One of my greatest spiritual inspirations is Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Here’s in a picture with his good friend Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jnr
Heschel was born in a Hasidic family. He was expected to become a Rabbi. And he became a Rabbi, also with a PhD. He survived the Holocaust because he ended up in America, as a professor at the Seminary where I studied for the Rabbinate.
King was born in a Baptist family. He was expected to become a Baptist preacher and he became a Baptist preacher, also with a PhD and became the greatest human rights hero of in the history of the United States of America.
The two men met on the 14th January 1963 - almost exactly 55 years ago to the day at a conference in Chicago on Religion & Race at a time when racial tensions in the States were high. The conference opened with a statement from JFK and then Heschel spoke.
This is how he started his speech.
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 [black man] to cross certain university campuses.
It’s an extraordinary speech. I love it for a couple of reasons. More than two, but I’m going to share two today.
I love it because it reminds me how quickly humans forget this story - the story we read today, in this Shul, and in Synagogues the world over. Every year we tell the story of the oppression of a people - our people - by another people who forgot all the good we could do and focussed only on how scary it was to have a different people among them. Every year we remind ourselves, and frankly the whole world, of how quickly we invent supposed sins committed by those ‘not quite like everyone else’
It reminds me that human beings are quick to invent some meaningless supposed sin of people who are unlike everyone else - the supposed sin of being a Jew, the supposed sin of having black skin, the supposed sin of ....
So this is how I’m defining racism - to treat two people different because of an accident of birth is racist; whether that accident of birth resulted in different colour skin, different gender, different anything. There is no justification for treating people differently because of an accident of birth.
Well, it’s kicked off again, just this week.
There are reports that the President of the United States rejected a bi-partisan plan to bring child refugees to America with language I cannot repeat, but he seems to have rejected the plan because the people who are fleeing to America are coming from poor countries like Haiti. It’s not a sin to come from a poor country. It’s not a sin to come from a country visited by earthquakes and hurricanes, and beset with political instability. The stories of the destruction of Haiti should move us to empathy, not disdain.
You are not better than a Haitian because you were born into wealth and health. You are better, or worse, than the next person because of how you treat others, frankly, how you treat the poor and wretched most of all, frankly, how you treat the poor and wretched you don’t particularly feel drawn to treat well. It’s us, the wealthy, healthy inhabitants of what we like to call the free world, who get judged on an issue like this. Not the people born in Haiti, and Congo and Syria and the like.
We are not better than Haitians because we had the fortune to be born here. It’s not a sin that they were born there.
Here’s Heschel again.
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.
The sad news is that racism remains present, even 55 years after the Chicago conference. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Race remained present even 1300 years after the conference in Egypt - the one with Pharaoh and Moses.
Of course Black Lives Matter, of course it’s appalling that black men have a likelihood of being shot - shot even by police who are supposed to be guardians of justice - crossing the road far, far, far higher than white men. Even 55 years after Heschel pointed out
“it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a [black man] to cross certain university campuses.”
That’s the first reason I love this speech. It reminds me how much we need to do to combat and oppose and challenge racist language and behaviour - language and behaviour that suggests one person is better or worse than another and deserving of different treatment simply because of an accident of their birth.
But here’s the other thing.
I love A.J. Heschel, and this speech particularly because it’s a reminder of what we need religion for, in this day and age, in a time when we’ve learnt to peer into the very earliest moments of the big bang and have learnt to split atoms and genes and become so very very clever.
I love A.J. Heschel and this speech in particular because it’s a reminder that religion can play a role in changing people’s hearts - in fact, it’s probably the greatest source of anyone changing their mind in the history of humanity.
Here we all are, in our silos - we know what we know and we like to surround ourselves with people who agree with us. We select the newspapers that agree with us. We curate out Facebook and Twitter feeds to echo the thoughts in our mind. And we are pro-Brex-this or anti-Brex-that. And we if we let different voices into our private echo chambers at all, we congratulate ourselves on our liberality, as we scoff at those people who have the temerity to think differently from ourselves and go back to reinforcing whatever opinions we have already decided are correct.
When we discount religion, when we no longer listen hard enough to the stories like the great story of Exodus, when we no longer spend enough time in Synagogues and other places of religion, when we no longer make space in our lives for God, we get to a place where human beings are the most important things there are. And that’s not completely errant, but it's woefully insufficient.
If we lock religion out of our lives I am left with just me. And if you disagree with me, in a world without religion, who is to say that I’m not right? Who’s to say that I have to listen to you? If we stop listening to the voice of religion who is to say that one lot of people aren’t, indeed, more important than another lot of people. Who’s going to jab their finger at us and call us to account for the times we’ve treated different human beings as being of different worth.
Here’s the religious take on race - all humanity is created in the image of God, white skinned, black skinned, yellow skinned, male female, gay, straight, poor or rich ... who is to say, say the Rabbis, that your blood is redder, perhaps their blood is redder?
The thing about religion is that it puts us all in second place, as human beings, behind a God who is our creator in whose image we are all pale reflections. And I don’t care if you understand gene splicing or the big bang, if that makes you confused as to whether you are really the most important creation in this world. Because you are not. I am not. None of us is.
We need religion to remind us an existential humility, we need religion to remind us of how insidious it is to treat another human being as worse less than us. We need religion to remind us that even if we do behave in ways that are subtly racist, God still sees, God still knows and God still records.
In fact that’s the very point of religion - to stand above us and point out our falling short. And I know that that is not very trendy in this, I’m alright, you’re alright world.
But the truth is we need religion today more than ever. More than ever it matters that I do not consider I am the most important person in the world - when the costs and the dangers of seeing other people as less important than me are so huge - when the costs and dangers of seeing the world around me as there only for me to use and abuse it.
We need to learn how to place ourselves below the level of God. We need to learn we are all children of God. We need to learn that our responsibilities, as Jews, as humans, are greater than our claims to be in control of our destiny. We need a humility. That’s what religion teachers.
In our faith, you get up on the morning and the first words on your lips should be ‘Modeh Ani Lefanecha’ - I am grateful God for the gift of another day alive. That should make you think before you oppress another before you place yourself above another.
Let me leave the last words with A J Heschel
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 [Heschel went on, reflecting on the conference on Religion and Race to which he had been invited] 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.