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The winning Q&A (from Merle Carrus):
How do the teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel prepare us for the situation we now face in the United States?
A. As I sit in my ‘office’ watching the news unfold on my laptop, the new normal of having to deal just with a pandemic is thrown into disarray by the horrendous behavior of four police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that ended with the death of George Floyd. Our country, already under extraordinary stress and tension, is stretched to the breaking point and may erupt.
We are now facing the floodgates of hatred and anger that are bursting at the seams. I am the first to admit that I naïvely thought that for the past 30 years my generation had grown up to replace racism and anti-Semitism with respect for our neighbors and to abide by the principle of ‘live and let live’. We appeared on the surface to have come so far from the 1960s, the era of lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, and marches for equality. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent federal acts, everyone in this country had won the right to vote, and to not face discrimination in the workplace or in determining where to live.
But underneath all the platitudes and good feelings that have been on the surface for years—to the point where we even were able to elect an African American president—hatred, unrest and anger have been bubbling under the surface until the volcano blew its top and the lava of horrific behavior and retaliation flowed out of the ground.
In the 1960s, memorable leaders who spoke up with courage to try to lead our nation to a better place included Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Along with others who were willing to step up and speak out against inequality and racism.
Both of these men were willing to stand up and declare that all of mankind is created in the image of G_D which leads to a collective responsibility for all. The struggle to overcome injustice was owned by all equally. I found this quote by Reverend King, who said of Rabbi Heschel, “Rabbi Heschel is one of the persons who is relevant at all times, always standing with prophetic insights to guide persons with a social consciousness.”
Rabbi Heschel said he felt like his “legs were praying” as he marched beside King from Selma to Montgomery. Rabbi Heschel was willing to step up and stand with his fellow man, to walk beside him and lead by example. In his speech before a conference called Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963, Rabbi Heschel quoted the Torah when Moses spoke to the people. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Then Herschel said, “The aim of this conference is first of all to state clearly the stark alternative. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have set before you religion and race, life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.”
Today we need to choose life. We need to step up, to use our strength at the ballot box, to walk beside our neighbors, and speak out in person or virtually and say we are angry, fed up and have to see change—an end to racism and hatred. We need to see acceptance for all people everywhere. Because to stand by and do nothing is to be complicit .
Most important said Rabbi Heschel, “Our concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally; not only publicly, but also privately; not only occasionally, but regularly.”
We cannot speak out just today, this week, but we must continue to practice what we care about on a continuous basis. Choose change for a better America.