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A Simple, Radical, “Bad to the Bone” Man January 11, 2022

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Abhyasa, Bhakti, Books, Changing Perspectives, Dharma, Faith, Healing Stories, Hope, Japa-Ajapa, Karma Yoga, Life, Music, Mysticism, One Hoop, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Religion, Suffering, Wisdom, Yoga.
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“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. …get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

 

– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

In American English, “bad” has two meanings, one of which is “even better than good.” The saying “bad to the bone” fits with that positive description and is often associated with someone who is “cool,” rebellious, and radical in a way that bucks the system… in a way, even, that can bring much needed change. There are some people who play with the idea of being “bad to the bones,” but the truth is that that kind of goodness has nothing to do with the clothes one wears so much as it has to do with what’s underneath, what’s at the core and the roots of a person. In other words, what matters is who they are all the way down to their bones.

One of my favorite inspirational reminders is based on the idea that, in Judaism, there are 248 mitzvot aseh (“positive commandments”), which are commands to perform certain activities, and 365 mitzvot lo taaseh (“negative commandments”), which are commands to abstain from certain activities; meaning, we should avoid avoid the negative things every day of the year and do the good things with “every bone in our body.”* To me, someone who manages to do that in a very public way is “bad to the bone.”

The following is an abridged version of a post from January of 2021. Click here for the original post.

“Our concern is not how to worship in the catacombs but how to remain human in the skyscrapers.”

 

– quoted from “Part V: The Meaning of this Hour – 40. Religion in Modern Society” in Between God and Man by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

 

It is one thing to practice our beliefs and hold tight (but not too tightly) to the tenets of our faith, whatever that means to you, when life is good and everything is easy. But life, as we have recently been reminded, can be hard, twisted, upside down, and backwards; in a word, challenging. So, sometimes the best way to notice how we show up in the world, in general, is to specifically notice how we show up in stressful / challenging situations. For instance, what is your habit when things are so challenging and all consuming, people – including yourself – might expect you to compromise?

I don’t know much about the person who (first) asked Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel if he found time to pray when he participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery, but I know the person – a journalist – was motivated by at least two pieces of knowledge: (1) they knew Rabbi Heschel was a man of faith and (2) they probably knew that Judaism prescribes daily prayers throughout the day. There is another possible piece of motivating knowledge, projection – it’s possible, probable even, that the person asking the question couldn’t imagine how prayer was possible during such a tumultuous time and in a situation where the faithful rabbi was surrounded by Christians. But, here’s the thing about Rabbi Heschel, he was use to praying with his whole body and he was use to being surrounded by Christians.

“I prayed with my feet.”

 

– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1965, when asked if he found time to pray when marching from Selma to Montgomery

Born today in 1907, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a professor of the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), an activist, and is (to this day) considered one of the most significant and influential theologians of the 20th century. The youngest of six, his father died when he was nine, but his family was firmly established in the community, as he was the descendant of distinguished Chasidic rabbis on both sides of his family. He grew up in a household and in a religious tradition where prayer and a declaration of faith were prescribed multiple times a day – “when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise” – and where there was an obligation to leave the world better than it was found. He earned his rabbinical doctorate in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party and could chronicle a parallel in that rise and a decline in the esteem he had previously received based on the merit of his scholarship. He felt, at times, abandoned by his Christian teachers, mentors, and peers. But, there was something in him – maybe everything in him – that could not step away from the spiritual path he was on, a path first paved by the prophets and rabbis whose lives he chronicled.

In addition to writing several biographies about his mystical elders, Rabbi Heschel was a student and a professor of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalism), in which the Tree of Life can be seen as a way to understand the world, a way to live in the world, and a spiritual road map for those desiring a deeper connection. He was in the habit of viewing, exploring, and gaining understanding of the world and his engagement in the world through the lens of this tradition that recognizes seven of the pars of the body as ways to express seven of the ten energies/attributes of the Divine (as found on the Tree of Life): Chesed (“loving-kindness”), right arm; Gevurah (“strength”), left arm; Tiferet (“beauty,” “balance,” or “compassion”), the heart; Netzach (“endurance”), right hip and leg; Hod (“humility”), left hip and leg; Yesod (“Foundation” or “Bonding”), solar plexus; Malchut (“mastery” or “nobility”), hands, feet, and mouth. Being in the habit of seeing the body as intending to express elements of the Divine, meant that everything Rabbi Heschel did could be seen as a religious / spiritual experience. Everything was symbolic – and, therefore, the simplest things held great power.

Of course, there was nothing simple about showing up at a Civil Rights demonstration at the height (and site) of defining violence. Yet, for Rabbi Heschel there was no question that he would show up. He knew that his presence, like the presence of so many others who were not Black (and, in his case, not Christian), would be a unifying presence. He knew that showing up sent a message to the world indicating that the issue of civil rights was not only “an American problem,” as President Lyndon B. Johnson would later say, but an international problem.

Additionally, as a man of faith and as a religious leader, Rabbi Heschel simply felt that showing up was a kind of spiritual obligation. In fact, he sent a telegram (dated June 16, 1963) to President John F. Kennedy stating that to continue humiliating (and subjugating) African Americans meant that they (religious leaders) “forfeit the right to worship God.” Let it sink in for a moment that a Jewish mystic demanded leadership in the form of “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity” from a Catholic president on behalf of a group of people led by Black Baptist minister. There’s a lot there that could be divisive – unless, regardless of your religion or denomination, you are bound by the Spirit.

“For my father, though, the march was not simply a political demonstration, but a religious occasion. He saw it as a revival of prophetic Judaism’s political activism and also of the traditions of Hasidism, a Jewish pietistic revival movement that arose in the late eighteenth century, according to which walking could be a spiritual experience.

 

He said it reminded him of the message of the prophets, whose primary concern was social injustice, and of his Hasidic forebears, for whom compassion for the suffering of other people defined a religious person.”

 

– quoted from an article about the 40th Anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery marches, by Dr. Susannah Heschel

 

In addition to marching arm-in-arm with Black Christians like Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Representative John Lewis in 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel also participated in the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (more commonly known as the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II) in 1962. Prior to Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church was “in the habit” of teaching the history of Jesus in a way that demonized Jewish people – and missed the part where a lot of different groups of people were part of the story. Rabbi Heschel worked closely with Cardinal Augustin Bea, the Jesuit head of the Secretariat for the Christian Unity, to write the Nostra aetate, which dynamical changed the way the Church teaches and views Jewish people; fostered mutual knowledge and respect among congregants of the two faiths; and ensured that the Church officially (and categorically) condemned anti-Semitism. Here too, the good rabbi’s work outside of the synagogue was a reflection of his work inside of the synagogue, and vice versa. Here too, honored the traditions (and the ethics) of his spiritual fathers.

Here too, Rabbi Heschel’s spiritual habits showed everyone who was in the habit of being.

“We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub but the spoke of the revolving wheel. It is precisely the function of prayer to shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender….

 

Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.”

 

– quoted from Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Please join me today (Tuesday, January 11th) at 12:00 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below or by emailing myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

Tuesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for “10202021 To the Bone”]

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, playlists, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). If you don’t mind me knowing your donation amount you can also donate to me directly. Donations to Common Ground are tax deductible; class purchases and donations directly to me are not necessarily deductible.)

 

### Amen, Selāh ###

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