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Abraham Joshua Heschel
Sometimes serendipity comes in the form of a Newsletter. I received a newsletter with a thought for the day from, "The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel", the quote struck a cord (it follows this paragraph), it prompted me to go looking for more. If you search the web you will find a great deal of information and quotes. Please search and seek, you will not be disappointed.
"Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one's own pettiness.
Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, one must fight for inner liberty.
Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as domination of people.
There are many who have a high degree of political and social liberty, but only a few are not enslaved to things.
This is our constant problem --- How to live with people and remain free,
how to live with things and remain independent."
"The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel"
God In Search of Man,
reflection by Abraham Joshua Heschel
The minds are sick. The hearts are mad. Humanity is drunk with a sense of absolute sovereignty. Our pride is hurt by each other's arrogance. The dreadful predicament is not due to economic conflicts. It is due to a spiritual paralysis.
This is an age of suspicion, when most of us seem to live by the rule: Suspect thy neighbor as thyself. Such radical suspicion leads to despair of man's capacity to be free and to eventual surrender to demonic forces, surrender to idols of power, to the monsters of self-righteous ideologies.
What will save us is a revival of reverence for man, unmitigable indignation at acts of violence, burning compassion for all who are deprived, the wisdom of the heart. Before imputing guilt to others, let us examine our own failures.
Religion's task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people's suffering, the love of peace. God has a stake in the life of every man. He never exposes humanity to a challenge without giving humanity the power to face the challenge. Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are the same. We have a vision in common of Him in whose compassion all men's prayers meet.
In the words of the prophet Malachi, "From the rising of the sun to its setting My name is great among the nations, in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name is great among the nations." It seems to me that the prophet proclaims that men all over the world, though they confess different conceptions of God, are all really worshiping the One God, the Father of all men, though they may not even be aware of it.
What will save us? God, and our faith in man's relevance to God. Respect for each other's commitment, respect for each other's faith, is more than a political and social imperative. It is born of the insight that God is greater than religion, that fait h is deeper than dogma.
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. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion-its message becomes meaningless.
To quote from classic rabbinic literature: "Pious men of all nations have a share in the world to come, and are promised the reward of eternal life. I call heaven and earth to witness that the Holy Spirit rests upon each person, Jew or gentile, man or woman, master or slave, in consonance with his deeds."
God's voice speaks in many languages, communicating itself in a diversity of intuitions. The word of God never comes to an end. No word is God's last word.
Man's most precious thought is God, but God's most precious thought is man.
Source: God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, Abraham Joshua Heschel
by Abraham Joshua Heschel
I would say that the major religious problem today is the systematic liquidation of man's sensitivity to the challenge of God. Let me try to explain that. We cannot understand man in his own terms. Man is not to be understood in the image of nature, in the image of an animal, or in the image of a machine. He has to be understood in terms of a transcendence, and that transcendence is not a passive thing; it is a challenging transcendence. Man is always being challenged; a question is always being asked of him. The moment man disavows the living transcendence, he is contracted; he is reduced to a level on which his distinction as a human being gradually disappears. What makes a man human is his openness to transcendence, which lifts him to a higher level than himself. Overwhelmed by the power he has achieved, man now has the illusion of sovereignty; he has become blind to his own situation, and deaf to the question being asked of him.
To destroy the illusion that man is his own center cannot be done easily. In order to understand, and to cultivate an openness to transcendence, many prerequisites are necessary, prerequisites of the mind and of the heart. However, our society, our education, all continue to corrode men's' sensibilities. I am not optimistic; we are getting poorer by the day. To give you an example: Man does not feel a sense of outrage anymore, even in the face of crime. We are getting used to it. We are getting accustomed to evil. We are surrendering to that which we call inevitable. That is fatalism; it is pagan. The message of the Bible is that man is capable of making a choice. Choose life -- but instead we choose death, blindness, callousness, helplessness, despair.
Religion, if taught as religion, has no life. In order to understand what the Bible says, one has to understand life as seen by the Bible, all of life. My understanding of the meaning of God depends on my way of looking at this very table, at this very desk, at everything, at creation. The tragedy of religion is partly due to its isolation from life, as if God could be segregated. God has become an alibi for our conscience, for real faith. He has become a sort of afterlife insurance policy.
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; that is our challenge, and it is what makes the difference between the human and the animal. The animal also wants to be. For us, it is the problem of how to be and how not to be, on the levels of existence. Now, what is the meaning of God? The meaning of God is precisely the challenge of "how to be."
Excerpt from Union Seminary Quarterly Review, January 1966
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel
a personal view
It is with certain reservation that I have accepted an invitation to write a short article about my rabbi and teacher - Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. I consider writing such an article to be rather presumptuous.
First, although I refer to Rabbi Heschel as my teacher, I have never met him personally. Second, although I have read and cherished many of his books, I do not consider myself an expert on his thought. However, Rabbi Heschel has served as an inspiration to a generation of Rabbis and teachers all over the globe. His writings have certainly been a major influence on my own religious thought and development, and have had a strong impact on my work as a religious educator. It is from this point of view that I write.
Let me start with a short introduction to the man and his writings. Rabbi Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907. He was the son of a long chain of Hasidic Rabbis. Hasidic Jewry places a great emphasis on the inner spiritual life of the religious individual. Heschel grew up surrounded by a world of profound spirituality - a world of faith. Although he later went on to the University of Berlin to pursue secular intellectual studies, he continued to draw on the well springs of his early religious experiences throughout his lifetime.
A "Poetic" Approach
Students of Heschel's thought are frequently either put off or overwhelmed by the style of his writing. He does not give us a straightforward presentation of a religious philosophy supported by proofs and arguments. His writing is poetic. His books are descriptions of faith rather than an argument for faith. This style is deliberate, reflecting Heschel's understanding of language and religion. Indeed, it seems that language and faith are closely related in Heschel's thought. I wish to look at Heschel's understanding of language, and to use it to present his understanding of faith. Let us consider each element of this style separately.
Heschel was a master of language, and had clear ideas of how language is used in the context of faith. Let us first consider the issue of vocabulary. He writes:
The language of faith employs only a few words coined in its own spirit; most of its terms are borrowed from the general sphere of human experience and endowed with new meaning. Consequently, in taking these terms literally we miss the unique connotations which they assumed in the religious usage.
The meaning of words in scientific language must be clear, distinct, unambiguous, conveying the same concept to all people. In poetry, however, words that have only one meaning are considered flat. The right word is often one that evokes a plurality of meanings and one that must be understood on more than one level. What is a virtue in scientific language is a failure in poetic expression" 1
Heschel writes in poetry, because he feels that only through poetry can the richness of the world of faith be properly conveyed. Faith does not have a vocabulary of its own, because the faith experience can only be alluded to, not described. Allegory and metaphor are the only tools that are capable of conveying the complexity of the faith experience. Just as the literal minded will not be able to fathom the true meaning of poetry, so will they be blind to the hand of God in creation. Indeed, one could say that the key to religious faith is the ability to view the world as a piece of poetry.
The Root of Faith
Heschel does not present an argument for faith, because he does not believe that the root of faith lies in the realm of rational argumentation. He says:
When the soul is not aflame, no light of speculation will illumine the darkness of indifference. No masterly logical demonstration of God's existence or any analysis of the intricacies of the traditional God concepts will succeed in dispersing that darkness... Proofs may aid in protecting, but not in initiating certainty; essentially they are explications of what is already intuitively clear to us." 2
Reason is not the root of faith. Faith comes before reason. Its roots are in our pre-conceptual perception of the world. It is our pre-conceptual reactions to the world, wonder - awe - amazement, all attitudes that come before reason that suggest to the religious minded (Heschel would say the open-minded), that there is more to the world than what we "understand". Persons of faith first experience God in the world, and only then try to come to terms with this experience through reason. Modern men and women have closed themselves off to their pre-conceptual experiences. By being too literal minded, by ignoring the poetry that is inherent in creation, they have closed themselves off to the possibility of faith.
Heschel does not argue for faith for he knows that no argument will convince a person who is blind to religious experiences that there is a value in religious living. What he does is describe the world from the point of view of one who believes. Heschel's gift is that he was blessed with three qualities: He was a profoundly religious person with a rich spiritual life on which to draw; he had a brilliantly perceptive mind which could analyze and present this world of experience in the conceptual terms of modern thinkers, and he was a master of language, which he used to delicately portray the fine lines and contours of a religious soul. He is therefore uniquely suited to open up the world of faith to people of the modern world. Heschel never did become the "Rebbe" [spiritual leader] of a Hasidic sect. He went on instead to reach outward, to become a Rebbe for the whole world.
Heschel and Prayer
If one cannot be convinced of faith through reason, what value does Heschel's writings have for other people? This can be best explained through an analogy with another question that Heschel deals with in his writing - that of prayer. Prayer is very central in Heschel's writing. Prayer is generally understood as the outpouring of a person's heart to God. While this is a very powerful picture, it does not really describe the traditional patterns of prayer of the religious Jew. Jewish prayer is based on a prayer-book. One is obligated to say set prayers at set times - a far cry from spontaneous outpouring of the heart understood to be the ideal form of prayer. Heschel tries to describe the value of this kind of prayer - which he calls "prayer of empathy" - to a religious person. He writes:
"There need be no prayerful mood in us when we begin to pray. It is through our reading and feeling the words of prayers, through the imaginative projection of our consciousness in the meaning of the words, and through empathy for the ideas with which the words are pregnant, that this type of prayer comes about." 3
What Heschel is saying is that for prayer to be meaningful it does not have to start from us. When we read the words of the prayer book, they do not inform - they inspire. We find ourselves in the words and have the ability to project ourselves into them. The words of prayer are "pregnant" words - words that have the potential of becoming more than themselves. There is an interaction between the words of the prayer and the person praying. The words come first and provoke us. We respond by identifying with the words and enriching them through our own experience. Finally, the words enrich our own experience by suggesting variations of experience and new meanings that we would perhaps not have reached on our own. Set prayers are there to remind us of the holy when we take the world for granted, to inspire and inform our spiritual lives and to point us in the direction of spiritual fulfillment.
Heschel and the Believer Today
This is what reading Heschel does for me. His genius is in his rich description, in the language of modern people, of the faith experience. For a person who believes, reading Heschel's poetry evokes a wealth of emotions.
Through reading and empathizing with his words we become aware of that which we only intuitively felt at some unconscious level beforehand. More than that, we come to better understand ourselves as religious people and are challenged to deepen our spiritual quests. Finally, through a better understanding of ourselves, in the language of our secular world, we become more confident of our position as religious people, and better able to present that position for others.
Although Heschel wrote from the context of the Jewish religion, his basic insight - that God is to be found by opening our hearts to the mysteries of this world and that the ultimate spiritual challenge is to walk with humility in the presence of the Almighty - is relevant to people of faith of all religions. Indeed, Heschel would be the first to condemn anybody claiming to have the monopoly on holiness.
Finally, as a Rabbi I am not only a religious person but a religious teacher. I believe that Heschel speaks not only to people who consider themselves to be religious but to all people. Although we call ourselves a secular society this is not entirely true. In society today there is an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. Perhaps even more than in the past there is a craving to uncover the spiritual dimensions of our existence. Heschel instructs us that the path to God is open to all. We are challenged as a religious people, to use our understanding of our own inner life to help others who wish to walk along that path.
Chaïm Weiner is Rabbi at the Edgware Masorti Synagogue in North London, England.
1. Heschel, A.J. God in Search of Man, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1955, pg. 179.
2. Heschel, A.J. Man is Not Alone, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1955, pg. 84.
3. Heschel, A.J. Man's Quest for God, Charles Scriber's Sons, New York, 1954, pg. 28.
Prayer is arrival at the border
To escape from the mean and penurious, from calculating and scheming, is at times the parching desire of man. Tired of discord, he longs to escape from his own mind -- and for the peace of prayer. How good it is to wrap oneself in prayer, spinning a deep softness of gratitude to God around all thoughts, enveloping oneself in the silken veil of song! But how can man draw song out of his heart if his consciousness is a woeful turmoil of fear and ambition? He has nothing to offer but disgust, and the weariness of wasting the soul. Accustomed to winding strands of thought, to twisting phrases in order to be successful, he is incapable of finding simple, straight words. His language abounds in traps and decoys, in shams and tricks, in gibes and sneers. In the teeth of such powerful distractions, he has to focus all the powers of his mind on one concern. In the midst of universal agitation, how can there be tranquillity?
Trembling in the realization that we are a blend of modesty and insolence, of self-denial and bias, we beseech God for rescue, for help in the control of our thoughts, words and deeds. We lay all our forces before Him. Prayer is arrival at the border. The dominion is Thine. Take away from me all that may not enter Thy realm.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man's quest for God: Studies in prayer and symbolism. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons), 1954, p. 6.
The Legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel
Sermon given March 6, 1998, by Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl
By the late 1930's, the Nazis had closed the doors of all rabbinical seminaries in Germany. There is a little known story about Dr. Julian Morgenstern, President of the Hebrew Union College, America's seminary of Reform Judaism in Cincinnati. He had invited a number of eminent Jewish scholars and rabbinical students to leave Germany to continue their academic work at the College.
One of these professors was Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was a charismatic thinker, writer, and religious leader, whose 25th yahrzeit we recently commemorated. For five years, from 1940 until 1945, Heschel taught philosophy and rabbinic literature at the College.
He was always grateful to Dr. Morgenstern for rescuing him from death. He once said that Morgenstern was “the least appreciated man in American Jewry.” Yet, Heschel, an observant traditional Jew, was never religiously at home in the Classical Reform environment of the Hebrew Union College of the 1940's and felt that he needed to move on.
Fortunately, for him, in 1945, Heschel was asked to join the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the bastion of Conservative Judaism in New York, as professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism. Two Hebrew Union College students, Samuel Dresner and Richard Rubinstein, who were deeply influenced by Heschel’s thought, followed him to the Seminary. They were later ordained there. Both have become respected Jewish thinkers and writers.
Heschel remained at the Seminary until his death, twenty-seven years later. Dr. Ismar Schorsch, who is the current Chancellor of the Seminary, has called Heschel, “the most important Jewish thinker of the modern period.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Warsaw in 1907. He was a descendant of numerous Hasidic dynasties. He spent his formative years learning at a traditional Heder and Yeshiva, like all Eastern European Jews with his religious background.
At age twenty, he entered a new world of thought. He enrolled at the University of Berlin to obtain his doctorate. He also studied at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums, Berlin’s liberal rabbinical seminary, where he later taught Talmud.
In 1937, Martin Buber, the famed Jewish philosopher, named him his successor at the Lehrhaus in Frankfort. This was the city's central agency for adult Jewish learning. The following year, the Nazis deported Heschel and all Jews of Polish citizenship back to Poland. Fortunately, six weeks before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Heschel was able to leave Poland for London. There he established the Institute of Jewish Learning. The following year, he came to Cincinnati.
Heschel’s life was a combination of paradoxes. First, he was a scholar in the Western tradition. He wrote scores of scientifically sound works on the classics of Judaism, like the Biblical prophets, the writings of Maimonides, and the Kabbalah. On the other hand, he also penned numerous volumes of a nonacademic nature on the spiritual crises and questions which the modern Jew confronts, with titles like Man is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, and Man's Quest for God.
Then, too, in his personal ritual practice, Heschel was almost Orthodox. Yet, at the same time, he was deeply committed to strengthening ties with peoples of other faiths. In 1964, Heschel met with Pope Paul VI. As a result, Heschel influenced the Second Vatican Council to issue strong statements in support of Jews and Judaism. The following year, Heschel became the first Jew ever to be appointed to the faculty of the Union Theological Seminary in New York. This is one of the foremost Protestant theological schools in the United States.
Furthermore, I have already mentioned that Heschel was a prolific scholar. At the same time, however, he was a courageous social activist. He ardently believed that prayer and study could not be separated from communal involvement. Heschel cut an imposing figure with his white beard and crown of wavy hair, his small but imposing bearing, and his passionate and assertive way of speaking. When he cried out for justice, one could almost hear the echoes of God in his voice.
In 1965, Heschel went to Selma, Alabama, to march with Martin Luther King in the struggle for civil rights. Someone who marched with him questioned why this eminent scholar came to Selma instead of remaining in his ivory tower in New York. Heschel’s reply was profound: “When I march in Selma, my feet are praying.” Later that year, Heschel helped to found an interreligious clergy and lay group to oppose the involvement of our United States government in the war in Vietnam.
When Heschel died in 1972, our country was convulsed by rebellions against the establishment. Riots were erupting on major American college campuses. Scores of disenchanted young people blamed the country's imperfections on their elders, whom they considered hypocrites. These youth wanted to bring about a just society. In 1972, we were undergoing a period of turning outward. I don't recall ever hearing the word “spirituality” in those days.
Now, a quarter of a century later, the mood of our times has shifted 180 degrees. We are now looking inward. Spirituality has become almost a buzz word. More and more people want to connect with God. In this search, Heschel can be an enormous resource.
Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, wrote that Heschel was the first person he had ever met who took God seriously. Heschel noted that in our quest for God, we will experience what he called, “radical amazement,” an overwhelming sense of awe and wonderment. This core religious moment, however, is immediate and nonverbal. It can not be expressed in language or imprisoned in rational theological categories. To Heschel, God was not a philosophical abstraction. Heschel’s God was a living reality, the personal Deity of our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Heschel believed God takes a passionate interest in those God created. He spoke about “Divine pathos,” which means that God suffers with God's creatures when they are in pain and demands a commitment to social justice to alleviate their plight.
Heschel also noted that other peoples build their cathedrals in space. We Jews, by contrast, build our cathedrals in time. The Sabbath is the Jewish quintessential cathedral in time.
Though English was not Heschel’s native tongue, he mastered English and became an exemplary wordsmith. His eloquent writings are savored not only by Jews. They also serve as reflections in Catholic convents and in Baptist study groups.
Dr. Fritz Rothschild, who was his colleague at the Seminary, made the following observation about Heschel’s writings: “We find ourselves confronted with a style that exhibits a beauty and vividness of phrase rarely found in scholarly works. The idea appears in aphoristic insights...spiritual gems...His easy flowery prose hides subtle and complex thought processes that are ours to discover, only if we delve beneath the smooth surface and study each passage in depth.”
We turn now to Heschel’s felicitous words about “Prayer” for our Responsive Reading. It is printed on the insert in your Orders of Service. May we find profound inspiration as we recite his sensitive musings:
Prayer is a ladder on which our thoughts mount to God.
Prayer takes our mind out of the narrowness of self-interest.
Prayer clarifies our hopes and our intentions.
Prayer, like a gulf stream, imparts warmth to all that is cold.
Prayer is a dialogue with God.
Prayer is an answer to God.
Prayer is an invitation to God to intervene in our lives.
Prayer is our desire to let God's will prevail in our affairs.
Prayer is opening our soul to God.
Prayer is our intention to make God the master of our soul.
Prayer is to sense God's presence.
Prayer is a gift to God.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua , 1907–72, American Jewish philosopher and theologian, b. Warsaw, Poland. He succeeded Martin Buber as director of the Central Organization for Jewish Adult Education in Frankfurt and then taught in Warsaw and London before going to the United States in 1940. He taught philosophy and rabbinics at the Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, and in 1945 became professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he remained until his death. He developed an influential philosophy and theology that sought to renew the ability to grasp the reality of the relationship between God and humans, and of the holiness of life. He played a significant role in the civil-rights movement and in the Christian-Jewish dialogue. Heschel's major works are Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (1951), God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1955), The Prophets (1962), Who Is Man? (1965), Israel: An Echo of Eternity (1969), and A Passion for Truth (1973).
See M. Friedman, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Elie Wiesel (1987); D. J. Moore, The Human and the Holy: The Spirituality of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1989).