Two months have now passed since mobs of mostly white people descended on the Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the results of November’s election, but I am still haunted by images of the mob’s racist violence such as the noose that they put on display and the shirt of a white man in the crowd that read, “Camp Auschwitz.”
These details were more than symbolic — they point to historically materialized forms of horrific anti-Black and antisemitic racism that continue to be stoked by white supremacist strains of Christianity.
As we struggle against this violence, we can draw from the deep wellsprings of African American and Jewish prophetic traditions that speak truth to power and counter oppression.
In moments like these I often turn to the work of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was one of the leading Jewish theologians and prophetic figures of the 20th century. He was also a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and joined King to march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965.
Rabbi Heschel’s writings produce a profound love for those who suffer and a profound sense of outrage against those who perpetuate that suffering. At this moment in U.S. history, as we witness the rise of unabashed white supremacy and the proliferation of lies and mistrust, we desperately need to channel the prophetic urgency and clarity of voices like his.
Where are the courageous voices who will call out all forms of religious idolatry that are entwined with profane understandings of Christianity? Is racism anti-theological? In what ways might we continue to hope while in the claws of despair? And where are we headed — into chaos or into community, given such pervasive violence and indifference in the world?
In this engaging interview, Rabbi Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel, speaks in her own powerful voice, and weaves her father’s prophetic courage and wisdom into our conversation. Susannah Heschel is the Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor and chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, and Jüdischer Islam: Islam und jüdisch-deutsche Selbstbestimmung. A Guggenheim Fellow, she is currently writing a book with Sarah Imhoff, entitled, Jewish Studies and the Woman Question.
George Yancy: One of my favorite quotes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night.” For me, it points to his own deep sense of pain felt when others suffer, and the sense of outrage that he felt when it came to our inhumanity toward each other. I wanted to scream as I watched with sorrow and outrage the events unfold at the Capitol. How would you characterize the meaning and importance of your father’s use of “scream” within the context of what we witnessed collectively at the Capitol? There is something sonically visceral expressed in his use of that term.
Susannah Heschel: What does it mean to be a prophet? We conventionally think of prophets as people who foretell the future, but my father’s understanding of the Hebrew prophets of the Bible is entirely different. “What manner of man is the prophet?” he asks. A person of agony, whose “life and soul are at stake in what he says.” Who hears our despair? As you note, my father writes that the prophet’s word is “a scream in the night,” a scream to shatter our indifference. The prophet screams out the horror of human suffering, giving voice to the “silent sigh of human anguish.”
When we watched the horrific video of police murdering George Floyd, we saw his desperation and agony, and we watched a murderer kill him. We saw police bystanders who stood there, utterly indifferent, doing nothing to save this man’s life. We wanted to scream.
White Americans shoulder grave responsibility for that moment. My father writes, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” We are not guilty of murder, but we have to assess our responsibility: Are we not bystanders, responsible for the racism that led to the murder of so many Black men, women and children? George Floyd was murdered by the racism that has gone unchecked for centuries, the systemic racism that organizes this country according to principles of white supremacy.
The soil of this country is soaked with the blood of Native Americans we slaughtered and Black Africans we brought to this country to enslave. Slavery left us with a heritage of its sadism in our culture and with the screams of slaves still ringing in our ears. Remember, my father said that, “the blood of the innocent cries forever. Should that blood stop to cry, humanity will cease to exist.” Have we all become indifferent bystanders, unable to hear the scream in the night? Do we not hear the cries of the tortured and murdered? If we are to preserve our own humanity, we must become prophetic witnesses.
As you have shared when you were at Dartmouth College as our Montgomery Fellow, some white Christians in this country left Sunday church services to hunt a Black man, woman or child to torture and then hang in full view of a throng of white onlookers, taking photographs before going home for their Sunday dinner. During World War II, Nazi death camp guards tortured and murdered Jews and then went to church services. How is that even possible? What should we do once we conclude our prayers? Do we leave our houses of worship only to engage in brutality? What kind of worship is it, then?
Our worship services require revision to make clear to congregants why they gather to pray, and that God demands, first and foremost, justice before we even gain the right to stand before God and pray. A life of cruelty cannot be combined with a life of pretended piety: “I hate, I despise your feasts,” God tells us through the prophet Amos, “let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Dr. King and my father used similar language and spoke of God not as the “unmoved mover” of Aristotle, but as the “most moved mover” of the Bible, a God of pathos who responds to us. Central to my father’s theology is his assertion that God has passion and is involved in human history, affected by human deeds. This means that God suffers when human beings are hurt, so that when I hurt another person, I injure God. How can a self-proclaimed “religious” person pray on Sunday morning and then torture and murder on Sunday afternoon? This is not prayer; this is not living as a witness to God.
What does it mean to be a witness? My father writes that while the Ten Commandments prohibit images of God, God created human beings in the divine image. We are the only permitted images of God, but what does it mean to be an image of God? To be an image, my father writes, is to be a witness: “God is raging in the prophet’s words.” The prophets are witnesses to God’s passion for justice. Indeed, citing an old Jewish tradition, my father writes, “I am God and you are my witnesses; if you are not my witnesses, then I am not God.”
Your father also wrote that, “The history of interracial relations is a nightmare.” He understood how racism defiles the human soul and disgraces our common humanity. The ugly, dreadful and deadly reality of racism in this country haunts U.S. history and lurks within the fragile struts that maintain our democratic experiment. At the Capitol, I recall seeing a sign or flag that read, “JESUS SAVES.” Deploying that message within the context of the racist and violent attack at the Capitol recalls other moments of vile contradiction within white Christianity, such as times when many white Christians gathered to watch Black bodies being castrated, brutalized and burned. And while this form of racism is not intrinsic to Christianity, many white Europeans committed gruesome crimes in the name of Christianity. Your father’s words characterize racial and religious bigotry in terms of evil, the sheer absence of reverence. How would your father characterize our contemporary nightmare, and what advice would he have for religious leaders as we live through this 21st-century nightmare?
Those self-proclaimed religious leaders who grant sanction to racists, spread lies and intolerance, claim they speak in the name of God, faith and morals; I say my Bible has been taken captive by a fascistic movement masquerading as apocalyptic Christianity. All around this country, we see truth and justice covered with chains, enslaved by selfishness and the lust for power and empire. These are indeed a people who hear and do not understand, see and do not perceive.
To these people, I quote Jeremiah:
They know no bounds in deeds of wickedness; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things, says the Lord, and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this? An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes? (Jeremiah 5:28-31)
How do we find hope in a time of despair? How do we keep the optimism of Isaiah at a time when the words of Jeremiah express our mood of desolation? But we must also ask: How can we abandon poor God to those who reject truth and trample on justice?
Let us remember that in the Bible, the words of God come to us from the prophets, not the priests, and not the kings. We are desperate for prophets in our time, those who will speak clearly to remind us, as my father did, that racism is “unmitigated evil.” My father stated clearly and sharply that we “forfeit the right to worship God” if we continue to uphold a racist society. He called upon all houses of worship to repent and recognize their sins, including their sins of perverting the fundamental teaching of all religious traditions: that God is either the creator of all life or of no life.
Prayer is the home for the soul, my father wrote, but worship must not be reassuring. My father’s friend, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, used to say that prayer must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. My father wrote that prayer must be subversive, disturb our self-righteousness and complacency. The experience of prayer should be like the experience of hearing the prophets: a rousing call to conscience. The prophets have been mocked for their passionate outrage about injustice, and my father asks, if we mock the prophets as “hysterics,” then “what name should be given to the abysmal indifference to evil which the prophet bewails?” Who are we, the complacent, the bystanders?
I am also deeply intrigued by your father’s integration of God-talk vis-à-vis the ways in which we mistreat, oppress and marginalize others. Your father’s eyes were always focused on human beings, on our past and present mistreatment of other human beings. I see this as his horizontal vision, one that is unafraid to name and call out the social evils that we as human beings create and perpetuate. Yet, what I would call his vertical vision is always operative as well. God is always there, especially manifested in our fellow human beings. Your father writes, “To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child.” What is important to note here is that the term “religion” comes from the Latin religare, which suggests a community bond between human beings and God. Speak to the need for a form of God-talk in our moment, especially given so much religious hypocrisy, where religiosity appears to be tethered to forms of political idolization, where Donald Trump, apparently, can commit no wrong, no harm, no acts of injustice, where he has, for some, become “infallible.”
Perhaps what we need is not talk about God, but greater awareness of the presence of God. The problem my father poses in his books is how we can cultivate in ourselves the ability to sense God’s presence, whether in nature, Torah, other people — and in justice itself. First, we have to realize what we are capable of — a sense of awe and amazement, heightened sensitivity to others, awareness of our own vulnerability.
A Hasidic thinker of the 19th century made a distinction between having a sense of the absence of God’s presence — moments when we lose our ability to recognize that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory — and a sense of the presence of God’s absence, meaning moments when we fall into a pit of despair and sense that there is, perhaps, a place in our world that is vacant, without God.
In these days, some of us feel we are in an abyss of despair, terribly worried about the overwhelming problems we face as a society and a country, unsure of how we can emerge.
We also see people who were driven by a lying president, inciting them to riot, to rage against all norms of proper behavior and thereby fall into an abyss as well, though not of despair but of rebellion, the vacant abyss in which God is absent.
Together we need to raise ourselves from despair and rebellion. In Hasidic tradition, we need help to lift ourselves out of the abyss, to leave behind fear and resentment, and accompany our return to conscience and commandments.
What we must remember, my father always emphasized, is that evil is never the climax of history. Justice will rise up and prevail. Out of despair, let us find hope and inspiration in Dr. King and my father, in their teachings and in their relationship.
For my father, the prophets always held out a vision and a hope: “There is bound to come a renewal of our sense of wonder and radical amazement, a revival of reverence, an emergence of a sense of ultimate embarrassment, and ultimate indebtedness.”
Your father and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were friends, but also close in terms of theological vision and sociopolitical praxis. Both rejected the evils of racism and economic injustice. Both were concerned about the poor, the orphaned, the despised, the “disposable.” Many want to know where we go from here. So, will it be chaos or community? And how might the voices of these two figures, who stand within the tradition of a theology of social justice, help us in this moment of deep divisiveness, help us to find a way out of so many anti-democratic forces?
Yes, will it be chaos or community? Apocalypse or prophecy?
The political religion of the Nazis was not about religion but fascism masquerading as Christianity. My great concern is that fascistic movements have until now never been halted by political arguments — not by Democrats, Communists, Socialists or Christians. The challenge before us is great, and the temptation to despair is enormous.
Throughout the course of history, political movements have used religion to gain power and have sought to undermine the prophetic tradition. They are movements characterized by terror and a desire for social control and constriction, warning of death and destruction rather than offering hope and redemption. Today we have a Christian Right that swaggers with a promise of salvation for the elect and ignores the here and now of our lives, our desperate need for justice and a beloved community. Rather than care for the Earth and its bounty, they care for money even at the price of utter destruction of the land, poison of our bodies, contempt for our fellow animal creatures.
Such movements are bolstered by a death-glorifying theology. What we see is a white supremacist movement reviving an insidious politics of race. In the Nazi period, some Germans used Christianity to promote racism and antisemitism. When I wrote a book about them, The Aryan Jesus, I learned how frighteningly easy it can be to pervert religion and destroy its moral credibility. Some German bishops and pastors were so enthusiastic about Hitler they called him a “savior.” Shockingly, I have heard American Christians say the same about Trump. In Germany, Hitler’s Christian supporters threw the Old Testament out of the Bible and proclaimed Jesus an Aryan, not a Jew.
Trump has had a similar effect in this country, with rallies that arouse emotional excitement. Some religious leaders — Catholic, Protestant and Jewish — have viewed him as a “savior” figure. In both contexts, Germany and America, the desecration of basic moral decency did not dissuade religious leaders, but brought a thrill of naughty violation of the fundamental propriety and doctrinal discipline of religion and society.
Why are some Jews in America and in Israel Christianizing Zionism and their own moral values with white supremacy? Is Trump more appealing than Judaism? Let me warn them: Smearing themselves with white supremacy will result in the suicidal destruction of Judaism.
Have my fellow Jews forgotten that the central teaching of Judaism is compassion and justice? The ultimate expression of God for the prophets is not wisdom, magnificence, land, glory, nor even love, but rather justice. Zion, Isaiah declares, shall be redeemed by justice, and those who repent, by righteousness. Justice is the tool of God, the manifestation of God, the means of our redemption and the redemption of God from human mendacity.
What has happened to our conscience, to our judgment, to our duty as citizens to say “no” to the subversiveness of our government, which is ruining the values we cherish by carrying out deadly policies? Is America, is democracy, the great rock of ages, to become a temporary moment in history?
How do we emerge from the abyss of despair and lift fellow human beings out of their abyss of rage? How do we become God’s beloved disciple when we feel like God’s suffering servant?
I wish to share a few poignant verses from the Bible:
Who will speak for me, asks God, who will remember the covenant of peace and compassion? Can we abandon despair and find the inner resources to respond like Isaiah, who said, Here I am, send me. (Isaiah 6:8)
And yet in anger, Habakkuk reminds us, we must remember mercy. (3:2)
To live a life of moral grandeur and spiritual audacity is a profound challenge; we must all begin by practicing small acts of courage and truth. David, on his deathbed, tells Solomon: Be strong and of good courage; Fear not, be not dismayed; for the Lord God is with you. God will not fail you nor forsake you until all the work for the service of the Lord is finished. (1 Chronicles 28:20)
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.