Spiritual Audacity and Radical Amazement: Rabbi Heschel and Prayer

Spiritual Audacity and Radical Amazement
Last week I discovered a document I never knew existed: the manifesto signed by 80 Protestant ministers in Atlanta in November 1957 in response to President Eisenhower’s sending federal troops into Little Rock to allow Black children to go to schools in their own neighborhoods (See  http://rccapilgrims.ning.com/profiles/blogs/80-atlanta-pastors-sign). Later in the week, and completely coincidentally, I began reading the work of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, whose name kept appearing in my research on curriculum and ethics. I’m not talking about a few citations. I mean every time, his well-placed words were used by non-theological scholars to knock their points out of the ballpark. Sometimes God knocks me over the head with stuff.
Rabbi Heschel was born in Poland in 1907, to an Orthodox Jewish family. He studied philosophy at the University of Berlin while also studying for rabbinic ordination. When the Nazis took over, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and after a great deal of struggle, he came to the U.S. in 1940. After several years he ended up at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Although he escaped, his mother and three sisters were murdered by the Nazis. He never returned to Germany or Poland because, as he put it, “If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated.” In the 1960s he worked side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King for civil rights and to stop the war in Vietnam. When they marched together in Selma, he said, I felt my legs were praying (Essential Writings, p. 36). On March 25, 1968, Dr. King gave a keynote address at Rabbi Heschel’s birthday celebration. Rabbi Heschel invited the King family to join his family for the Passover Seder later in the spring, but we know what happened. Reverend King was assassinated on April 4, just days before Passover. Rabbi Heschel spoke at his funeral and walked in the procession in Atlanta. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we could stop with his biography and consider his life as we stand in amazement. But for Rabbi Heschel, amazement was not sufficient for working toward justice in the world. He called for radical amazement, and to get there, he called for us to pray.
In September 1963 (the month and year I was born) he offered a prayer for Soviet Jews who were not being allowed to practice their religion or even study Hebrew freely. Many years later his daughter found the unpublished prayer on a scrap of paper in his files. It includes these words: Prayer has meaning: the beginning of commitment, the starting point of personal involvement (EW, p. 81). The times, he said, call for radical action (EW, p. 74). In protest to American involvement in Vietnam he wrote, Some are guilty; all are responsible. Prayer is our greatest privilege. Prayer…is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of God (EW, p. 85). Prayer is radical and it is dangerous. This makes me want to pray, and I need to learn how to pray radically and dangerously. The times still call for radical action. The times call for prayer.
Last month an old friend from high school asked me about prayer, and I confessed to her that I had trouble praying. She replied, Well, isn’t that a problem, since you’re in seminary and all? Uh, yeah, it is. I’d say the words, and try to reach up to God with them, but it felt more rote—like a wish list. Another friend once wrote that when he was a kid God was like Santa Claus. I longed for my prayers to have depth—beyond thank you and please—beyond Santa. I wanted to draw nigh unto God (James 4:8). Rabbi Heschel knew the connection between prayer and justice, and I am grateful that he took the time to explain it to us. I think I’m getting it now.
In his book The Insecurity of Freedom, published in 1966, he wrote about prayer. He begins with the premise of God’s immediate and personal concern for the world and us. He is eminently quotable, and I will cite from him liberally by compiling a kind of Letterman Top Ten List of Rabbi Heschel’s “How To” Guide to Prayer.
10. Prayer is more than a cry for the mercy of God. It is more than a spiritual improvisation. Prayer is a condensation of the soul.
9. For prayer to live in humans, humans must live in prayer.
8. You cannot analyze the act of prayer while praying. To worship God means to forget the self, and extremely difficult, though possible, act.
7. I am not ready to accept [the idea of prayer] as a dialogue. Who are we to enter a dialogue with God? The better metaphor would be to describe prayer as an act of immersion…
6. Prayer is a moment when humility is a reality. Humility is not a virtue. Humility is truth. Everything else is an illusion.
5. [Prayer] begins with praise because praise is the prerequisite and essence of prayer. To praise means to make God present, to make present not only God’s power and splendor but also God’s mercy. God’s mercy and God’s power are one.
4. How does a human become a person, an “I”? By becoming a thought of God. This is the goal of the pious human: to become worthy to be remembered by God.
3. Thus the purpose of prayer is to be brought to God’s attention: to be listened to, to be understood by God….What we long for [in prayer] is not to know God but to be known by God….
2. [Prayer] is the moment of a person in anguish forgetting his anguish and thinking of God and God’s mercy. That is prayer.
And the number one on Rabbi Heschel’s “How To” Guide to Prayer:
1. The way to prayer leads to acts of wonder and radical amazement.
One thing I notice about Rabbi Heschel, he used the word radicala lot throughout his writing. The word has several meanings. Although we usually think of it as meaning extreme, it also means fundamental and existing inherently in a thing or person. Radical action, radical amazement, and radical commitment—those “doing somethings” to which he referred, are fundamental to us as humans. They exist in us, and to get to them, we ask to be known by God. We pray.

Abraham Joshua Heschel Essential Writings (2013). Susannah Heschel, Ed. Modern Spiritual Masters Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

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