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Being ‘good’ isn’t enough
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Opinion

Being ‘good’ isn’t enough

The times call for ‘spiritual audacity’

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, front row, second from left, joins Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in prayer at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery, Feb. 6, 1968. The action was sponsored by Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. (Photo by Ray Lustig, courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection)
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, front row, second from left, joins Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in prayer at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery, Feb. 6, 1968. The action was sponsored by Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. (Photo by Ray Lustig, courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection)

Police officer Derek Chauvin allegedly murdered George Floyd, but I am responsible because of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us 60 years ago: “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” 

Once again history has caught up with us. We cannot escape. Each of us must enter our own hearts and decide which side we are on. There is no longer a middle ground. Our country will not heal until we listen to our black and brown fellow citizens who have been left out of the progress and prosperity we acclaim as the birthright of our nation.

We must look into our private and collective mirrors and confront what we have done. We have built our success at the expense of other human beings. We have allowed black children to drink contaminated water so our corporations could save money for their shareholders. We have filled our shelves with food beyond our needs while those same children go to bed hungry each night in city after city. We have instructed our police to stop and frisk our African-American fellow citizens just because their skin is dark. We have forced a generation of “successful” people of color to instruct their children to put their hands on the dashboard if stopped for a traffic violation for fear of death by shooting.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was once asked about endangering the lives of “innocent bystanders” when he led a march that he knew would encounter violence, as in Selma, Ala. His answer was quite simple and direct: “The term is an oxymoron, for if you are a bystander, you cannot be innocent.”

Heschel, King’s friend and ally in the movement against the Vietnam War, understood the insidious nature of evil. “Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous,” he wrote. “A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn
accepted.”

We have done exactly what Heschel predicted. Our silence, our not-so-well-meaning looking aside, has now allowed a pervasive evil to erupt around us and begin to consume us in its fire, both literally and figuratively. The irony of the timing of this moment cannot be more poignant. Facing a virus engulfing the entire world, we are now confronting a disease far more contagious and deadly: racism. And once again we are unprepared. The masks we have been wearing for many years do not protect us from the truth. As Heschel said, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “It is time for the white man to strive for self-emancipation, to set himself free of bigotry, to stop being a slave to wholesale contempt, a passive recipient of slander.”

Heschel understood the insidious power of self-delusion. We all experience it. We all know we have done the right thing much of the time. We are basically good people. Why are we guilty of one or 100 acts of racially motivated injustice? Again, Heschel stops us in our tracks: “That equality is a good thing, a fine goal, may be generally accepted. What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality.”

King understood this same morally compromised temptation: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

On April 9, 1968, Mickey Shur and I, two civil rights workers in our early 20s, marched through the streets of Atlanta behind the coffin of King. Earlier that morning we had been assigned to bring one of the mules for the mule-train that carried King’s body from the Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College and to his first burial site. We walked beside
Heschel and then-presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy. Stunned by King’s assassination and what it would mean for the future, I asked: “Rabbi Heschel, what are we to do now?” He kept walking and said simply: “You must teach the children, you must teach them a Judaism that can remake the world.”

Our job now, all of us of all religions and belief systems, is to prove to ourselves and our children that we can remake the world into a better reality, providing, caring for, and sharing more equitably with all. The era of selfishness and greed must finally come to an end. We must allow a spirit of compassion and empathy to enter our hearts and fill our homes, our streets, our schools, our workplaces, our houses of worship, and our politics.

On June 16, 1963, Heschel sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy in response to an invitation from JFK to attend a meeting of religious leaders at the White House to discuss the then-growing racial tensions in the country: “I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogue have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice.”

Heschel called on the president to declare a “state of moral emergency…. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

Peter Geffen is founder and president of Kivunim, founder of The Abraham Joshua Heschel School, and former director of the Israel Experience Program for the CRB Foundation.

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