Prof. Harold Kasimow, George Drake Professor of Religious Studies, Grinnell College, USA

My presentation will introduce my teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972), America’s great spiritual teacher, who is one of the most creative and influential Jewish thinkers of the Twentieth Century. Heschel was especially interested in his students and young people in general. Two weeks before he died he left the following message for young people:

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, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all the frustrations and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art.

For forty years I have taught Heschel at Grinnell College in Iowa, which has students from all fifty states and as many foreign countries. In my paper I will attempt to explain why so many of my students have found Heschel’s ideas so compelling. I will focus on his core ideas, including his positive image of the human being’s power for goodness and love, his original idea that God is a God of pathos who is affected by human actions, and his radical view that diversity of religions is the will of God, that is, that holiness is not the monopoly of any particular religious tradition. I will give special attention to Heschel’s views on the environment because very little has been written on his valuable perspective on this critical topic.

Heschel’s deep love for humanity led to his involvement in a number of compelling social and political issues.  He spoke on behalf of the old and the sick and became deeply involved in opposing the war in Vietnam. Heschel is well known for his march from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King, Jr. to fight for the civil rights of African Americans.

Heschel is seen by many as a person of spiritual nobility who lived what he wrote.  His great interfaith friend, King, spoke of Heschel as “a truly great prophet, relevant at all times.” Heschel devoted his life to creating a more compassionate and just society.  For him the heart of religion is love and compassion.  Heschel has served as an inspiration and role model for people who want to create a life like a work of art. I am struck by the timelessness and the durability of these core ideas.