Passages on Social Justice from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Selected by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

“Where does God dwell in America today? Is God at home with those who are complacent, indifferent to other people’s agony, devoid of mercy? Is God not rather with the poor and the contrite in the slums? … Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. … Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision and a way. I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.” — Introducing Martin Luther King for his speech to the Rabbinical Assembly, March 25, 1968, ten days before King’s assassination.


“The beginning of prayer is praise. The power of worship is song. To worship is to join the cosmos in praising God. . . . Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.” (“On Prayer,” pp. 257-267, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel, ed. (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996).


“The White Man on Trial,” spoken in February 1964 and published in a collection of Heschel’s essays, The Insecurity of Freedom (Schocken, 1972).

“The decisive event in the story of the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt was the crossing of the Red Sea. . . . It was a moment of supreme spiritual exaltation, of sublime joy, and prophetic elevation for the entire people. . . .

“Then Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went three days in the Wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water because it was bitter. And they murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”

“This episode seems shocking. What a comedown! — Only three days earlier they had reached the highest peak of prophetic and spiritual exaltation, and now they complain about such a prosaic and unspiritual item as water.

“The Negroes of America behave just like the children of Israel. Only in 1963 they experienced the miracle of having turned the tide of history . . . . . the March to Washington. Now only a few months later they have the audacity to murmur, ‘. . . We want adequate education, decent housing, proper employment.’ How ordinary, how unpoetic, how annoying!

“Life could be so pleasant. The Beatles have just paid us a visit. The AT&T is about to split its stock. Dividends are higher than ever. Castro is quiet and well-mannered. Russia is purchasing grain from us. Only the Negroes continue to disturb us. . . .

“That prosaic demand for housing without vermin, for adequate schools, for adequate employment — right here in the vicinity of Park Avenue in New York City — seems so trite, so drab, so banal, so devoid of magnificence.

“The teaching of Judaism is the theology of the common deed. God is concerned with everydayness, with the trivialities of life. . . . The prophet’s field of concern is not the mysteries of heaven, the glories of eternity, but the blights of society, the affairs of the market place. . . . [The prophet] addresses himself to those who trample upon the needy, who increase the price of grain, use dishonest scales, and sell the refuse of corn.

“What is at stake is a social movement, a call for social change in social theory and practice. Technology is transforming our society continuously, industry is recklessly dynamic, yet our thinking is static. Prosperity and comfort have made us listless, smug, indifferent. We enjoy our privileges, we detest any dislocation in our intellectual habits. But automation is with us, and so is poverty, and unemployment.. ..


“I interpret the young people’s escape to drugs as coming from their driving desire to experience moments of exaltation…. The classical form of exaltation is worship…. But exaltation is gone from the synagogue [and] from the church…. Our life thus devours the wisdom of religious tradition without deriving from it sources of renewal and uplift…. The new witnesses for a revival of the spirit in America may well turn out to be those poor miserable men and women who are victims of the narcotics epidemic. If we will but . . . try to understand their misguided search for exaltation, we can begin the task of turning curse into blessing.” (“In Search of Exaltation,” pp. 227-229, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel, ed. (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996)


There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indiffercnce to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.

The prophets’ great contribution to humanity was the discovery of the evil of indifference. One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.

The prophet is a person who suffers the harms done to others. Wherever a crime is committed, it is as if the prophet were the victim and the prey. The prophet’s angry words cry. The wrath of God is a lamentation. All prophecy is one great exclamation: God is not indifferent to evil! He is always concerned, He is personally affected by what man does to man. He is a God of pathos.

In condemning the clergymen who joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in protesting against local statutes and practices which denied constitutional liberties to groups of citizens on account of race, a white preacher declared: “The job of the minister is to lead the souls of men to God, not to bring about confusion by getting tangled up in transitory social problems.”

In contrast to this definition, the prophets passionately proclaim that God himself is concerned with “the transitory social problems,” with the blights of society, with the affairs of the market place.

What is the essence of being a prophet? A prophet is a person who holds God and men in one thought at one time, at all times. Our tragedy begins with thc segregation of God, with the bifurcation of the secular and sacred. We worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love. We think of God in the past tense and refuse to realize that God is always present and never, never past; that God may be more intimately present in slums than in mansions, with those who are smarting under the abuse of thc callous.

There are, of course, many among us whose record in dealing with the Negroes and other minority groups is unspotted. However, an honest estimation of the moral state of our society will disclose: Some arc guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the public climate of opinion, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, racial discrimination would be infrequent rather than common.

>From “Religion and Race,” in The Insecurity of Freedom , pp. 110-111.


That equality is a good thing, a fine goal, may be generally accepted. What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality. Seen from the perspective of prophetic faith, the predicament of justice is the predicament of God.

The Negro movement is an outcry of pain in which a sickness of our total society comes to expression: supersonic planes and sub-standard housing; esoteric science and vulgar ethics; an elite of highly specialized experts, and a mass of unprepared, unskilled laborers. The apex of the pyramid ascends most rapidly, while tbe basis expands with equal rapidity. It is the Negro movement that sounds the alarm at a time when the rest of society seems content and unprepared to face a social emergency. It is the problem of jobs for the disemployed, dignity for those who are on relief, employment for the unskilled, the threat of automation, the curse of poverty, the blighted slums in our cities.

Religion becomes a mockery if we remain callous to the irony of sending satellites to the sky and failing to find employment for our fellow citizens, of a highly publicized World’s Fair and insufficient funds for the extermination of vermin in the slums.

Is religion to be a mockery ?

>From “The White Man on Trial,” in The Insecurity of Freedom , pp. 110-111.


“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? . . . In our everyday life we worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite.” (“The Meaning of This War [World War II],” pp. 210-212. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel, ed. (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996)


Time is like an eternal burning bush. Though each instant must vanish to open the way to the next one, time itself is not consumed. . . . Time has independent ultimate significance; it is of more majesty and more provocative of awe than even a sky studded with stars…. Time is the process of creation, and things of space are results of creation. When looking at space we see the products of creation; when intuiting time we hear the process of creation.


The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space…. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. . . . Eternity utters a day.

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature. Is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath? (From The Sabbath [Farrar Straus and Young, 1951], pp. 10, 28, 64, 78,100-101.)


How proud we are of our victories in the war with nature, proud of the multitude of instruments we have succeeded in inventing, of the abundance of commodities we have been able to produce. Yet our victories have come to resemble defeats. … Selling himself into slavery to things, man becomes a utensil that is broken at the fountain. (From The Sabbath [Farrar Straus and Young, 1951], pp. 3, 27, 100.)