Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (z’l), Our Aging, Our World!

Agni by Bala Sivakumar. Used under Creative Commons License.
Agni by Bala Sivakumar. Used under Creative Commons License.

Mid January marks the “yahrzeit” of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Indeed, this year the date in the secular calendar is Sunday evening Jan 15 and Monday the 16th. How interesting this year that we remember Heschel’s life and Dr King’s life on the same day! Many of us remember the iconic pictures of Dr King and Rabbi Heschel marching for justice and being exemplars of morality and political truth. How strange to reflect back on those days and see the division and polarization that still exists.
Heschel spoke truth to may aspects of society. He particularly spoke, in many ways, to concerns that we discuss here on Jewish Sacred Aging. His writings and speeches on issues related to medicine and aging have stood the test of time and are used today in many venues. In his “The Patient As A Person”, he wrote that “The doctor is God’s partner in the struggle between life and death. Religion is medicine in the form of a prayer; medicine is prayer in the form of a deed”. In this, in a way, he was affirming the intimate relationship between the practice of medicine and the power of faith, seeing in the two, a method of dignifying the challenges of being human. The belief that “the human being is a disclosure of the divine” is a fundamental principle to Heschel and, we may add to King. One can only hope that in the current “debate” over changes in health care that this belief is remembered and not sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
One of Heschel’s key messages for us is the idea of being open, every day, to awe and wonder and mystery. In his book on Hescehl, Rabbi Shai Held wrote that according to Heschel “there are two possible orientations to living, ‘the way of wonder’ and the ‘way of expediency’. In the latter approach, ‘we accumulate information in order to dominate’; in the former, ‘we deepen our appreciation in order to respond. The way of expediency closes us off to what is outside us; the way of wonder, in contrast, awakens us to the reality of our ‘living in the great fellowship of all beings.”
Likewise, Heschel’s famous talk to the first White House Conference on Aging in 1961. That speech, “To Grow In Wisdom”, holds truths that we still fight to maintain. In that talk, he cautioned society on the perils of loneliness and the “fear of time”. He reminded us that “Being old is not necessarily the same as being stale.” How interesting to consider that even now, some 56 years after that speech, we still, as a society, struggle with redefining what is means to age. In that same speech, Heschel also strove to remind us that the blessing we truly have is the fact that we have been given the gift of time and that, no matter what age we may be, we have that gift and we can use that gift to sanctify every moment. In the conclusion of that talk, he said: “It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being: God, A Soul And a Moment. And the three are always here. Just to be is a blessing, Just to live is holy.”
We celebrate the life of Heschel and the gifts of wisdom that he gave us. One can only hope that we can all strive to model our own lives in that sense of being a blessing.
Rabbi Richard F Address
*** see: “Abraham Joshua Heschel”. Shai Held. Indiana U. Press. 2013
“The Patient As A Person” and “To Grow In Wisdom” in “The Insecurity of Freedom”. Schocken. NYC.
see also latest blog by Rabbi Arthur Waskow from Shalom Center (theshalomcenter.org)

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