Few are guilty, all are responsible

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (2nd from right) ...

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, second from right, participating in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 21, 1965.

The opposite of good, wrote Rabbi Abraham Heschel, is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference.

This theme resounds throughout his book The Prophets (Harper Perennial Classics, 2001), originally a doctoral dissertation titled “The Prophetic Consciousness.” I am so pleased we have this Jewish perspective as one of our texts this year.

Heschel, a native of Warsaw, escaped Hitler’s Germany and fled to New York City, arriving in 1940. His mother and three of his sisters in Poland were murdered by the Nazis. The experiences left him with a firm commitment to his faith and the same incessant demand for justice that tormented the classical prophets. Heschel later became involved in the civil rights movement, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, and with the antiwar movement.

Here are some of his powerful insights about society and callousness. I find them chilling. Are we not often indifferent to suffering today? Are we at once “decent and sinister, pious and evil”?

“Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.” (page 19)

“The source of evil is not in passion, in the throbbing heart, but rather in hardness of heart, in callousness and insensitivity.” (pages 331-332)

“There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. … One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.” (page 364)

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