06/18/2013 03:01 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2013

A New Play on Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has long been one of my faith heroes. I love the famous picture of Heschel with Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, and his line about that march feeling like prayer. I believe that his speech at Union Theological Seminary, No Religion is an Island, is one of the great interfaith statements of the 20th century. And I feel chills whenever I read Heschel's statements on the Vietnam War.

For all my admiration of Heschel, the role he played in the Vatican II Conferences, specifically regarding the Church's relationship with the Jewish people, has been a blank space in my knowledge. So I was especially grateful to be handed Colin Greer's recent play on this topic, Religious Differences Between Artichokes. This short and profound work fictionalizes a friendship between Rabbi Heschel and Cardinal Bea -- perhaps the most important senior Church official pushing for a transformation of the Catholic-Jewish relationship -- and serves as an object lesson in how friendships can transform faiths.

The play opens with Bea visiting Heschel in his office at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights, and inviting him to come to the Vatican for an audience with the Pope. Heschel is hesitant. He was a personal witness to the Holocaust, watched members of his own family burn in Hitler's hellfire, and escaped the trains going from Warsaw to Auschwitz by only six weeks. The images of Cardinals saluting Hitler are burned into his memory and not easy to put aside.

Bea prevails, and Heschel travels to Rome, holding fast to his deep frustration but trusting the Cardinal more and more. Heschel pushes Bea on everything from the lie about Jews killing Jesus to Catholic proselytization of Jews. Bea affirms much of Heschel's views, while also counseling patience: religions do not change overnight. There is a beautiful scene on Bea's childhood amongst Jewish friends in Rome, and how he came to associate expressions of deep emotion with being Jewish. They speak of things they admire in each other's traditions, at one point Heschel saying to Bea: "Your familiarity with Jewish life is a blessing."

The play has the courage to deal with controversial issues. There is a deeply important exchange of whether the horror of the Holocaust justifies acts of violence by the State of Israel. There are scenes with an Irish Catholic Priest who believes that the Church is spending too much time on the question of the Jews and ignoring oppression faced by Catholics. And there is a monologue where Heschel speaks of the sacred duty to visit Dan Berrigan -- the radical anti-war Catholic priest -- in prison.

Religious Differences Between Artichokes is not simply a hagiography of a great rebbe. At one point Heschel confesses to Bea that he does not have a theory of nonviolence as wide-ranging, all-encompassing and fully forgiving as his friend Martin Luther King Jr. King was willing to tell African-Americans whose grandparents were slaves, whose parents were sharecroppers, who were currently staring down attack dogs and fire hoses, that they should not strike back. Should Heschel not say the same to his people?

Like all important works of art, Greer's play leads with story, aspires to beauty, and avoids didactic lessons. This is a work about history and faith, about how maddeningly long it takes for religious traditions to change, and about how inspiring it is that they do so at all. Above all it is a play about trust and friendship, and thus a reminder that at the heart of all transformations is relationships. As Greer's Heschel says, "What could be simpler than the argument that we cause great harm to each other and we can stop it."