AJH teachings about social responsibility for success of fascism in 1930s applied today

“Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation?
“When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?”

The yohrzeit (death-anniversary) of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is the 18th day of the Jewish midwinter lunar “moonth” of Tevet. In the Western calendar, this year it falls on Sunday evening and Monday, January 15-16 — the real and the officially observed birthdays of Dr. Martin Luther King.

In this way, the different memorial practics of Christians, who observe birthdays, and of Jews, who observe yohrzeits, actually bring together these two spiritual/ political giants of almost 50 years ago. Together in death as they were in life.

Heschel was — is  — one of the most fruitful Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. He became also one of its greatest teachers of the unity of thought and action, of “spiritualty” and “politics,” of prayer and activism.

He not only marched for voting rights with Dr. King in Selma,

but stood firmly with King against the Vietnam War, when many urged them to be quiet.He sat beside King on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church when King gave his most profound, prophetc, and provocative speech: “Beyond Vietnam —  A Time to Break the Silence,”

and he prayed alongsde King among the war dead in Arlington National Cemetery, cryng out against an immoral war.

This week of yohrzeit is an excellent moment to learn from him and with him, and each other. This year, for this yohrzeit, as we live through (and some of us die from) disgusting terrorist attacks, I have been remembering an extraordinary teaching of Heschel’s about responsibility for the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe in the 1930s.

By 1944, Heschel knew his family in Eastern Europe had been murdered by the Nazis. He himself had escaped to America only by the skin of his teeth. It would have been easy, sensible, for him to have thought about Nazism as itself solely responsible for millions of deaths and years of cruelty.

Yet amazingly, without in the slightest degree absolving Nazism of its evil, he went further. He examined what responsibiility others had — a “we” that he did not quite define —  for the success of Nazism. He reflected more deeply on World War II and the Holocaust even while they were happening. In February 1944, he published a talk on “The Meaning of this War”:

“We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war…. Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience…. Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed? …

“Good and evil, which were once as real as day and night, have become a blurred mist. In our everyday life we worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite. The vision of the sacred has all but died in the soul of man.” (“The Meaning of This War [World War II],” pp. 210-212, in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,Susannah Heschel, ed. [Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996]).

One of these paragraphs may seem to speak in the language of politics  and econoomics, the other in the language of religion. To Heschel they were the same tongue. Early in the essay, he asks the question: “Who is responsible [that the war has soaked the earth in blood]?” And he answers as a Hassid would, by quoting the Baal Shem Tov: “If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what was shown to him is also within him.” (p. 209.)

For the Baal Shem Tov, this almost certainly meant for the individual to look within. Heschel twirled this teaching in the direction of applying a spiritual truth to society as a whole.  It is the same basic move as turning the Hassidic sense that one’s legs could pray by dancing in ecstasy — toward the assertion that his own legs were praying as he marched for voting rghts in Selma.

In this teaching may be heard the first version of what Heschel in the 1960s said again and again: “In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.” This nexus might be described as the crucial hinge between what to some might have seemed an inward, individualized mysticism, and what to others might have seemed an outward, socialized politics.

To Heschel they were inescapably the same truth. That Heschel, knowing his own family and millions of other Jews had already been savagely murdered, could draw on the depths of Hassidism to call Jews themselves, along with all of Western civilization and culture, to face their own share of responsibility for letting the disaster happen– that was remarkable enough.

That he said “the vision of the sacred” had been killed by “greed, envy, and the reckless will to power,” by not addressing “economic” issues like disemployment as religious questions — this is beyond remarkable. It is astonishing.

Why do I think this teaching so important to lift up today? Let us change just one word in his warning: “We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war…. Let terrorism not serve as an alibi for our conscience…. Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?”

And then let us change the same word with a different substitution: “We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war…. Let Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, fascist disgust with the Other and the foreigner, fascist contempt for women  — not serve as an alibi for our conscience…. Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?”

Who are “we” in the Divine Mirror? In our own lifetime, this very year, would we dare to look into the Divine Mirror to see what “our own” responsibility might be for both the rise of the terrorism that claims to be defending Islam against Western hyperviolence, and the rise of a proto-fascist movement — indeed, what looks like possibly an immineent neo-fascist govwrnment –in the US?

What were we doing while the sense of defeat, demoralization, despair were turning into rage among millions of blue-collar Americans who had been robbed of their jobs and their sense of personal worth, spiritual and cultural values — and even their life expectancy? Were we rallying to their support, or looking down our noses at them as outdated members of a lost America? —  Were we supporting them not instead of but in addition to our support of Blacks, Latinos, women, immigrants, LGBTQ folk, Muslims? Were we insisting that no one should be left out of America?

Not enough to poke one of these questions into the faces of the neocons who carried out the Iraq War. Not enough  to poke the other question in the faces of liberals who are horrified by the raving mad politicians who are sowing their own wrath, their own loss of identity, their own megalomania, in the hearts of the disemployed, the outcasts, the left-behinds of American society.

Heschel was not approving,  excusing, or justifying fascism or the Holocaust when he raised this question. We are not approving, excusing, or justifying either terrorism or neo-fascism when we raise these questions.

But the questions do demand that we think anew about what to do, both about the explosion of terrorism and the explosion of neo-fascism. Heschel seems to be mourning our failure in years before to “offer sacrifices on the altar of peace.” What would it mean for us to do that?

I suggest that to honor Heschel this week, we read this essay and discuss these questions. I welcome your thoughts, and as we move deeper into 2017 will share my own as to how we “offer sacrifices on the altar of peace, justice, and planetary healing.”