Heschel at the Seder Table
As we enter this unique Passover season, we understand that though our Seders and Yom Tov services look and feel different, our focus remains on Pesach’s themes of freedom and redemption. Ahead of this Passover, I had the privilege of co-teaching a two-part class with my friend Rabbi David Bloom entitled “Freedom, Justice and Existence: The Ethics of Abraham Joshua Heschel”. I was honoured to be joined in learning by members of our community, as well as folks who were only able to participate as the sessions were held virtually. From Seattle to Louisville, and Toronto to Dallas, we gathered together from the four corners of North America to analyze the texts of Abraham Joshua Heschel, and to illuminate his teachings as they apply to our age. We began by looking at a speech Heschel delivered in 1963, published under the heading, “Religion and Race”.
In January 1963, the US convened the first National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago, bringing together representatives of the United States Catholic, Jewish and Protestant leadership. Among the speakers were President John F. Kennedy, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The importance of this little known conference cannot be overstated. In a press conference held after the historic gathering, Martin Luther King regarded it as “the most significant and historic [convention] ever held for attacking racial injustice” (Pieza, “Rev. King Urges Boycott”). It was at this conference where Rabbi Heschel delivered these powerful words:
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.”
The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses. Let us dodge no issues. Let us yield no inch to bigotry, let us make no compromise with callousness.
In the words of William Lloyd Garrison, “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject [slavery] I do not wish to think, to speak, or to write with moderation. I am in earnest–I will not equivocate -I will not excuse–I will not retreat a single inch–and I will be heard.”
Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the word “race” and feel no self reproach? 
We learn from Heschel that the Act of Redemption is not an event, but rather, an ongoing process. That it is incumbent upon each us to take action in the world as to bring about justice and freedom for all peoples. For Heschel understood that a defining feature in the existence of humanity is that people are confronted with problems. That the richness of a human being is defined by how many challenges they face. All the while, humanity is called upon to eliminate the suffering of their fellow beings. How does one connect with God? How does one live a religious and ethical life? According to Heschel, we must be aware of the challenges that face our society and we must actively work towards finding solutions to those problems.
In 1972, just a few weeks before his death, Heschel recorded a TV interview with NBC’s Carl Stern. During which he addresses his concepts of freedom, justice and the existence of humanity. I encourage you to watch his entire interview by clicking here, though I want to highlight a few gems:
- Minutes 3:10-10:00 (God in Search of Man & Importance of Humanity)
- Minutes 17:40-20:30 (Human Existence)
- Minutes 31:33-33:44 (Meaning and Suffering)
In this last clip, Heschel states, “There is an old idea in Judaism, found in the bible and strongly developed by the rabbis, very little know; that is that God suffers when man suffers….There is this great sympathy of God in part of man. God identifies himself with the misery of men. I can help him by reducing human suffering, human anguish, human misery.”
So during this strangely unique Passover festival, we too are called upon to identify with the suffering of our world. As we sit around our Seder tables, we ask questions about redemption and justice, about the nature of God and humanity, about our ability to help repair this world. When all of humanity faces an existential threat such as this virus, how will we come together to alleviate suffering? When we ourselves feel isolated and confronted with the new and frightening challenges of our day, how might we create meaning and build connections to our neighbours and to the divine? We may not have all of the answers to these questions today but can take comfort in each other tonight as we join together in remembrance of our shared history and to perpetuate our tradition into the future.
As the psalmist writes, יְהִֽי־חַסְדְּךָ֣ יְהוָ֣ה עָלֵ֑ינוּ כַּ֝אֲשֶׁ֗ר יִחַ֥לְנוּ לָֽךְ׃
May we enjoy, O LORD, Your faithful care, as we have put our hope in You. (Psalm 33:22)
 The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays in Applied Religion, “Religion and Race”, pg. 85-86. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York), 1966.