Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Price of Freedom
Who Is Man?, Lectures Given at Stanford 1963
The first thought a child becomes aware of is his being called, his being asked to respond or to act in a certain way. It is in acts of responding to demands made upon him that the child begins to find himself as part of both society and nature. This is the most important experience in the life of every human being: something is asked of me. Meaning is found in responding to the demand.
Indebtedness is given with our being human because our being is not simply being, our being is being created. Being created means that the ‘ought’ precedes the ‘is.’ Religion begins with the certainty that something is asked of us, that there are ends which are in need of us. It is in man’s being challenged that he discovers himself as a human being. Do I exist as a human being? My answer is: I am commanded therefore I am. There is a built-in sense of indebtedness in the consciousness of man, an awareness of owing gratitude, of being called upon at certain moments to answer, to live in a way which is compatible with the grandeur and mystery of living.
Speech to conference on, “Religion and Race” (14 January 1963)
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.
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? Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking. Perhaps this Conference should have been called “Religion Race.” You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.
Telex To JFK in Moral Grandeur, 1963
A telex to President Kennedy
TO PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY, THE WHITE HOUSE, JUNE 16 1963
I LOOK FORWARD TO PRIVELEGE OF BEING PRESENT AT MEETING TOMORROW AT 4 P.M. LIKLIHOOD EXISTS THAT NEGRO PROBLEM WILL BE LIKE THE WEATHER. EVEERYBODY TALKS ABOUT IT BUT NOBODY DOES ANYTHING ABOUT IT. PLEASE DEMAND OF RELIGIONS LEADERS PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT NOT JUST SOLEMN DECLARATION. WE FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO WORSHIP GOD AS LONG AS WE CONTINUE TO HUMILIATE NEGROES. CHURCH SYNAGOGUES HAVE FAILED. THEY MUST REPENT. ASK OF RELGIOUS LEADERS TO CALL FOR NATIONAL REPENTENCE AND PERSONAL SACRIFICE. LET RELIGIOUS LEADERS DONATE ONE MONTH’S SALARY TOWARD FUND FOR NEGRO HOUSING AND EDUCATION. I PROPOSE THAT YOU MR. PRESIDENT DECLARE STATE OF MORAL EMERGENCY. A MARSHALL PLAN FOR AID TO NEGROES IS BECOMING A NECESSITY. THE HOUR CALLS FOR HIGH MORAL GRANDEUR AND SPIRITUAL AUDACITY.
ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL
The Reasons for my Involvements in the Peace Movement, Moral Grandeur
For many years I lived by the conviction that my destiny is to serve in the realm of privacy, to be concerned with the ultimate issues and involved in attempting to clarify them in thought and in word. Loneliness was both a burden and a blessing and above all indispensible for achieving a kind of stillness in which perplexities could be faced. Three events changed my attitude.
One was the countless onslaughts upon my inner life, depriving me of the ability to sustain inner stillness.
The second was the discovery that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. The most wicked men must be regarded as great teachers, for they set forth precisely an example of that which is unqualifiedly evil. Cain’s questions ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ and his implied negative response must be regarded among the great fundamental evil maxims of the world. The third event that changed my attitude was my study of the prophets. From them I learned the niggardliness of our moral comprehension, the incapacity to sense the depth of misery caused by our own failures. It became quite clear to me that while our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves and to silence our conscience.
Death As Homecoming, Moral Grandeur
Our greatest problem is not how to continue but how to exalt our existence. The cry for a life beyond the grave is presumptuous, if there is no cry for eternal life prior to our descending to the grave. Eternity is not perpetual future, but perpetual presence. The world is not only a here-after, but also a here now.
This is the meaning of existence: to reconcile liberty with service, the passing with the lasting, to weave the treads of temporality into the fabric of eternity.