Lately I have found inspiration in the writings of the Polish-born American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel’s own life was a testament to the power of the human spirit. His father died when he was just a child, and many more of his family members were murdered in the Holocaust. He escaped to New York in 1940, where he continued his lifelong exploration of Jewish mysticism.
What I love about Heschel is that although he was a prolific author, scholar, and professor, he was not an armchair philosopher. His faith deeply informed his thoughts on social responsibility. Heschel was a passionate activist for civil rights, joining his friend Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis in the Selma to Montgomery march for equality. Of that experience he said “I felt my legs were praying,” and called on other religious leaders to show “spiritual audacity” in the face of oppression.
Heschel was a man who thought deeply about the relative value of questions versus answers.
His work has particular resonance at this moment in history because, in my humble opinion, we seem to have far more answers than we do questions. Even in our most prescient social challenges – things like racial equity, climate change, animal rights, and more – we see that individuals tend to attach themselves to answers, catchy slogans, and foregone conclusions. The overarching values system has overpromoted the defense of answers far more than it has the passionate inquiry that should lead to them.
This imbalance might be why we struggle to move forward meaningfully on even those issues that dominate public discourse. According to Heschel, adopting answers without questioning can never lead to meaningful forward motion. He once wrote:
“There are dead thoughts and there are living thoughts. A dead thought has been compared to a stone which one may plant in the soil. Nothing will come out. A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.”
Heschel, like our community of changemakers at The Pollination Project, was a doer. He was a thinker who manifested action through a process of deep inquiry, just like those our community uplifts each day. I daresay he was a heartivist.
No stones have been planted in our global garden; only living thoughts that grow and blossom into a kinder, more compassionate world. Thank you to each of our changemakers who make up this vibrant ecosystem of kindness, whose prayers are extended hands to their communities. I am eternally inspired by you.