Abraham Joshua Heschel

Abraham Joshua

Polish Jewish Religious Leader

Author Quotes

If prayer were only the articulation of words, of nothing but psychological relevance and of no metaphysical resonance, nobody would in an hour of crisis waste his time by praying in self-delusion.

I seek to understand the present and the future while I disagree with those who think of the present in the past tense. I consider my own intellectual existence that the greatest danger is to become obsolete.

I maintain that the agony of contemporary man is the agony of the spiritually stunted man.

Humanity is an unfinished task, and so is religion. The Law, the creed, the teaching and the wisdom are here, yet without the outburst of prophetic demands coming upon us again and again, religion may become fossilized.

Human happiness does not consist in satisfying one’s personal wishes but in the certainty of being needed, in having the visions of goals still unattained.

He who sets out to employ the realities of life as means for satisfying his own desires will soon forfeit his freedom and be degraded to a mere tool. Acquiring things, he becomes enslaved to them; in subduing others, he loses his own soul. We feel jailed in the confinement of personal needs. The more we indulge in satisfactions, the deeper is our feeling of oppressiveness. To be an iconoclast of idolized needs, to defy our own immoral interests, though they seem to be vital and have long been cherished, we must be able to say no to ourselves in the name of a higher yes.

Happiness is not a synonym for self-satisfaction, complacency, or smugness. Self-satisfaction breeds futility and despair. All that is creative in man stems from a seed of endless discontent. New insight begins when satisfaction comes to an end, when all that has been seen, said, or done looks like a distortion. The aim is the maintenance and fanning of a discontent with our aspirations and achievements, the maintenance and fanning of a craving that knows no satisfaction. Man’s true fulfillment depends upon communion with that which transcends him.

Greek philosophy is concerned with values; Jewish thought dwells on mitzvoth [deeds].

God manifests Himself in events rather than in things, and these events can never be captured or localized in things.

God in the universe is a spirit of concern for life... We often fail in trying to understand Him, not because we do not know how to extend our concepts far enough, but because we do not know how to begin close enough. To think of God is not to find Him as an object in our minds, but to find ourselves in Him.

Gloom’s roots are in pretentiousness, fastidiousness, and a disregard of the good. The gloomy man, living in irritation and a constant quarrel with his destiny, senses hostility everywhere and seems never to be aware of the illegitimacy of his own complaints. He has a fine sense for the incongruities of life but stubbornly refuses to recognize the delicate grace of existence.

Generosity without wisdom is an evasion, an alibi for conscience.

Faith is not a clinging to a shrine but the endless, tameless pilgrimage of hearts. Audacious longing, calling, calling, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind – it is all a stalwart driving to the precious serving of Him who rings our hearts like a bell, wishing to enter our empty perishing life.

Faith is found in solicitude for faith, in an inner care for the wonder that is everywhere. Highest in the list of virtues, this anxious caring extends not only to the moral sphere but to all realms of life, to oneself and to others, to words and to thoughts, to events and to deeds. Unawed by the prevailing narrowness of mind, it persists as an attitude toward the whole of reality; to hold small things great, to take light matters seriously, to think of the common and the passing from the aspect of the lasting.

Exaltation is gone from the synagogue, from the church, and also from many a classroom and university. The cardinal sin is boredom, and the major failure the denial to our young of moments of exaltation.

Every person moves in two domains: in the domain of nature and in the domain of spirit. Half slave, half king, he is bound by the laws of nature, but at the same time able to subdue and dominate them.

Evaluating faith in terms of reason is like trying to understand love as a syllogism and beauty as an algebraic equation.

Does man exist for the sake of society? The ultimate worth of a person would then be determined by his usefulness to others, by the efficiency of his social work.... Such service does not claim all of one’s life and can therefore not be the ultimate answer to his quest for the meaning of life as a whole. Man has more to give than what other men are able or willing to accept. Man’s quest for a meaning of existence is essentially a quest for lasting... The way to the lasting does not lie on the other side of life; it does not begin where time breaks off. The lasting begins not beyond but within time, within the moment, within the concrete... The days of our lives are representatives of eternity rather than fugitives, and we must live as if the fate of all time would totally depend on a single moment.

Death may be a supreme spiritual act, turning oneself over to eternity: The moment of death, a moment of ecstasy. A moment of no return to vanity. Thus afterlife is felt to be a reunion and all life a preparation for it… Death is not sensed as a defeat but as a summation, an arrival, a conclusion.

Being human is a characteristic of a being who faces the question: After satisfaction, what?

As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.

Inspirations are brief, sporadic and rare. In the long interims the mind is often dull, bare and vapid. There is hardly a soul that can radiate more light than it receives. To perform a mitzvah is to meet the spirit. But the spirit is not something we can acquire once and for all but something we must constantly live with and pray for. For this reason the Jewish way of life is to reiterate the ritual, to meet the spirit again and again, tehs spirit in one self and the spirit that hovers over all beings.

A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought... Through the ecstasy of deeds he learns to be certain of the hereness of God. Right living is a way to right thinking.

The path of loyalty to the routine of sacred living runs along the borderline of the spirit; though being outside, one remains very close to the spirit. Routine holds us in readiness for the moments in which the soul enters into accord with the spirit.

Life passes on in proximity to the sacred, and it is this proximity that endows existence with ultimate significance. In our relation to the immediate we touch upon the most distant. Even the satisfaction of physical needs can be a sacred act. Perhaps the essential meaning of Judaism is that in doing the finite we may perceive the infinite.

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Abraham Joshua
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Polish Jewish Religious Leader