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Commemorating the 50th Yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – Parashat Shemot

Dr. Dror Bondi
| 05/01/2023

Dr. Dror Bondi remembers – and asks us to step up to – the social activism and prophecies of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z’l, on the 50th anniversary of his yahrzeit.

This week we will commemorate the Fiftieth Yorzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, for me – the greatest Jewish thinker.

From Abraham to Abraham there was none like Abraham.

He was destined to be a Chassidic Rabbi for a small community in Warsaw but he became a prophet for all the world. As a young student in Berlin he felt how the image of God was destroyed by Hitler; as a famous philosopher in the US he felt his legs were praying in the march with Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr].

Heschel’s life were around our Parasha: he was born on Caf-Hey Tevet (25th Tevet), a few days after Parashat Shemot, and he was died on Yud-Het Tevet (18th Tevet), a week before it. Moreover, in his first meeting with Dr. King – in a conference about religion and race in Chicago, 1963 – he opened his most famous speech with a Drasha about our Parasha.

Let’s hear it in his own voice, along with the excitement of the audience:

HESCHEL’S VOICE: At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.”

While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord. I will not let Israel go.”

The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed.

In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.


Of course, Heschel meant here first and foremost to echo Dr. King’s slogan “Let my people go”, as well as the famous U.S. Supreme Court case, Sweatt versus Painter, which successfully challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation, in 1950, and was influential in the landmark case of Brown versus Board of Education four years later.

However, a question can still be asked about Pharaoh saying: what was his intention by saying: “I do not know the Lord”? If it was only a problem of knowledge, Moses could teach him! Especially, since Pharaoh was an idolater and knew a lot of gods, so why not another one?

In his speech Heschel explained that indeed Pharaoh can’t accept the Lord, because racism is idolatry, while equality stems out of the faith that all human being were created in the image of One God. [And I quote Heschel]:

What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol. Faith in God is not simply an afterlife-insurance policy. Racial or religious bigotry must be recognized for what it is: blasphemy… To think of man in terms of white, black or yellow is more than an error. It is an eye disease, a cancer of the soul.

There is no insight more disclosing: God is One, and humanity is one.

There is no possibility more frightening: God’s name may be desecrated. God is every man’s pedigree. He is either the Father of all men or of no man. The image of God is either in every man or in no man. [end of quote]

Shamefully, the idolatry of racism, as well as other types of discrimination, came back to our world. These days, more than ever, we deeply need the teaching of Heschel who cried in our ears that racism is not only against democracy, but the very opposite of the heart of the Jewish faith.

Shavua Tov from Schechter

(Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s recording is from the National Public Radio (NPR) ‘Speaking of Faith’ podcast of his speech in Chicago, IL on January 14, 1963. Permission of use was given by Dr. Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Heschel.)

Dr. Dror Bondi is dedicated to bringing Abraham Joshua Heschel’s thought to Israel, translating his words into Hebrew and transforming Israel by his spirit.  He is an author, translator and editor of several of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s books and has dedicated the last 15 years to bringing Rabbi Heschel’s thoughts to Israel. In 2012 he translated and edited the first Hebrew collection of Heschel’s articles. He translated into Hebrew Heschel’s Man’s Quest of God, edited a new translation of The Shabbat and a translation of Heschel’s Yiddish book, Kotzk. His Hebrew translation of Who is Man? Will be published soon, and his Hebrew translation of The Prophets will be published next year. Bondi’s own book Ayeca? about Heschel’s thought earned him the 2006 Shalem Prize. In December 2018, he published as co-editor, the first Hebrew academic collection of articles about Heschel – Get Thee: Studies in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Oeuvre. His edition of Torah Min HaShamayim, based on newly discovered never published manuscripts, won HaPais Prize in 2019. Dr. Dror Bondi has a doctorate in Jewish Thought from Bar-Ilan University. He lives with his family in the Urban-Kibbutz Beit Yisrael in Jerusalem, a community of religious and non-religious who unite together in social and spiritual activism.



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