This week: a conversation with Cornel West and Susannah Heschel about prophetic moral wisdom. Listen today at 2 pm or anytime at our site.
Recently, Cornel West wrote in Jewish Currents about one of his inspirations: the theologian and Civil Rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel, as West describes him, was “the greatest exemplar of the prophetic legacy of Jerusalem in the most anti-Jewish century of recorded time.”
He drew inspiration from the biblical prophets, whom he wrote about in great depth in his extraordinary 1962 book The Prophets, and strove to embody their immeasurably rich spirit; in a 1972 interview, he described these figures as combining “a very deep love, a very powerful dissent, a painful rebuke, with unwavering hope.”
In this week’s conversation with Professor West, the rabbi’s daughter, Susannah Heschel (professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth), says
my father combined prophetic teachings of justice with a Hasidic emphasis on compassion. And that’s what I see in Cornel. It’s justice with compassion: justice, which is the principle, and compassion, which is its application to individual people, to human beings, even at the most simple level. You know, you walk down the street with Cornel as I have, and how he greets people, gives to each person he passes a gift of warmth, of attention, of an open mind, an open heart, and willing to stop and talk. A smile. For me, it’s like walking with a Hasidic rebbe.
West sees in Heschel, whose spirituality directed him toward justice and the Civil Rights movement alongside Martin Luther King Jr., a model for a kind of prophetic moral action needed badly today:
Rabbi Heschel hit the nail on the head when he said the task is to try to get the human souls out of the pit of greed and hatred and contempt and envy. What sister Susannah was saying, is that the spiritual lens, along with the moral lens, but the spiritual lens, becomes very important. And that’s why we can’t just talk about words and language . . . In the deep, prophetic legacy of Jerusalem, the word becomes flesh. It becomes flesh in the Hebrew scripture in terms of the lives they lead and the laughter and the song and the relations and the connection with other people. And the touch is something deeper than words. All the love of learning and literacy and language in the world still don’t get at the depths of the word made flesh in terms of how you connect with other people.
Part of that connection with others, Susannah Heschel says, requires real repentance:
We can’t come together until we repent and we can’t repent until we admit to our sins. And this is a country that is sinful. We have done some bad things and we need to face up to that in an honest way. And that does mean talking. And that’s what Cornel has been doing for many years now.
Both Heschel and West describe the challenge posed by denial. West says:
Part of the uniqueness of America, and America has some wonderful things and magnificent people in it, but part of the uniqueness is that we as an empire deny we’re an empire, or if we believe we are an empire, we’re an empire of liberty and innocence. So you can’t get to repentance, you can’t get to restitution, unless you recognize that you are not innocent.
Now the great F.O. Mathieson, who we love so dear, who jumped off the top of a hotel here in downtown Boston a number of decades ago, but he was the greatest literary critic of his day, he said, “America is unique among nations, who moved from perceived innocence to corruption without a mediating stage of maturity.” And he wrote American Renaissance in 1941, the greatest work on Emerson and Whitman and Emily Dickinson. He was saying, what is it about this particular social experiment with its democratic elements that are very precious and fragile, but it’s still Peter Pan-like, it doesn’t want to grow up, it doesn’t want to mature, so that it’s tied to innocence. Baldwin used to say, what, innocence itself was the crime, because you can’t be authorizers of devastation with indigenous peoples and enslaved peoples and discrimination against white ethnics and vicious treatment of women in private sectors and gays and lesbians and trans. You can’t be authorizers of that devastation and then claim to be innocent. The innocence itself is a crime before you even get to the treatment. Your paradigm, your framework, your perception, the language that you use are avoiding the reality. And sister Susannah’s saying we can’t be true to our prophetic legacy of Jerusalem unless we tell the truth, which means you’ve got the shattere denial, shatter that denial, and that’s the difficult thing.
West describes an instance of an American who stepped beyond denial, who matured into a genuine moral perspective: Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s example relates directly to what sister Susannah was talking about. You remember his first inaugural address? He supports the Fugitive Slave Act. Frederick Douglass says he’s a slave hound from Illinois. He meets with black leaders, he provides money for them to go to Haiti and other places. The greatness of Lincoln is like the greatness in each and every one of us. We start from our imperfections. We start from our fallibility. And he was willing to grow and mature.
So he becomes part and parcel of this freedom of the enslaved brothers and sisters of African descent and involved in something that he himself hadn’t even planned on. He just listened. He learned. He matured. He moved from Peter Pan to adulthood. And that’s something that America has such difficulty with because it’s so tied to the golden calf. It’s so tied to power and wealth and prosperity, that superficial stuff that doesn’t endure. When you at your mama’s grave and when you’re dealing with the betrayal of friends, that stuff doesn’t work.
Finally, Heschel and West both offer benedictions for the past inaugural week. Heschel:
I hope that this can be a new beginning for us, a moment when we recognize that we have fallen into a deep pit, but that we can be lifted out. I hope that we can accept the help that we need from our fellow human beings, from the natural world around us may come inspiration, and from leaders who truly care about us as human beings (how hard it is to live a good life in this country) and that these elected officials will give us the assistance and the kindness and generosity, the generosity of spirit that I hope this country stands for. And I hope we will accept it with good open hearts.
And here’s West’s benediction:
My precious fellow citizens, now that all of us have the blues, maybe we can learn something from the best of a blues people, who confront catastrophe with compassion and creativity, so that our dear brother Biden will recognize this is not the moment to be another neoliberal Clinton or Obama. You’ve got to be bold, like Lincoln and FDR and LBJ, to grow from your past into a much stronger and visionary present, because we are on the brink of losing the American democratic experiment. And what rains down the curtain on it is the white supremacy and forms of the hatred, is the predatory capitalism and form of the greed and the shattering of civic virtue and civic affection that can sustain its citizens to move together for the public good and for the larger public life.
Do we have what it takes? We just don’t know. But let us do all that we can. To provide a concrete lived answer to that question for our precious children of all colors here and around the world.
Read: Rabbi Heschel on the Prophets
Heschel writes about moral prophets in something like the voice of such a prophet. Here’s an excerpt from his work:
The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden on his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words….
Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.
Watch: First Cow
Kelly Reichardt’s buddy frontier movie is slow cinema (as in slow food). It’s simple and beautiful with a political message. Tony (A.O.) Scott at the Times says the charming absurdity of Cookie and King-Lu is as if Robert Altman directed an episode of The Odd Couple written by Samuel Beckett.
We’re Reading: Nomadland
Ahead of the official release next month of the film starring Frances McDormand already topping Oscar lists, we’re reading Jessica Bruder’s stunning account of America’s new growing precariat: refugees from the middle and working class, crossing the country in their Jeeps, campers and repurposed buses in search of work at Amazon fulfillment centers, seasonal campgrounds, sugar beet harvest sites, and other low wage seasonal jobs. Chris will interview Jessica in a few weeks.
This week’s ephemeral library
Jane Mayer on Why McConnell Dumped Trump. Ta-Nehisi Coats on The First White President Revisited. Fintan O’Toole: Can Joe Biden Make America Great Again? Speaking of Amanda Gorman, this young writer is another young star. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s immigrant story in the New Yorker this week is a must read: Waking Up From the American Dream. Naomi Klein on The Meaning of the Mittens. What Is a Teenage Girl?
That’s all folks; see you next week.
Your OS prophets