Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "The Spiritual Audacity of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel."
Born into an esteemed Hasidic family in Poland in 1907, Heschel became a public intellectual and a provocative leader in 1960s America on race, war, and interreligious encounter. Heschel was a mystic, who wrote transcendent, poetic words about God. At the very same time, he marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and organized religious leadership against the war in Vietnam, embodying the extreme social activism of the biblical prophets he studied. This hour, we explore Heschel's teachings and his legacy for people in our time.
This is On Being. Stay with us.
Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. This hour, we delve into the teachings and present-day relevance of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel is perhaps best immortalized in a famous photograph taken of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. He is a conspicuous bearded figure, looking every bit the Hebrew patriarch, in the front line of religious and political leaders surrounding Martin Luther King. Heschel later said, in words that also became famous, "I felt my legs were praying." Heschel was a mystic, who wrote inimitable transcendent words about God. At the very same time, he embodied the extreme social criticism and activism of the biblical prophets he studied. "The opposite of good is not evil," Abraham Joshua Heschel insisted, "it is indifference." He articulated spiritual, practical wisdom against indifference — on race, war, and interreligious encounter — as penetrating in our time as in his own.
From American Public Media, this is On Being, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, "The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua Heschel."
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I'm not accommodated. I don't accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I'm still surprised. That's why I'm against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born into a prominent Hasidic family in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907. He was a distinguished inheritor in a religious aristocracy of sorts in a now-vanished East European Jewish world. He came to know the philosopher Martin Buber and studied with great intellectuals, both secular and religious, in pre-Nazi Berlin, Frankfurt, and Warsaw. Heschel wrote with intellectual and poetic grace on Jewish thought and piety, mining the depths of the ancient tradition of which he knew himself a part, even as friends and family members, and the very world of his birth, perished in the Holocaust. In 1940, he immigrated to the United States with a visa to teach at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. From 1945 until his death in 1972, he was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. He became best known in American culture at large in the 1960s as he infused the theology and example of the Hebrew prophets into the social, religious, and political tumult of that era. Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Hebrew prophets, the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos, "some of the most disturbing people who ever lived." And Heschel himself became as uncomfortable a figure for many as he was inspiring. "Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind," Heschel said, "the prophets take us to the slums."
Rabbi Heschel: The spirit of the prophet, the message of the prophet, is very much alive. It's a kind of men who combine very deep love and very powerful dissent, painful rebuke, with unwavering hope.
Ms. Tippett: We'll be guided through Heschel's thought and legacy by Arnold Eisen, whom I interviewed in 2008. He's a scholar of American Judaism and the current chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Eisen says that his life was changed by a single encounter with Abraham Joshua Heschel. His imagination had been captured when he was a teenager by one of Heschel's provocative pieces of writing.
Arnold Eisen: I first encountered the paragraph, which is at the beginning of Heschel's book God In Search of Man, where he says — I'm reading it now but I could virtually quote this to you from memory.
Ms. Tippett: Good. OK. Yeah, please read it.
Mr. Eisen: I'll read you a little paragraph here. "It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid."
So there is a 16-year-old kid reading this about his own synagogue. I wondered if Heschel had actually been to my synagogue and experienced that there because that was certainly what I experienced there every week: irrelevant, dull, oppressive, and insipid. But I realized that he was doing something else, or trying to do something else. He was letting me know, letting all his readers know, that if this was our experience of Judaism it wasn't really Judaism that we were experiencing; it was something else. It was a false imitation and we were not getting the real thing, and we were meant to do our best to help it be that real thing for us.
Ms. Tippett: Hmm.
Mr. Eisen: Then I encountered Heschel live. I encountered him live when he came to speak at the University of Pennsylvania in the winter of 1971, and I was a reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian. And I screwed up my courage and asked Heschel if I could come visit him in his office in New York, and he said yes. And there I was a few months later in an office surrounded by books, floor to ceiling books, with barely enough room to stand or sit, with this figure with a long white beard looking very prophetic but with kind and twinkling eyes. And he changed my life that day. He saw that I was there to ask serious questions and one of them was what good all his words were doing. You know, he had been campaigning against the war in Vietnam just as he had marched with Martin Luther King at Selma, and I wondered, "What do all your protests do? Is the world really changing? Do you think that words matter?" And I think that what I was really questioning then was whether religious words can make a difference in the world.
And he heard me and he spoke directly to me. And he at first, I think, tried to avoid the question but then faced it directly. And I remember asking him with only the chutzpah, the arrogance, that only a 19-year-old can possibly muster, how did he get the right to tell people that their religious life was irrelevant, dull, oppressive, and insipid? Where did that come from? And he said to me at some point, 'You know, my tradition not only gives me the right to speak in its name, but the duty.' Once he is a learned representative of that tradition, it's his obligation to bring its words to the contemporary world. And that's what he was doing, and he was doing it in no uncertain terms, with nothing left out, with no caveats or reservations. He spoke as a prophet might. He spoke with certainty born of faith.
Ms. Tippett: You know, that book from which you quoted him, God In Search of Man, it's a central idea for him. But when you hear just that phrase, "God in search of man," I mean, what does that mean? What did it mean to Heschel?
Mr. Eisen: Heschel wrote that his life was altered when he did a doctoral dissertation about the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. And what he found compelling there was that the God who created heaven and earth cared about the fate of widows and orphans. And he said, 'This is somehow scandalous. This is beyond logic. How could it be that the great God of all the world cares about individuals and therefore about you and about me? Why would this be so?' And the message of the prophets is that God needs us in some way. He's not making a metaphysical statement here. He's not entering into statements about whether God is perfect or in process or any of this; he's just announcing the same message that the biblical prophets did over and over again: that God wants something from us. That God needs us to help God make this world better.
And I think for Heschel it really was a very simple matter. It really was the matter of, you know, I think of it this way. When you're walking down the street and you see the suffering of a child and if you're a parent, you can't stand to see the suffering of that child any more than you could stand to see the suffering of your own children. And for Heschel, the God of the Bible is really the parent of humanity and can't stand to see the suffering of God's children. God needs God's other children to take care of the suffering.
Ms. Tippett: There are so many ways in which delving into him, it seems like a study in paradox and polarities, right? Or a seeming paradox.
Mr. Eisen: His favorite words, yes.
Ms. Tippett: And he seems to be this fascinating combination — I mean, this is the way I wrote it in the margins as I started seeing it jump out everywhere — a combination of orthodoxy and risk. And there are other ways — many other people have said it better. Now, as you said, it was when he was actually revising this dissertation on the prophets for publication in the early 1960s that he became convinced that he had to be involved in human affairs and human suffering. Talk to me about the biblical basis of this conviction, what he found at the center of text and tradition that he couldn't ignore.
Mr. Eisen: You read Heschel and the story comes to life. For Heschel the story of the Exodus is alive and happening right in front of us. I'm reading from a text right now that is called "Religion and Race." It was the opening address at a conference on that subject in Chicago in 1963, which was fateful for Heschel and I think for American religious history, because it was on that occasion that Heschel met Reverend Martin Luther King.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Eisen: And you read the opening passage of this speech and you find words which utter loud and clear the biblical basis of Heschel's faith. So, with your permission, I'll read a few lines of this.
Ms. Tippett: Yes. Please do.
Mr. Eisen: "At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses."
[Audio clip of Heschel's "Religion and Race" speech]
Rabbi Heschel: Friends, at the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. [Laughter, applause] Moses — and Moses' words were, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go." While Pharaoh retorted, "Who's the Lord that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord. I will not let Israel go." The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses. [Laughter, applause]
Ms. Tippett: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered this keynote speech to Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant leaders from national social action groups. Five years later, in 1968, Abraham Joshua Heschel introduced Martin Luther King Jr. as keynote speaker to the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism. That assembly greeted King by singing "We Shall Overcome," in Hebrew.
Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being from American Public Media. Today we're exploring the life and present-day legacy, the spiritual audacity, of Abraham Joshua Heschel. My guest, Arnold Eisen, was chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University before becoming chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2007.
Ms. Tippett: So for many years you taught at Stanford, and I know you taught a course of prophecy and politics and your students read Heschel and they read Martin Luther King Jr. I just wonder, you know, if you would tell me — just talk to me about what you learned about the relationship between Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr.
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.
Mr. Eisen: And Heschel grows up in a family of Hasidic rabbis. And then King, as it were, tests himself the same way Heschel does. Heschel does a degree in philosophy at the University of Berlin. King does a degree in theology at Boston University. King is drawn to the academy and sometimes confessed that he had thought before he took the pulpit in Montgomery of pursuing a career in the academy as a professor of theology. Heschel remained a professor of theology but never was content to sit in his room; he also had to be out there …
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Eisen: … in the streets, as he put it, praying with his feet, testifying …
Ms. Tippett: Yes.
Mr. Eisen: … to his faith. And their views of God were similar in many respects as well. You know, neither of them could speak about God totally being in control of events in the world. How is King going to believe that God is running the show when there is slavery for hundreds of years? When there is Jim Crow? When there is racism before his eyes, when those who are struggling for justice are being persecuted and hosed down in the streets? How is Heschel going to speak of God's dominance of the world in light of the Holocaust and all the other suffering of humanity? And yet both of them spoke of God's presence in their lives.
I remember a sermon that King gave where he spoke about his fear when it became known to him that people were out to get him, when his house was going to be bombed, and he wondered how he could face up to this kind of tragedy, this kind of threat of his own death. And he writes that it was the presence of God that came to him one night that enabled him to bear with the bombing that did, in fact, come. So it wasn't that God had colluded in that bombing, that God had given permission to the bomber, that God was supervising things and, as it were, folding God's hands and allowing the bombing to happen. King did not pronounce on these mysteries of divine provenance. What he did do was testify to God's presence in his life as a source of hope and courage. And I think Heschel's attitude toward providence was very, very similar. That was, I think, a precious parallel between the two of them that they both recognized. And, of course, it was just before King's death that Heschel presented him to the Conference of Conservative Rabbis in the United States, and had King …
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Eisen: … not been murdered that day in Memphis, he would have been at Abraham Joshua Heschel's Passover Seder. The two became very, very close. They became allies not just in the civil rights struggle, but in opposition to the war in Vietnam. And this was a precious alleviation of the loneliness that both of them must have felt, that they had each other in the world. And it was all the more precious because they came from different faiths. As it were, it was a validation of God's concern for all the world, of God's speaking through people of various religious traditions and not just one.
Ms. Tippett: I think you've reflected on how Abraham Joshua Heschel had a limited view of providence. There was a humility in his theology. I'm searching through my notes and not finding it. It seems to me there's someplace where he says something like, "We tend to read the Bible looking for mighty acts that God does and not seeing that all the way through the Bible God is waiting for human beings to act." Do you know what passage I'm …
Mr. Eisen: Yes, I think so. And he said somewhere else, I'm not quoting it exactly, but something like, "We talk about providence when things in the world work out the way we know they should."
Ms. Tippett: Yes.
Mr. Eisen: And I think it's typical of Heschel and something that we all should learn from, that it's not perhaps a time for great metaphysical statements about the truth of things. You know, we're all so full of doubt. And one reason for our doubt, frankly, is the virtue of our own pluralism, that we know that we are confronted with other faiths that have different views of the world that also have some truth to them. There is depth, profundity, beauty in these other faiths and so no one of us any more has a monopoly on the truth about God or the way things work in the world. And that's a source of humility. It shouldn't paralyze us and it shouldn't throw us into …
Ms. Tippett: No.
Mr. Eisen: … a kind of relativism where I'm OK, you're OK, everything's OK, and all things are equally true. No, that would be wrong. I think the way to go is more the way Heschel went, which is with humility we listen to God as best we can and do God's work in the world as best we can along with others who likewise feel compelled to do God's work in the world. And that is a vision of God that I find very appealing. It summons us to action without giving us the security of ultimate truth.
Ms. Tippett: Arnold Eisen. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's engagement with other traditions went far beyond his participation in the civil rights movement. He worked intimately with Roman Catholic officials and met Pope Paul VI, as the Second Vatican Council revisited Catholic teachings and language about other faiths. Heschel counted among his dearest friends some of the great Christian theologians and activists of his day. He spent a high-profile year as the first Jewish visiting professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he gave a famous inaugural 1965 lecture titled "No Religion is an Island." Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that people of different faiths need one another. He coined the term "depth theology" to describe "prerequisites" of faith that should underpin interfaith encounter, such as what he called "radical amazement" and a sense of the mystery in all of life.
Mr. Eisen: Heschel was a mystic. And you'll find a lot of mystics throughout the ages — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu — who believe they have an experience of God that goes beyond language, that goes beyond culture, that proves to them the unity of the Divine and then they understand various religious traditions as ways, as it were, of putting this experience into words. And the words always fall short. And one of the things that enabled Heschel to be so open to people of other faiths and to feel real kinship with them was this fundamental mysticism, this sense that the experience of God goes beyond any individual tradition, is greater than any individual tradition, as it were, encompasses all of them.
And then there was the personal experience, and here was the man who was able to see in other human beings that he met, for example, the Pope and the cardinals that he met in encounters through Vatican II, Martin Luther King, Reinhold Niebuhr. He encountered other people of faith and I think was open enough to see in them depths of religious, as it were, belonging. That they too live in the presence of God and therefore they have kinship with him. And these encounters reinforce one another and grow in him this sense of a mystery beyond any tradition's capacity to fully understand it.
So there's Heschel out there in the world marching in Selma sure that those people marching with him are no less children of God, full of insight into God, than he is. This is rare in a contemporary world. Even with all of our talk about pluralism and all of our religious dialogue, the deep conviction that we need to be open to others because we have something important to learn from them. This remains rare. And it's one of the things that Heschel had to teach that I'm most grateful for.
Ms. Tippett: Now, are we treated as something that we have to navigate, things that we have to bring together? But being deeply Jewish and being a bold interfaith leader we're organically connected for Heschel, right? That's what's so fascinating. I want to read this passage from his speech at Union Theological Seminary in 1965, and I know this is an important passage for you too, from his speech called "No Religion is an Island." He wrote, "I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility, of contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind's reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God's commandment, while stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith."
Mr. Eisen: Pure Heschel. Pure Heschel. And those words, you're right, are especially meaningful to me. You know, there are certain things that are beyond our reach even if we're commanded to try and achieve them. Our lives, as the rabbi said long ago, are too short. I mean, the day is long and the work is great and we're not commanded to finish the work, but neither are we allowed to desist from it. That's one of my favorite passages from the Talmud and I think one of Heschel's.
And there is Heschel constantly reminding us of the human situation. And we know our frailty, we know our insufficiency, we know our sinfulness, and these are not words that are readily spoken in polite company beyond the most intimate of circles. Sometimes even in our closest friendships, in our marriages, it's hard to admit them.
Ms. Tippett: Yes.
Mr. Eisen: And there is Heschel putting them out there in public debate as a great religious leader, instructing us that, no, these are essential words in our vocabulary. These feelings are essential.
Ms. Tippett: And that knowing the insufficiency of our ideas is, in fact, a virtue.
Mr. Eisen: Knowing it because unless you admit your own insufficiencies, you have no chance of doing anything correctly. And that is a lesson that all of us struggle to learn. I certainly do.
Ms. Tippett: Arnold Eisen.
Within the poetry of his language and thought, Abraham Joshua Heschel often used the word "embarrassment." "The cure of the soul," he wrote, for example, "begins with a sense of embarrassment, embarrassment at our pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit; embarrassment at the profanation of life. A world that is full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival."
When we first aired this program, we asked you our listeners on air and online to tell us how Abraham Joshua Heschel's work holds present-day meaning for you. The responses we received speak to the wide range and richness of Heschel's legacy. One listener has been guided by a landmark speech he presented at a White House Conference on Aging in 1961. Heschel said, "There is no human being who does not carry a treasure in his soul; a moment of insight, a memory of love, a dream of excellence, a call to worship."
At speakingoffaith.org, read more listeners' stories and download a free discussion guide for this program. And Rabbi Heschel's name and words have surfaced in very recent conversations I've been having about topics such as Muslim/Jewish relationship and the science of early childhood development. Dig deeper into Heschel's legacy by exploring these like-minded programs on our Web site. We also give you an inside perspective by making my entire unedited interview with Arnold Eisen available for download through our Web site and podcast. Look for links at speakingoffaith.org.
After a short break, in further conversation with Arnold Eisen and through Abraham Joshua Heschel's own words, we'll explore how Heschel's legacy might address contemporary dilemmas of pluralism and war; and how he spoke to the young in his time, and still speaks to them in ours.
I'm Krista Tippett. Stay with us. On Being comes to you from American Public Media.
Ms. Tippett: Welcome back to On Being, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "The Spiritual Audacity of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel."
Born in Poland in 1907, Heschel immigrated to the United States in 1940 and became a public intellectual as well as a provocative leader on race, war, and interreligious encounter. Here he is in an interview with NBC journalist Carl Stern. This is the last interview Heschel would give, just two weeks before his death in New York City in 1972.
Carl Stern: That raises the question, though, if you're saying if God were to control every aspect of man's life it would not be living. And that raises the question why pray to God, then? If God is not going to interfere, if God is not going to intervene, if God is not going to help, what is the role of prayer?
Rabbi Heschel: First of all, let us not misunderstand the nature of prayer, particularly in Jewish tradition. The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song and men cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and men. God needs our help.
Ms. Tippett: Abraham Joshua Heschel's biographer Edward Kaplan has called him a "spiritual radical," one who "judged contemporary life from the uncompromising viewpoint of a Hebrew prophet" and who "pushed the boundaries of Orthodoxy as well as of liberal Judaism." Heschel was a challenging presence at the intellectual center of Conservative Judaism, the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he spent nearly three decades. His reach extended far beyond that institution, and he worshipped in Orthodox or Hasidic synagogues all of his life. Jews of every tradition revere and study Heschel's life and his many books, including God in Search of Man, Man Is Not Alone, and his definitive works on The Prophets and The Sabbath. My guest, Arnold Eisen, has taught about Heschel at Stanford and has been chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary since 2007. He is leading us through Heschel's teachings and legacy now.
Ms. Tippett: I sense that this new generation — now you're now involved in forming a new generation of Jewish leaders. I sense that while a couple of decades ago, let's say the era in which I was going to college, you know, 1980s, young people were trained in this culture to kind of make a choice between truth and tolerance. You could say that you believed in ultimate truth or you could honor the truths of everyone and that meant that you didn't have any strong convictions of your own. And I sense that this generation coming up now in all the traditions is not willing or interested in making a choice between having a strong identity and a sense of what is true and then living pluralistically. And it seems to me that Heschel can be a great model of that. And I just wonder if that's something that you are aware of or working with in your new leadership role and as an educator.
Mr. Eisen: Yes. And I think it's a very difficult balance to attain.
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.
Mr. Eisen: This balance of deep commitment on the one hand and respect and tolerance for people of different commitments on the other hand. Because what we tend to do, I think, is lapse from pluralism into relativism.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Eisen: … when I know that people in much of the world can't earn in a month what that cup of coffee is costing me?" And is that supposed to mean that we never have the cup of coffee or is it supposed to mean that we exercise responsibly? The guilt can be paralyzing. The guilt can be paralyzing. And some are guilty and they have to be reminded of their guilt and they have to be stopped, but all are responsible. And so it's our job if we're going to sit down, for example, at a Passover Seder, to do what the rabbis instruct the Jews to do at the beginning of that Passover Seder, which is to open the doors to those who are hungry so that those people too can enjoy a meal. And this was quintessential Heschel.
I wonder how we apportion guilt sometimes. You know, I think, as it were, the civil rights movement was an easy call for him, that the analogy of Pharaoh to Jim Crow and racism was an easy one, but it couldn't have been so simple to draw the conclusion about Vietnam, particularly when some of his closest colleagues and his closest friends were supporting the war as necessary to stop the spread of communism.
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.
Mr. Eisen: And I understand Heschel to have made a difficult calculation about suffering versus the possible good that might emerge from all that suffering. He made a calculation about justice and injustice, about the proper uses of power, and then he acted on the basis of that calculation and spoke in the name of God and Scripture from the point of view that he had adopted. As did King, who reached the same conclusion.
Ms. Tippett: Arnold Eisen.
I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being from American Public Media, today exploring the life and ongoing legacy, "The Spiritual Audacity of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel." Though most of Heschel's expansive interfaith work was with Christians in the 1960s, he did gladly accept one invitation to meet with Muslim scholars near the end of his life. I asked Arnold Eisen how Heschel's interfaith legacy speaks to him now as a leader of a Jewish institution in the post-September 11th world.
Mr. Eisen: You know, there are some occasions where people say, 'What would Heschel think about that? Or what would he do about that?'
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Eisen: I honestly have to say, let's be careful in ascribing views to the person he never got to express. But of this one, given that one encounter with Muslims that you mentioned and given his work week after week, month after month, year after year, in dialogue with Christians, one has to believe that today Heschel would be actively engaging Muslims as well. And he would do so, first of all, because of the incredible commonality of our traditions and how much those traditions have learned from one another. Heschel, you know, in 1935 wrote a biography of the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher. Maimonides was profoundly indebted to Muslim thinkers of his time. Maimonides would not have been possible without Muslim theology. So neither can we say that Jewish mysticism could've happened without Christian mysticism and Sufism. So Heschel, I'm sure, would've been in the first ranks of debate and discussion with Muslims as well as with Christians. He gave us the tools for religious dialogue, and I can't believe that Heschel wouldn't be exercising them right now when we need this more than ever before.
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. And is there anything in his legacy that challenges you perhaps to do it a little bit differently than what might seem the obvious approaches? I don't even know what I'm talking about, but there's …
Mr. Eisen: You know, Heschel was — oh, let me not know what I'm talking about either. Let's think about this for a second.
Ms. Tippett: I just don't think he would do it the obvious way, whatever that is.
Mr. Eisen: You know, for instance, I often reflect on the fact that Heschel addressed the Assemblage of Reform Rabbis in 1953 and told them they needed more attention to Jewish law, which, of course, Reform Judaism had rejected.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Eisen: And then he speaks the same month to the Conservative rabbis and said, "You have too much attention to law. You need attention to Jewish spirituality." So I'm always reminded of Heschel telling us what we need, not letting us be smug or congratulatory. And that, I think, is a good message for every leader. Don't just focus on what you're doing right. Ask yourself every week and every month what you're still lacking. What is it you're doing wrong? What could you do better?
Ms. Tippett: It is that kind of prophetic inclination to mistrust whatever the comfort zone is, right?
Mr. Eisen: Right. And there's some days at the end of a long day when you're dealing with the crisis of the moment when you don't need Heschel to remind you of the 10 or 12 things you still haven't gotten right or the things you haven't done. You'd much rather be applauded for those you have managed to do halfway right and that's not what Heschel's for.
Ms. Tippett: Right. What else would you like to talk about? I mean, what's been on your mind as you've been thinking forward to this and knowing you were going to be speaking about Heschel? What came to the surface that feels important and relevant right now?
Mr. Eisen: Heschel spoke about God in a way that I find more than compelling. Absolutely indispensable. He spoke about God out of personal experience. And let me say that I find myself as a modern rational university-trained human being trying to find my way in the world, I find myself spoken to, addressed rather directly, by this man and his conversation with God. I think he brings God into our lives and into our world in a way that is precious because of his hesitancy and his humility and his openness to other faiths and also the crystal clear insight of what God wants to us.
So one of the things that I've been thinking about lately as I, a person who spent his life as a professor of religious studies, who is not a rabbi but is now charged with leading a Jewish institution and educating future clergy, we, I think, need to find a way of speaking credibly about God in the world. And I'm grateful to people of whatever faith who can do that for us. That's one of the things that's been on my mind. I also, I wrote a column this past week addressed primarily to young people. And when I wrote that column addressed to young people who are about to celebrate the Passover Seder I very much had in mind the last paragraphs in Heschel's recorded interview with Carl Stern …
Ms. Tippett: Oh, right.
Mr. Eisen: … for the Eternal Light program — that also appears in the collection edited by Susannah Heschel. And on that page, if you remember, Heschel speaks particularly to young people, and the message is not to despair, not to succumb to nihilism. Remember that the world is meaningful, that history is meaningful, and that they have a part to play in it. And I've tried to echo that message every chance I get, because I think young people often have the sense that they're meant to stand in waiting until they grow up, until they maybe settle down or get a career or find someone to partner with and have kids with. And the message from Heschel was exactly the opposite. The message from Heschel was that whatever age you are you have a soul, you have a spirit, you have a heart, you have a mind; use them. You have experience; draw on it. You have challenges to pose; pose them. You have learning; use it to teach us. And that is something that I think young people hear all too rarely. You have to wait till a certain age before you can drink. You wait till a certain age until you can vote, until your opinions are heard. Heschel wasn't about to wait. He went out and spoke to young people and listened to them and knew they had something to teach him.
Ms. Tippett: You know, something you alluded to at the very beginning of our conversation, but in terms of speaking about God, again, this is another one of these polarities in Heschel. There's this absolute insistence that what we are talking about here is in ineffable, will always defy words, and yet an insistence, as you said he said to you, words matter. Susannah Heschel has talked about how her father would say that, you know, she said, "He used to remind me that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, with tanks and guns. It began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. 'Words create worlds,' he used to tell me when I was a child."
Mr. Eisen: When he said words create worlds, he was paraphrasing one of the most important daily prayers that Jews say: "Blessed is God who spoke and the world came into being." And Heschel was a master of words. He was a master of words not just in English but in German, Yiddish, Hebrew. I don't know enough to judge the Polish. But Heschel knew that what we say matters. That's one of the things he taught. He's a man who wants to summon something in us beyond our rational, logical faculties. He wants to summon our care.
And perhaps I could read from the end of chapter nine in Man Is Not Alone, when Heschel is describing what I think has to be a personal religious experience. And he says before this paragraph that in general we resist the knowledge that's coming at us. We stay inside what he calls a cage and live on a "dainty diet" because we're apprehensive about what is waiting for us outside. But then at a certain moment staggered, embarrassed, we stammer and say, "God, who is more than all there is, who speaks through the ineffable, whose question is more than our mind can answer, God, to whom our life can be the spelling of an answer." That's Heschel.
Ms. Tippett: "Our life is the spelling of an answer," I mean, what does that mean? I mean, it's beautiful. And what is he saying there?
Mr. Eisen: I think there's not a finite set of directives, but a set of principles by which one can live. Know that life is serious. Know that God is in our world. Know that God's presence can be a factor in your life. Know that God wants something of you. Whatever religious tradition you belong to, find the "pattern for living" — Heschel's words — prescribed by that tradition for bringing God into the world. God wants relief of the suffering of God's creatures. God wants justice for all God's creatures. There are marvelous things here to behold. Look at that sky; look at its stars. Look at these trees. Feast on the wonder all around you. And then go out there and make sure that human beings are able to eat and breathe and fight off disease and so appreciate God's wonder in the world. They are a set of directives, which I think are quite clear and applicable to all of us and just as applicable now as they ever were. It's not a recipe. It's not a set of detailed prescriptions, and yet there is a wisdom for life there.
Ms. Tippett: Arnold Eisen is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. His books include Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America.
In closing, again, the voice of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaking to NBC interviewer Carl Stern in 1972.
Rabbi Heschel: I would say to young people a number of things, and I have only one minute. I would say, let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can do — every one — our share to redeem the world despite of all absurdities and all the frustration and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to live life as it if were a work of art. You're not a machine. When you are young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence.
Ms. Tippett: We've uncovered some compelling images of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and meeting with Roman Catholic cardinals. View them on our Web site at speakingoffaith.org. You can also download this program as a free MP3, as well as my unedited 90-minute conversation with Arnold Eisen.
And we'd like you to tell us your story. We'd like to know how you find present-day relevance in the teachings and writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. If his example has had an influence on your life and faith, we'd like to hear about it. Look for the Your Voices, Your Stories link on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of On Being is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our technical director is Chris Heagle. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Special thanks this week to Rabbi Barry Cytron, Professor John C. Merkle, and filmmaker Steve Brand. Kate Moos is the managing producer of On Being. And I'm Krista Tippett.
On Being is distributed by American Public Media for information about underwriting our program or other APM programs such as the Splendid Table visit americanpublicmedia.org.