Academic journal article Shofar

Israel: An Echo of Eternity

Academic journal article Shofar

Israel: An Echo of Eternity

Article excerpt

Israel: An Echo of Eternity, by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967.

Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Sabbath is a classic in religious literature, weaving together theology, philosophy, biblical commentary, rabbinic storytelling, and practical spirituality, all in luminous prose. It is a book about holiness in time that is itself timeless. Readers a hundred or five hundred years from now will be savoring Heschel's ideas and the elegance with which they are conveyed.

Can the same be said of Heschel's lengthy meditation on sacred geography, Israel: An Echo of Eternity? With deep sadness I would say, unfortunately not. My lament is prompted partly by my profound admiration for Heschel, whom I consider one of my most influential teachers and role-models. For me, as for so many others, he was a modern prophet-not only in his writings, which echoed the biblical prophets so powerfully, but also in the way he engaged the social issues of his time. In general I find his writings to be intellectually and spiritually uplifting, worth reading again and again for their eloquence and wisdom.

Heschel's remarkable legacy, integrating thought and prophetic activism, is a source of inspiration for human rights and peace activists everywhere. Yet a rereading of his book on Israel deepens my dismay over how one-sided it is. He is passionate about Jews and Israel, but he lacks the compassion for Palestinians that he exhibited toward African Americans and Vietnamese. A more inclusive vision of freedom and justice could have made the volume a resource for the central Jewish and Zionist imperative of our time: healing the tragic conflict over God's Holy Land. Genuine peace between Israel and Palestine will require a truth-and-reconciliation process that allows these two traumatized peoples to finally end their debilitating and demoralizing war. Shared remorse, rather than mutual recrimination, is essential to this process. Not having Heschel as a teacher and ally in this struggle for real shalom deepens my sadness.

Both the beauty and the flaws in Heschel's book are largely due to its historical context. Had he lived another ten or twenty years (he died in 1972), he might well have rewritten portions of it. As it stands, the book is a personal manifesto of Jewish fidelity to the people, land, and state of Israel written shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967. The swift success of the Israel Defense Forces followed weeks of collective dread, as Israelis and Jews everywhere saw in Gamal Abdul Nasser's belligerent rhetoric the ominous prospect of mass slaughter. The haunting memory of the Six Million vied with a messianic hope for redemption in Heschel's soul. "Auschwitz is in our veins," he asserted. "It abides in the throbbing of our hearts. It burns in our imagination. It trembles in our conscience. We, the generation that witnessed the holocaust, should stand by calmly while rulers proclaim their intention to bring about a new holocaust?" (p. 206) With this moral claim on his conscience, Heschel saw Nasser and Israel's other adversaries as genocidal agents, without factoring into his worldview the assault on Arab dignity caused by the displacement and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948. The 1956 Suez Campaign, in which Israel joined with Britain and France against Egypt, left unhealed wounds which are also ignored by Heschel. As a result, his book tends to incriminate the Arabs while romanticizing the Israelis, as in the following passage:

The State of Israel from the very beginning sought peace and desired peace. During many years its voice calling for peace and cooperation was a voice calling in the wilderness- Again and again was the State of Israel thrust into war against her will, in self-defense confronted with the choice to be or to cease to be....

But the Arab states have consistently refused to recognize Israel's existence, have subjected it to military harassment, infiltrating the land and killing civilians. …

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