Abraham Joshua Heschel

Abraham Joshua

Polish Jewish Religious Leader

Author Quotes

The problem of our youth is not youth. The problem is the spirit of our age: denial of transcendence, the vapidity of values, emptiness in the heart, the decreased sensitivity to the imponderable quality of the spirit, the collapse of communication between the realm of tradition and the inner world of the individual. The central problem is that we do not know how to think, how to pray, how to cry, how to resist the deceptions of too many persuaders.

The most unnoticed of all miracles is the miracle of repentance. It is not the same thing as rebirth; it is transformation, creation… Repentance is an absolute, spiritual decision made in truthfulness. Its motivations are remorse for the past and responsibility for the future.

The modern man has not only forgotten how to be alone; he finds it difficult even to be with his fellow man. He not only runs away from himself; he runs away from his family.

The human being is uniquely graced with the ability to search the soul and reflect, For what purpose am I alive? Does my life have a meaning, a reason? Is there a need for my existence? Will anything on earth be impaired by my disappearance? Would my absence create a vacuum in the world? And if we say that there would be a void and an impairment in the world, and that this means that my life has value beyond its simple existence, is it incumbent upon me to fulfill a purpose in this life? Do I exist that I might build or restore?

The highest peak of spiritual living is not necessarily reached in rare moments of ecstasy; the highest peak lies wherever we are and may be ascended in a common deed. Religion is not made for extraordinary occasions.

The fear of living arises most commonly... in the failure to live in complete involvement with what transcends our being.

The essence of conscious living is to act according to aspirations, to strive for ends which we set for ourselves. The human will is blind and can never by its own power envision the ends of our actions. Ideals grasped by the mind in history’s rare hours of spiritual insight are like sparks of orientation, glittering before our will during the long seasons of obscurity.

The essence of a thing is neither tantamount to nor commensurable with the impression it produces; what is reflected in the imagination of an individual is something altogether different from the original. The stratum of inner experience and the realm of objective reality do not lie on the same level.

The deepest wisdom man can attain is to know that his destiny is to aid, to serve. We have to conquer in order to succumb; we have to acquire in order to give away; we have to triumph in order to be overwhelmed. Man has to understand in order to believe, to know in order to accept. The aspiration is to obtain; the perfection is to dispense. This is the meaning of death: the ultimate self-dedication to the divine. Death so understood will not be distorted by the craving for immortality, for the act of giving away is reciprocity on man’s part for God’s gift of life. For the pious man it is a privilege to die.

The deepest human longing is to be a thought in God’s mind, to be the object of His attention.

The chain of causality and of syllogistic reasoning, in which things and thoughts are fettered, is fixed in the space of endless possibilities like the tongue hanging in a silent bell. It is as if all the universe were fixed to a single point. In revelation the bell rings, and words vibrate through the world.

Sophisticated thinking may enable man to feign his being sufficient to himself. Yet the way to insanity is paved with such illusions. The feeling of futility that comes with the sense of being useless, of not being needed in the world, is the most common cause of psychoneurosis. The only way to avoid despair is to be a need rather than an end. Happiness, in fact, may be defined as the certainty of being needed. But who is in need of man?

Self-respect is the fruit of discipline; the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.

Science has become the handmaiden of the state. Now science must satisfy the demand of the state, and that demand is power. Therein lies the danger of its secular subservience and the cause of its conflict with humanity. For power, even if prompted by moral objectives, tends to become self-justifying and creates moral imperatives of its own.

Religious observance has more than two dimensions; it is more than an act that happens between man and an idea. The unique feature of religious living is in its being three-dimensional. In a religious act man stands before God.

Religion is neither a state of mind nor an achievement of intellect. It does not rule hearts by the grace of man; its roots lie not in his inwardness. It is not an event in the soul but a matter of fact outside the soul. Even what starts as an experience in man transcends the human sphere, becoming an objective event outside him. In this power of transcending the soul, time, and space, the pious man sees the distinction of religious acts.

Religion is more than a creed or a doctrine, more than faith or piety; it is an everlasting fact in the universe, something that exists outside knowledge and experience, an order of being, the holy dimension of existence. It does not emanate from the affections and moods, aspirations and visions of the soul. It is not a divine force in us, a mere possibility, left to the initiative of man, something that may or may not take place, but an actuality, the inner constitution of the universe, the system of divine values involved in every being and exposed to the activity of man, the ultimate in our reality. As an absolute implication of being, as an ontological entity, not as an adorning veneer for a psychical wish or for a material want, religion cannot be totally described in psychological or sociological terms.

Professional competence, political independence, and moral sensitivity would be required qualities of the guardian of moral discipline.

Prayer, then is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of God.

Prayer teaches us what to aspire for.

Prayer is spiritual ecstasy.

Prayer is not for the sake of something else. We pray in order to pray.

Prayer is not a need but an ontological necessity, an act that expresses the very essence of man. Prayer is for human beings, by virtue of our being human. He who has never prayed is not fully human. Ontology, not psychology or sociology, explains prayer.

Prayer is a microcosm of the soul. It is the whole souls in one moment; the quintessence of all our acts; the climax of all our thoughts. It rises as high as our thoughts.

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods… Prayer does not come by default. It requires education, training, reflection, contemplation. It is not enough to join others; it is necessary to build a sanctuary within, brick by brick, instants of meditation, moments of devotion. This is particularly true in an age when overwhelming forces seem to conspire at destroying our ability to pray.

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Abraham Joshua
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Polish Jewish Religious Leader