Polish Jewish Religious Leader
Abraham Joshua Heschel
Polish Jewish Religious Leader
In moments in which the soul undergoes the unmitigated realization of the mystery that vibrates between its precarious existence and its inscrutable meaning, we find it unbearably absurd to define the essence of man by what he knows or what he is able to bring about. To the sense of the ineffable the essence of man lies in his being a means of higher expression, in his being an intimation of ineffable meaning… The ultimate insight is the outcome of moments when we are stirred beyond words, of instants of wonder, awe, praise, fear, trembling and radical amazement; of awareness of grandeur, of perceptions we can grasp but are unable to convey, of discoveries of the unknown, of moments in which we abandon the pretense of being acquainted with the world, of knowledge by inacquaintance. It is at the climax of such moments that we attain the certainty life has meaning, that time is more than evanescence, that beyond all being there is someone who cares.
If our basic concepts are impregnable to analysis, then we must not be surprised that the ultimate answers are not attainable by reason alone. If it is impossible to define “goodness,” “value,” or “fact,” how should we ever succeed in defining what we mean by God? Every religious act and judgment involves the acceptance of the ineffable, the acknowledgment of the inconceivable. When the basic issues of religion, such as God, revelation, prayer, holiness, commandments, are dissolved into pedestrian categories and deprived of sublime relevance, they come close to being meaningless.
Fear is the anticipation of evil or pain, as contrasted with hope which is the anticipation of good. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. Fear is “a surrender of the succors which reason offers”; awe is the acquisition of insights which the world holds in store for us. Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is compatible with both love and joy.
Faith is an act of the whole person, of mind, will, and heart. Faith is sensitivity, understanding, engagement, and attachment; not something achieved once and for all, but an attitude one may gain or lose.
Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension. The greatest hindrance to such awareness is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental clichés. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.
A moment of awe is a moment of self-consecration. They who sense the wonder share in the wonder. They who keep holy the things that are holy shall themselves become holy.
We pray because of the experience of the dreadful incompatibility of how we live and what we sense.
We fail to wonder... This is the tragedy of every man... Life is routine, and routine is resistance to the wonder. Awe is an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves... The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe... Awe is a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality... Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith... The ineffable inhabits the magnificent and the common, the grandiose and the tiny facts of reality alike... Slight and simple things may be a glimpse of God? kinship with the spirit of being? an eternal flash of a will?
We dwell on the edge of mystery and ignore it, wasting our souls, risking our stake in God.
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 is to be understood in terms of a transcendence, and that transcendence is not a passive thing; it is a challenging transcendence.
We believe in the possibility of unifying the divine within us with the Infinite Divine, which exists outside of us; we believe that a small bit of loving kindness in a mortal’s heart joins with Eternity; and that ordinary actions are no less significant than the most exalted of projects.
True insight is a moment of perceiving a situation before it freezes into similarity with something else.
To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live... Prayer clarifies our hope and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification... It teaches us what to aspire to, implants in us ideals we ought to cherish... Prayer begins where expression ends... The soul can only intimate its persistent striving.
To celebrate is to contemplate the singularity of the moment and to enhance the singularity of the self. What was shall not be again... Every moment is a new arrival, a new bestowal. How to welcome the moment? How to respond to the marvel? The cardinal sin is in our failure not to sense the grandeur of the moment, the marvel and mystery of being, the possibility of quiet exaltation. The man of our time is losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating, he seeks to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state - it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle... Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions. Celebration is an act of expressing respect or reverence for that which one needs or honors... inward appreciation, lending spiritual form to everyday acts.
To be human is to be involved, to act and to react, to wonder and to respond. For man to be is to play a part in a cosmic drama, knowingly or unknowingly.
Time is perpetual innovation, a synonym for continuous creation.
There is this present moment because God is present. Every instant is an act of creation. A moment is not a terminal but a flash, a signal of Beginning. Time is perpetual innovation, a synonym for continuous creation.
There is no vacuum of religion. Religion is neither the outgrowth of imagination nor the product of will. It is not an inner process, a feeling, or a thought, and should not be looked upon as a bundle of episodes in the life of man… The pious man believe that there is a secret interrelationship among all events, that the sweep of all we are doing reaches beyond the horizon of our comprehension, that there is a history of God and man in which everything is involved…Religion to him is the integration of the detail into the whole, the infusion of the momentary into the lasting. As time and space in any perception, so is the totality of life implied in every act of piety. There is an objective coherency that holds all episodes together… Man does not produce what is overwhelming and holy. The wonder occurs to him when he is ready to accept it.
There is no liberty except the freedom bestowed upon us by God; that there is no liberty without sanctity.
There are four dimensions of religious existence, four necessary components of man’s relationships to God: (1) the teaching, the essentials of which are summarized in the form of a creed, which serve as guiding principles in our thinking about matters temporal or eternal, the dimension of the doctrine; (b) faith, inwardness, the direction of one’s heart, the intimacy of religion, the dimension of privacy; (c) the law, or the sacred act to be carried out in the sanctuary in society or at home, the dimension of the deed; (d) the context in which creed, faith, and ritual come to pass, such as the community or the covenant, history, tradition, the dimension of transcendence.
The wall of separation between the sacred and the secular has become a wall of separation between the conscience and God.
The ultimate truth is not capable of being fully and adequately expressed in concepts and words. The ultimate truth is about the situation that pertains between God and man… Revelation is always an accommodation to the capacity of man.