Richard Dreyfuss is performing in a concert reading, Imagining Heschel, from an exchange of letters between America’s seminal Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel and a Roman Catholic Cardinal. Here’s how the website summarizes the production:
Imagining Heschel is a concert reading exploring the private conversations between Cardinal Augustin Bea and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel from 1962 – 1973, when Heschel was asked to aid the Vatican Council in formally exonerating the Jews for the death of Christ – a crucial repudiation of anti-Semitism.
Colin Greer’s imagined discussions between these philosophical giants in the midst of the numerous struggles of the late 1960s – including the war in Vietnam which Heschel strenuously opposed, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, which he supported – lend enormous insight into contemporary issues of peaceful resolution in the Middle East. Imagining Heschel raises important questions about the justification of violence by any faith, and the limits of forgiveness.
What is especially interesting is that the story is ultimately not one of interfaith dialogue triumphing over religious differences, but rather of the increasing violence and evil of modern society turning both men away from each other. Heschel grows increasingly disenchanted with the Pope’s unwilling to formally exonerate the Jews on the charge of deicide and Cardinal Bea is shocked by Heschel’s endorsement of the violence inherent in the Israeli triumph in the Six Day War.
As an undergraduate, I studied at Jewish Theological Seminary when Heschel taught there, but it was toward the end of his life and I was at the very beginning of my own Jewish college studies so I never heard him teach or even speak. One of my great regrets. Sometimes it takes getting older to realize the things one should’ve grasped in youth, but never did.
Heschel championed the incipient civil rights movement in America and became its strongest Jewish adherent. He joined Martin Luther King as well in opposing the Vietnam War. The theologian who derived from Hasidic royalty was one of the greatest humanists of the 20th century. Neither the century nor American Judaism would’ve been the same without him.
I have not seen the play, but if you live in or near New York it’s a treat you shouldn’t miss. If I had a chance to spend an evening with Heschel, even an actor playing him, I wouldn’t turn it down.
The video below is a long colloquy between the playwright and Heschel’s daughter, the inimitable Prof. Susannah Heschel. She in fact captures so perfectly the term tikun olam that graces this blog, that it’s worth quoting:
In Hasidic thought, what we do has cosmic ramifications. That is, when I do an act that is kind or good…when I do a mitzvah I give strength to God. I help bring about redemption.
Now, in Hasidic thought the mitzvahs they’re talking about have to do with making Kiddush and prayers, which I say with the kavanah (“intention”) that I should bring about a redemption of the Kadosh Baruch Hu (“Holy One”) and the Shekhinah (“Spirit” or God’s “Indwelling Presence”) through the mitzvah.
My father broadened it [to include] the mitzvahs that you do beyn adam l’chavero that is, from one person to another. The social responsibility of one human being for another, that too gives strength to God.
He’s expanding that Hasidic theology in a broader direction to include all the commandments we have in Jewish law that are very much about the relations we have one with another in all dimensions–on a personal dimension and a business dimension. Everything. That too brings redemption, gives strength to God.
There you have it, a perfect definition of tikun olam in the context it’s used in the title of this blog.