It Tolls for Thee - Joseph Wood

Dear Friends,

  In 1966, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote the following words as part of his essay "No Religion is an Island" in the Union Theological Seminary Quarterly Review:

I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting of men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility and contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind's reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God's commandment, while stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith. 

Perhaps best known for his commitment to the civil rights movement—he described marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma as "praying with [his] feet"—Heschel was also a Polish rabbi and scholar who was able to escape Warsaw mere weeks before the German invasion. His eventual emigration to the United States was a major factor in the Jewish renewal of the late 20th century and the flowering of American Judaism following the Second Wold War. As some of you know from my regular citations of him (especially his book The Sabbath), he’s also one of my personal heroes and inspirations. Accordingly, as the various controversies around Rep. Ilhan Omar's tweets unfolded this week, my thoughts returned again and again to Heschel's observation about what binds us together across traditional identities in the face of "the tragic insufficiency of human faith."

  Of course, Heschel borrows the title of his essay and its rough themes from a much older and arguably more famous piece, John Donne's “Meditation XVII” from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. A 17th century Anglican priest and poet, Donne asserts in his meditation that we fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the world when we think about ourselves solely as individuals and/or in the context of our personal circumstances: "No man is an island, entire of itself; [...] any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." While Donne's subject is death rather than interfaith relations, both authors recognize that our lives are defined as much by our insufficiency as they are by any accomplishment. The loss of any person echoes and presages our own losses; the longing for God must always fall short of realizing our divine purpose. We are, in short, united in being brought up short. The challenge is to see these truths as a cause for hope rather than despair.

I try hard to avoid talking too much about politics in my ministry, and that fact is doubly true when it comes to discussions of the modern state of Israel. I would personally consider myself a Zionist, but I know that such an assertion might lump me in with the likes of the “Christian Zionism” that I find difficult to name as either. I also think that there can—and must!—be critique of Israel and a number of its policies, especially when it comes to the rights of Palestinians. But why is it one of the few, if not only, countries whose right to exist we feel comfortable debating? At the same time, why are we so quick to censer a young, Muslim woman of color? Why do we find it so easy to label her not only Antizionist, but Antisemitic? To paraphrase something that Bishop Sutton said during his visitation a few weeks ago, our faith must always be political without being partisan. Thus, I am not here to discuss AIPAC or the place of lobbying in our democracy. I am not here to pass judgement on Rep. Omar, BDS, or any of the public comments that have been made as the story has ballooned. I’ll even resist the urge to dissect the term Antizionism. People of faith are all faced with “the urgency of answering God's commandment,” however we might define that. We are all called again and again and again to be better than we are. I think that the entire situation has been a beautiful, deeply flawed example of our manifold attempts to respond to that urgency, to reach towards the Divine.

On the Israeli West Bank Barrier (read: wall), someone has defiantly scrawled a giant message in graffiti: Existence is resistance. Our challenge is to recognize how utterly true that statement is for the communities on both sides of the wall. Perhaps it always will be. But I hope, I have faith, that they are both called to something greater. What will it mean for us to be a part of it? I think that Heschel and Donne would agree that our task is not so much having an answer as recognizing how easy it is to diminish ourselves in responding—and yet still we are called to continue the holy work. After all, we’re in this together.

-Joseph Wood