The Opposite of Good Is Indifference
Arnold Eisen is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. His books include The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, Rethinking Modern Judaism, and Conservative Judaism Today and Tomorrow. He also keeps a blog called "On My Mind."
Krista Tippett, host: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a mystic, a 20th-century religious intellectual, a social change agent. He was perhaps best immortalized in a famous photograph taken of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. He’s a conspicuous bearded figure, looking every bit the Hebrew patriarch, in the front line of leaders surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr. Heschel later said, in words that became famous, “I felt like my legs were praying.”
His poetic theological writings are still read and widely studied today. His faith was as much about “radical amazement” as it was about certainty. As instructive for us now is the way Heschel embodied the passionate social engagement of the prophets, drawing on wisdom at once provocative and nourishing. “In a free society,” he said, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.” And: “The opposite of good is not evil, but indifference.”
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
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 am 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.
Arnold Eisen: 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: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born into a prominent Hasidic family in Poland in 1907. He was an 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 immigrated to the United States in 1940. He became best known in American culture in the 1960s, as he infused the theology and example of the Hebrew prophets into the social and political tumult of that era.
Arnold Eisen is our guide through Heschel’s thought and legacy. When I had this conversation with him in 2008, he had just left Stanford University to become chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. This is where Heschel taught from 1945 until his death in 1972.
Ms. Tippett: I’d like to begin with you in 1971, a student. You’ve told this story, or you reference this story a lot, about your life-changing encounter with Heschel. Had you known about him? Do you recall when you first heard about him? Was this a figure who had always somehow been part of your world?
Mr. Eisen: Yes, I think I first heard about Heschel when I read him in a class that a young rabbi of my synagogue in Philadelphia gave on Saturday mornings. He took us out of services, which was a great blessing, because we were bored in services. And I was convinced the rabbi might have been as bored as we were. And he took us out of services, and we had a class on contemporary Jewish thinkers, and among them, Abraham Joshua Heschel. And so 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. Please read it.
Mr. Eisen: And 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 this 16-year-old kid, reading this about his own synagogue. I thought — 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.
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. 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 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: 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 borne of faith.
Ms. Tippet: 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,” 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. It’s beyond logic. How could it be that the great God of all the world cares about individuals and, therefore, about you and about me? And 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 that — I think of this: 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. And God needs God’s other children to take care of the suffering.
Ms. Tippett: And yet, superficially, it might seem very stunning and contradictory to some people that he was formulating this understanding. I mean obviously, he didn’t formulate it himself. He came out of seven generations of Hasidic rabbis, so he came from this great tradition. And yet, as he was proclaiming this theology, that world of his fathers and grandfathers was being exterminated by Nazism. And it didn’t — you couldn’t have looked at world history, at that moment in time, and say, “Well, God clearly cares about man” — as a Jew, in particular, on the surface, as I say. So talk to me about that.
Mr. Eisen: I think this must have been a question that Heschel pondered every day. And it struck me very much, when he spoke to me, that he said, “You have doubts. I do too.” And in his great book, Man Is Not Alone, which was published three years before God In Search of Man, there’s a climactic paragraph where he discusses what must have been a personal experience of God. And the very next chapter — you literally turn the page, and there’s a chapter called “Doubt.”
I think the man who lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust must have been plagued by doubt as to God’s presence in the world, and I think that he was able to speak of it, nonetheless, because of experiences of God’s presence in his life that contradicted, as it were, the massive evidence for God’s absence from the world. So there wasn’t certainty available, but there was experience, and there was faith. I think his generations of Hasidic ancestry did play a part in that, but so did two or three thousand years of Jewish tradition to which he felt himself the heir.
Ms. Tippett: Right, so let’s talk about this sense he had of himself, this sense of the importance of the prophets — and, in fact, he did kind of embody that for a generation — because I know that’s something you’ve spent a great deal of time on. There are so many ways in which, delving into him, it seems like a study in paradox and polarities, 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 just seeing it jump out everywhere — it was a combination of orthodoxy and risk. And there are other ways — many other people have said it better. Now, he — 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.”
Rabbi Heschel: Friends, at the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. [laughter] And Moses’s words were, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Let my people go,” while Pharaoh retorted, “Who is 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]
[music: “We Shall Overcome” by Charlie Haden & Hank Jones]
Ms. Tippett: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered that keynote speech to Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant leaders. Five years later, in 1968, he introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. as keynote speaker at the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism. The assembly greeted King by singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew.
[music: “We Shall Overcome” by Charlie Haden & Hank Jones]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring Abraham Joshua Heschel’s prophetic voice for now. I’m with Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
[music: “We Shall Overcome” by Charlie Haden & Hank Jones]
Ms. Tippett: So for many years you taught at Stanford, and I know you taught a course on prophecy and politics. And your students read Heschel, and they read Martin Luther King, Jr. I just wonder 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.
Mr. Eisen: It was a relationship of mutual inspiration, to which they both testified on more than one occasion. Heschel really did see, in King, the incarnation of the Old Testament prophet. He said that King had been sent by God to announce to contemporary America what was needed. And you read Heschel, and you read King, and the parallels are enormous and go way beyond the use that both of them made of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, which, of course, ring through loud and clear in all of King’s sermons, and especially in the “I Have a Dream” speech.
King grows up in a family of ministers, Southern Baptist ministers, 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 in the streets — as he put it, “praying with his feet” — testifying to his faith.
And their views of God were similar in many respects, as well. 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 providence. 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 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 said 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.”
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. 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 anymore 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 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.
[music: “Lacrymae” by Melodium]
Ms. Tippett: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel developed groundbreaking relationships with religious leaders far beyond the Civil Rights Movement. He worked closely with Roman Catholic officials and met Pope Paul VI during the time of the Second Vatican Council. He also served as the first Jewish Visiting Professor at the iconically Christian, Union Theological Seminary in New York City. And it was there, in 1965, that he gave a famous lecture, titled “No Religion Is an Island.” It included these words: “Parochialism has become untenable. The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations. We are all involved with one another. Spiritual betrayal on the part of one affects the faith of us all.”
[music: “Lacrymae” by Melodium]
Ms. Tippett: Another polarity, or something that might seem to a modern imagination, on the surface, to be contradictory, is what we’re talking about here — his deep engagement. And this is the way I might say it: that he was, at one and the same time, so profoundly rooted in Jewish tradition — and not just in his lifetime, but in this tradition of his ancestors — and, at the same time, so magnanimously open to encountering and working with and speaking with, about important things, people of other faiths, and that those qualities came from the same core of his religious sensibility.
Mr. Eisen: That’s right. I think it has a source, perhaps both on the theoretical level and the practical level. On the theoretical level, 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. 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 the 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: Or we treat it as something that we have to navigate, things that we have to bring together. But being deeply Jewish and being a bold interfaith leader were organically connected for Heschel. 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. 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’s Heschel, constantly reminding us of the human situation. 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. 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.
[music: “Doria” by Ólafur Arnalds]
Ms. Tippett: In his essay, “Choose Life,” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Just as we are commanded to love man, we are also called upon to be sensitive to the grandeur of God’s creation. We are infatuated with our great technological achievements; we have forgotten the mystery of being, of being alive. We have lost our sense of wonder, our sense of radical amazement at sheer being. We have forgotten the meaning of being human and the deep responsibility involved in just being alive. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said: ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ But that is no problem. We all want to be. The real problem, biblically speaking, is how to be and how not to be.”
[music: “Doria” by Ólafur Arnalds]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation through our website, onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Doria” by Ólafur Arnalds]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring the legacy and thinking of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prophetic figure of the 20th century and a voice for ours. Born in Poland in 1907, Heschel immigrated to the United States in 1940. He became a public intellectual, as well as a provocative leader on race, war, and inter-religious encounter. Here he is in a 1972 interview with NBC journalist Carl Stern. This is the last interview Heschel would give, just two weeks before his death.
Carl Stern: That raises the question, though — if you’re saying that if God were to control every aspect of man’s life, it would not be living, then 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.
[music: “The Diver” by Victoire]
Ms. Tippett: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel worshipped in Hasidic or Orthodox synagogues all his life, but he pushed at the boundaries of both Orthodox and liberal Judaism. And he was a challenging presence at the intellectual center of Conservative Judaism, the Jewish Theological Seminary, for nearly three decades. My guest, Arnold Eisen, is chancellor there.
[music: “The Diver” by Victoire]
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, 1980s — young people were trained, in this culture, to make a choice between truth and tolerance — you could say that you believed in ultimate truths, 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, 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. We tend to think that my pluralism, my openness to people of different convictions and faiths, means that, well, this is just my opinion as opposed to your opinion.
I’ll never forget one of my experiences this year of visiting an eighth-grade class at a Jewish private school and having a discussion about relativism with the eighth-graders. And there was a boy there who was insisting that my belief that murder is wrong was just my opinion. Now, he agreed with me too. That was my opinion; that was his opinion. He said, “But that’s our opinion. Of course, it’s just an opinion. But it’s not really true; it’s just an opinion.”
Ms. Tippett: But that’s how people have been raised in this culture.
Mr. Eisen: And that’s bad, you see. That’s also not good, because we have to believe there are some things that are right and other things that are wrong, there are some things that are true and other things that are false, and yet, have the largeness of vision, as it were, and the sense of mutual need, to work with people who disagree with us profoundly. And this is a balance that’s very hard. It’s hard in theory; it’s even harder in practice. I think that Heschel had a lesson for us there. Again, the lesson is not so much in the books or in his individual speeches, but in how he put it all together in his life, in his friendships, in his activities.
I remember — if I can confess one of my own insufficiencies — I encountered Heschel, several weeks after my interview with him, in Washington, D.C. And I remember, I didn’t go up to him to say hello. And I’m embarrassed by this, to take a Heschelian word. I’m embarrassed by it. When I met him in Washington, D.C., and saw a tired, bedraggled Abraham Joshua Heschel who had spent his day lobbying against the war in Vietnam, I felt that, somehow, it wasn’t worth his dignity to knock on the doors of those congressmen. He should be in his study thinking great thoughts, writing great books. It was a total contradiction of what I had felt a few months earlier. But it was a sign of Heschel’s greatness that he knew he should be in the study, and he should be on the streets, and life was too short to do all of them all the time, but he would do the best he could. And that taught me something I’ll never forget.
Ms. Tippett: And on Vietnam — it was interesting for me to read, he was also writing about it, and some of the things he was saying about why he was there, knocking on doors, are very provocative and challenging in our current context, I feel. I mean he said, “It became clear to me that in regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.”
Mr. Eisen: One of Heschel’s favorite lines: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” We’re not off the hook. And if we live life with ultimate religious seriousness, we’re aware, every moment of the time, just how many people’s suffering and poverty goes into our ability to act, to enjoy, even to gather together and worship. And this could, if we let it, ruin life, on the other hand. As someone I know put it, “How can I enjoy a cup of coffee at Starbucks 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 responsibility? 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 instructed 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. 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. 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, for the point of view that he had adopted, as did King, who reached the same conclusion.
[music: “Ziggurat” by Randall]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring the present-day resonance of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I’m with Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor Arnold Eisen.
[music: “Ziggurat” by Randall]
Ms. Tippett: I wanted to ask you, also — it seems that Heschel did have one encounter with Muslim scholars before he died and that he accepted — it was a meeting in Rome — and he accepted that with great delight. And it was not uncomplicated, as you can imagine. But most of his interfaith work was with Christians. Here you are, here we are, in the post-September 11th world. So much of inter-religious encounter is necessarily focused on Islam right now. And I wonder how you — again, how — although this was not so much the realm where Heschel worked explicitly, what do you hear him saying to you? Or how is his legacy guiding you in this?
Mr. Eisen: I don’t have any doubt that Heschel would be engaged in active conversations with Muslims, had he been alive today. There are some occasions when people say, “What would Heschel think about that?” Or “What would he do about that?” And 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, 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.
I think, though, there’s another door that we should walk through that Heschel perhaps opened for us but could not walk through, and that’s dialogue with faiths beyond monotheism. And here I think it might have been more difficult for Heschel, and it’s more difficult for those of us who are in monotheistic traditions, but it’s necessary, nonetheless, again, because the world calls us to this task. When one reflects on the fact that religion still provides the legitimation of power and authority for most of the world’s peoples, when one knows that the world is hanging by a thread and we have the possibility of saving this planet now or destroying it, and we’re going to be influenced profoundly by religion as we face that question, then religion has a role to play that summons all religious leaders of all traditions, as far as I can see, to dialogue so that we can find ways of talking to each other and talking past our differences. I can’t imagine that Heschel wouldn’t be engaging in this to the best of his ability right now, when the world’s very survival so much depends on this effort. 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: 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: [laughs] Heschel was… Oh, let me not know what I’m talking about either. Let’s think about this for a second.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I just don’t think he would do it the obvious way, whatever that is.
Mr. Eisen: 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: [laughs] 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 kind of that prophetic inclination to mistrust whatever the comfort zone is, right? [laughs]
Mr. Eisen: Right, and there’s some days, at the end of a long day, when you’re dealing with the crisis at the moment, when you don’t need Heschel to remind you of the ten or twelve 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: [laughs] 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 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, and I hope that all of us can do that, as well.
Ms. Tippett: 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 ineffable, will always defy words, and yet, an insistence, as you’ve said he said to you, words matter. Susannah Heschel has talked about how her father would say that — 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’re 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.
[music: “Heard About You Last Night” by Mogwai]
Ms. Tippett: Arnold Eisen is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. His books include The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America. Jews of every tradition still study Abraham Joshua Heschel’s many books, including God In Search of Man, Man Is not Alone, and his definitive works on the prophets and the Sabbath. In closing, here, again, the voice of 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, everyone, our share to redeem the world, in spite of all absurdities and all the frustration and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build 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.
[music: “Jovano Jovanke” by Nigel Kennedy & The Croke Band]
Staff: On Being is: Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, Malka Fenyvesi, and Erinn Farrell.
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear, singing our final credits in each show, is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
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