ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL, “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 JANUARY 1963)
- Heschel’s “ethos”: Heschel presents himself in this speech as a person who believes in God and cares about doing what God wants him to do. This is part of his “ethos,” to use a technical term from classical rhetoric that refers to the way the audience’s perception of a speaker’s character influences how they accept his or her words.How might Heschel’s ethos as a religious believer impact his audience? He had reason to believe it would make his initial audience more receptive to his words, since they were Jewish and Christian clergy who could be presumed also to believe in and care about God. Discuss: are there any ways in which this ethos might, contrary to his expectations, repel religious believers? And what about people who do not believe in God: are they going to remain unmoved, or maybe even repelled, by this ethos?
- Heschel’s Biblical knowledge: Heschel also presents himself as a person with detailed knowledge of that part of the Bible shared (for the most part) by Christians and Jews, what Christians call the Old Testament and what Jews call the Torah. Again, he had reason to believe that displaying himself as knowledgeable in this way would enhance his ethos with his initial audience at the National Conference of Christians and Jews meeting. Discuss: do you agree that displaying such knowledge disposes hearers or readers to be more receptive to Heschel’s ideas? Do you need to be a believing Christian or Jew to be positively affected? What about people who don’t know the Bible well at all, or who follow a religion that reveres a different sacred text?
- Are Heschel’s views offensive to African Americans? Heschel speaks out here on behalf of Black civil rights, and as noted, he incorporates several elements that he has reason to hope will appeal particularly to Black hearers or readers. He wants to make common cause with African Americans. Nevertheless, do you find anything in this speech that might be offensive or disturbing to Black audiences, however inadvertently? Discuss.
- God responds to human actions? Heschel says that God made the world but humans make history. What does he mean by this? What position is implied here about human free will? Write a reflective paper in which you respond to these questions on Heschel’s views and compare them with your own. Optional: consider also the question of what Heschel means when he says that God “needs” for humans to shape history in morally right ways. Compare with your own views on how God responds to human actions and/or why humans want to believe that there is a god who responds to their actions.
- Heschel’s address as a sermon. In the broadest sense, Heschel’s speech exemplifies the genre of the sermon. He uses references to sacred text and religious teachings in order to exhort his hearers to lead more moral lives, and to correct particular moral errors. Compare and contrast this sermon with others you know about, such as sermons you hear in your own house of worship or published sermons by other religious leaders. What rhetorical strategies do you find in common among these texts, and what strategies are unique to each example? What moral and religious themes do you find in common, and what themes are unique? Can you develop a set of criteria for “the effective sermon” through such analysis? This work might be done as a research paper assignment, either individually or in small groups working together.
- Race relations in 1950: Find out as much as you can about the laws and customs regulating race relations in the United States around 1950, before the great changes initiated by the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement. Pay special attention to conditions in your home state. Topics include education, housing, military service, public accommodations and utilities, voting, jury service, sexual and marital relations, employment opportunities, religion, and more. Individuals or small groups might work on each of these topics, with the papers shared on a class website or in a photocopied volume.
- Dangerous activism? How dangerous was it to be an activist for Black civil rights in the mid-twentieth century? Prepare an argument as a research paper assignment, in which you answer this question based on what you have been able to find out about violent responses to non-violent demonstrations, assassinations of civil rights leaders, rioting by both Black and White communities, and more.
- Religious leaders against activism: why? On what grounds did some religious leaders oppose activism against racism? Research paper topics might explore in detail the views of the ministers to whom King responds in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” other anti-activist Christian leaders, or rabbis who censured Heschel, including Norman Lamm and Joseph Soloveitchik. Alternatively, your paper might take the form of a letter from one of these leaders to Heschel or King, trying to persuade him to desist.
- “Guilt” and “Responsibility”: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” What is the difference between being “guilty” and being “responsible,” as Heschel puts it? Do you agree that all are “responsible” if only some are “guilty”? Apply this principle to another situation and organize a class debate about it. You might consider a national situation, such as the responsibility of all citizens for government policies of which only some approve; or a local situation, such as the responsibility of an entire group of friends for the bad behavior of a few.
- Activist religious leaders: effective, admirable? There is still much controversy in the United States over what role religious leaders and religious belief should play in political life. Searching from 1950 to the present, find out about as many occasions as you can when this controversy emerged; for example, questions were raised about John F. Kennedy’s fitness to be President because it was feared that as a Roman Catholic, he would answer to the Pope. A series of in-class presentations by individuals or small groups could inform the class about the issues involved in each of these episodes. The goal here is to provide information, not to make arguments about the issues involved.
- Religious activist role models: Find an example of a religious leader who has spoken out on a political issue, and in a paper or in-class report, explain what happened. You may choose a leader from any country or time period. Your paper should also make an argument about why his or her action was effective or ineffective in promoting his or her desired political outcome. You may also argue about why we should, or should not, admire the leader for his or her activism.
- Religious leaders as political arbiters: It is generally acknowledged that religious leaders can appropriately criticize individual moral behavior. Whether or not you acknowledge the authority of any religious leader or religious tradition, you understand that it is part of the leader’s job description, as it were, and part of the mission of the tradition, to tell individuals about the sorts of moral choices they should make in their daily lives. Therefore, usually no eyebrows are raised if a sermon addresses issues related to sexual behavior, family relations, and so on.When a religious leader addresses political issues from the pulpit, however, controversy arises–if, for example, he or she preaches for or against a war in which the nation is engaged, or encourages support or opposition to a particular piece of legislation. Why should religious leaders speak out on political issues, as Heschel wants them to do? Or why, conversely, should they keep silent and address matters of personal morality only? Stage a debate in your class on this controversy.
- Non-violent demonstrations, how and why: A major strategy of the mid-twentieth century civil rights movement was the non-violent public demonstration. People would gather for a rally and hear speakers supporting their cause, or perhaps carry banners about it and march to a significant public location. As noted above, the demonstrators who marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, are now credited with having a major positive influence on the passage of voting rights legislation later that same year. Discuss: when the public demonstration is effective in achieving political goals, why is it effective? When it is not effective, why not? Think about how you yourself are affected as an audience for a demonstration that you witness in person or via television.
- Supporters of a wide variety of political causes still use the non-violent demonstration as a tool to get their point across. Is this still an effective strategy? Why or why not? Prepare an in-class presentation or write a research paper on a particular instance of non-violent demonstrating and what it accomplished.A related question for discussion: compare and contrast face-to-face, actual public gatherings for protest, such as happened in the mid-twentieth-century civil rights struggle, with electronic means of gathering like-minded demonstrators used today, such as websites, blogs, etc. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each form of activism? Do you think electronic means of gathering protest groups will eventually replace the face-to-face demonstration?
- What went wrong with Black-Jewish relations? Many social historians believe that after the mid-twentieth century civil rights movements, relations between the Jewish American community and the African American community deteriorated. What went wrong? Research this question and write a paper in which you take a position on whether the breach should have happened and/or whether it is repairable.
- Related topic: Blacks and Jews were able to make common cause to some degree at least during the activist period of the 1960s because both groups suffered from discrimination and realized that fighting prejudice against one group would tend to benefit the other. Yet, historically it has proved difficult for different persecuted groups to get together and work for everyone’s betterment. Write a research paper about another such situation in which different groups needed to collaborate: what went right, and what went wrong? Alternative: view the film Matawan and write an analysis of the group dynamics in the face of oppression that are represented in that film.
- New Black-Jewish alliances: Rabbi Michael Lerner and Black intellectual Cornel West are two twenty-first century leaders who have attempted to strengthen the bonds between the Jewish American and African American communities in terms of both their religious values and their social activism. Find out about these men’s ideas and report on either of them or on their collaboration in a research paper assignment. Rabbi Lerner’s website may be helpful: www.tikkun.org.
- Related topic: find out about Black-Jewish relations in your community, through inter-faith dialogue groups, collaborative activist projects, or any other points of group contact. Small groups from the class might research individual sites/organizations and report on them to the class; or small teams or individual students might prepare research papers that argue for a positive or negative view of Black-Jewish relations in your community, and suggest needed courses of action. Alternatively, if Black-Jewish relations are not significant in your community, perform the same research on relations between other groups who do reside where you do.
Last updated May 4, 2016