By Rabbi Eli J. Schochet, AJRCA Professor of Talmud
During my student years at the JTS, it was customary for every senior student to sermonize in the Seminary synagogue prior to ordination.
One person delivered a rather convoluted discourse on this Shabbat’s Torah reading analyzing Joseph’s, reconciliation with his brethren and emphasized that “compassion” was not an important factor.
The sermon concluded. A number of faculty members awakened from their naps. However, an attentive Abraham Joshua Heschel approached the student after services and commented, “Your drash was very interesting, but tell me ‘Vos iz shlect?’…What is wrong with just having compassion? Do you need more?”
Heschel was a philosopher and a first rate academic who wrote carefully researched volumes on many aspects of Jewish thought. Yet shortly before his death, forty-two years ago this Shabbat, Heschel stated the following.
“I’ve written a book on the Prophets…and the book has changed my life. Early in my life, my great love was for learning, studying, and the place where I preferred to live was my study, with my books and writing and thinking. But I’ve learned from the Prophets that I have to be involved in the affairs of man, in the affairs of suffering man.”
In other words, what ultimately matters is not philosophy and theology, but compassion and kindness.
Truth be told, there were those who laughed at Heschel behind his back. Why should a brilliant academic mind be concerned with social ills, discrimination, poverty, and the plight of the elderly? He is a philosopher, let him philosophize. Why should he expend his time and energy as a social activist?
However, Heschel was far more than a philosopher. He was a profound moralist and ethicist. As a witness to the Holocaust, he knew full well how the garb of academic gowns can conceal savagery. He knew that what our world desperately needs are people with advanced degrees in “menchlichkeit”, not just mechanical engineering.
Heschel’s legacy is exemplified not only in the remarkable books he wrote, but in the remarkable life he lived. After forty-two years his star shines as brightly as ever.
In his own words, “What is wrong with just having compassion? Do you need more?”