first cousins.