After a recent work-in-progress screening of the documentary “Praying With My Legs” at the Washington Heights Film Club in New York City this past September, a member of the audience approached filmmaker Steve Brand. The feature-length documentary by Mr. Brand examines the life of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “scholar, mystic, devout Jew, human rights activist and one of the most powerful and inspiring voices of the religious left in the 20th Century.”
“I never knew him, and now I miss him,” the stranger told Mr. Brand. I recognized the sentiment — perfectly worded — from the time I first saw an early cut of “Praying With My Legs” and was introduced to Rabbi Heschel’s legacy.
I recently asked Steve Brand — a good friend of mine, I’ll say at the outset, in the interest of full disclosure — if he remembered when he first heard of Joshua Heschel?
No, but I first “encountered” him when I saw the Carl Stern interview with him on NBC’s “The Eternal Light” in early 1973. It was unplanned, just switching channels, and this remarkable presence showed up and I became glued to the TV. The interview aired very shortly after Heschel’s death.
I also discovered this passage written by Mr. Brand about the extraordinary man at the center of his film project:
I discovered what an amazing life he’d led: marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma, protesting the Vietnam War (at risk to his livelihood), making a difference at Vatican II, even meeting with the Pope to address age-old enmities and misperceptions. And the way he would speak truth to power!, whether to presidents, the Pope, McNamara, Kissinger, doctors, rabbis, evangelists; you name it. What an appealing, funny and charismatic character Heschel was — with his impossible white beard and long hair, which led people in Selma to talk about a rabbi who looked just like God.
A “series of cosmic coincidences” compelled the filmmaker to make a documentary about the life of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. To Mr. Brand’s “shock and amazement,” he discovered that no one had ever made a film about the Rabbi. So he decided that it would be his “privilege to rectify that.”
One of the questions I posed to Steve Brand was what attracted him to the teachings of Heschel. Here’s his four-part answer:
His concern about having a real spiritual life, not prayer by rote, but a true engagement and cultivation of an awareness of how miraculous what we consider ordinary hum-drum existence actually is; that even the “ordinary” is infused with an ineffable quality that can lead us into radical amazement; his attention to that which leads to faith, that makes it possible; that is universal in humankind.
His belief that no religion is an island; that we must strive to work together and respect — even honor — the differences that divide us, as opposed to demonizing the other.
His teaching that with every new life, an expectation enters the world, that God is in search of man/humankind to live a life consistent with being created in the image of God, however we choose to interpret that (for him it very much tied in to a life of human rights activism).
His idea that life consists of polarity, a constant struggle to live in the tension between two seeming opposites, whether it’s justice and mercy, structure and spontaneity, temporality and abidingness, good and evil.
The continuing experience of people being incredibly moved and inspired when encountering him for the first time. The discovery that, even 40 years after the original event, someone can be brought to tears by recounting the deep impression that Heschel made on him, being “touched in a place where we all find our center.”