Friday, February 22, 2008

Reflecting on Rabbi Heschel's Question

Contributed by Victoria Reiss

Every morning when The New York Times arrives my habit is to peruse the front page and op-eds, then turn to the obituaries. I realize that sounds like a gloomy way to start the day but obituaries tell me more about our famous contemporaries than I knew, and I'm always curious about the paths that led to their success.

Recently it was a "Connections" biographical article about Rabbi Abraham Heschel, not an obituary (he died in 1972) that caught my eye because I had been on one of the anti-war marches he led. It was 1967-68, a march from Central Park to the United Nations that he led along with Martin Luther King,Jr., Dr. Benjamin Spock, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Paul Moore of St. John the Divine, and William Sloane Coffin among others.

My ten-year-old son Tom was with me and when he got bored with the slow pace, I suggested that if we walked faster we could be right behind Dr. Spock, and that's how, in one slice of archival footage that is shown on TV occasionally, there is Tom's face in the first row behind the leaders.

Heschel was an important ecumenical leader who asked "What way of living is compatible with the grandeur and mystery of life?" To me, one perfect question.

I thought of the mysterious chemistry of our bodies. This week a report was announced that may finally explain muscle fatigue; that it is caused by stored calcium leaking into muscle cells. Scientists live constantly with "the grandeur and mystery of life" and hopefully the rest of us share in the wonder.

But now I find myself reflecting every day on Heschel's speculation on how we should live to be "compatible with the grandeur and mystery of life."

Photograph by Benedict Fernandez. Published in: Kasher, Steven. The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996. Found on the Stanford University Lesson Plan: Martin Luther King, Jr's "Beyond Vietnam."

Note: we thought the 3rd man in this photo with Dr. Spock and Dr. King was Rabbi Heschel, but another off-line photo identifies Rabbi Heschel, with beard and beret, between Dr. King and this unidentified fellow.

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