Times: Odd Essay About Activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi A. J. Heschel is the subject of an odd essay in the Times that leaves the reader with the sense that this major Jewish religious figure was an offbeat man of the 60s with a charismatic personality "that transcends it." I wish I knew what that meant. Actually, I know it means nothing and I really wish an editor at the Times would have caught and removed the phrase. Heschel is deceased. His biographers apparently have elected to transmit to the next generation trivia rather than substantive study and analysis. There is nothing the rabbi can do about that now.

A Rabbi of His Time, With a Charisma That Transcends It
Courtesy of Susannah Heschel Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, bearded at center, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1968 antiwar protest.
Published: December 24, 2007

In 1965, after walking in the Selma-to-Montgomery civil-rights march with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was at the Montgomery, Ala., airport, trying to find something to eat. A surly woman behind the snack-bar counter glared at Heschel — his yarmulke and white beard making him look like an ancient Hebrew prophet — and mockingly proclaimed: “Well, I’ll be damned. My mother always told me there was a Santa Claus, and I didn’t believe her, until now.” She told Heschel that there was no food to be had.

In response, according to a new biography, “Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972” by Edward K. Kaplan (Yale), Heschel simply smiled. He gently asked, “Is it possible that in the kitchen there might be some water?” Yes, she acknowledged. “Is it possible that in the refrigerator you might find a couple of eggs?” Perhaps, she admitted. Well, then, Heschel said, if you boiled the eggs in the water, “that would be just fine.”

She shot back, “And why should I?”

“Why should you?” Heschel said. “Well, after all, I did you a favor.”

“What favor did you ever do me?”

“I proved,” he said, “there was a Santa Claus.”

And after the woman’s burst of laughter, food was quickly served. ...more...

What an utterly useless anecdote!


Juggling Frogs said...

I don't think the anecdote was useless. It shows how he used his "transcendent" charisma to break through the hardened and habitual defenses of an ignorant, confrontational, hate-filled, spiteful woman, transforming her (at least momentarily) into a person capable of recognizing another's humanity.

His sense of humor was an effective mechanism for opening the rusty tin cans of her heart and mind, long enough for some fresh air to mingle with their rancid contents.

For me, this anecdote represents hope.

Just as Rabbi Heschel let her peek at his humanity, so the author of the article let us see the counter-woman as having a moment of redemption.

He bested her, and she recognized that. She didn't respond with a shotgun, but with concession. And a pair of boiled eggs.

If such a woman is capable of teshuva, however improbable, then there is hope.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

I'm glad you think the story has value. I think it is at best useless and at worst it stereotypes the rabbi as a clever jokester. The other religious leader that might be the subject of such a story would be the Dalai Lama. In his case the punch line would not have been a clever retort about Santa Claus. It would have been some deep yet obvious human truth. I see no such insight here. Just the clever manipulation of a hungry man. And one more thing... there is the problem of bishul akum... cooking done by a non-Jew and there is the problem of the kashrut of the vessel in which the eggs were cooked... but let's not go there.

Reb Yudel said...

The anecdote was vitally important, because Rothstein's challenge was to de-fang R' Heschel z'l. What would Heschel have said about yet another war waged for lies and vanities? What would he have said about a President and his courtiers and would-be successors who time and again take the Lord's name in vain?

Heschel would not be happy. And I'm not sure that the American Jewish community would be able to go on its merry business of war mongering were Heschel around today.

I think Rothstein agrees with me, because the key, final point of his piece was to decry Heschel for opposing the Vietnam War. Where was his nuance? Where was his sympathy? For those of us who have read some of the editorial opposing New York Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights struggle down South -- look in the back issues of the Jewish Observer, for instance -- Rothstein's tone was familiar.

But for those of who have read Heschel, Rothstein's arguments have already been rebutted. Heschel was clear that the Prophets were no namby-pamby Cold Warrior Liberals, moderating their good intentions with their sober-minded realism.

I'm surprised that you're surprised, Tzvi. As the New York Times made clear this past week, it exists to please and placate the Right Wing, rather than to inform and enlighten its readers.

It's a shame that Rav Heschel -- at least as he has reached me in popular memory -- was all Aggadah rather than Halakhah. Because I would love to ask him the shaila of whether a religious Jew can subscribe to the New York Times, knowing that he is paying the salary of a William Kristol, whose malfeasance, ignorance, lies and propaganda led a nation into war. Kristol has the blood of thousands on his hands. What kind of religious person would pay a dollar a day to his employer?

Tzvee Zahavy said...

First off, you legitimately should be paying the student rate for the Times since you have kids in school.

Second, well said! Call it a not so subtle Rothstein hatchet job. He does turn Heschel into a comic book character. Hey, that is the risk you run in public life.

If you don't like the Times, why not start a bipartisan effort to rename "Times Square"? Hit them where it hurts. We could call it "Liberty Corner."

Personally, I think the Times is great entertainment. That's why I read it.