ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1908-1972) is arguably the most influential philosopher and theologian of the Conservative movement. He taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1945 until the time of his death.
Here is a very good, brief introduction to Heschel:
Our text, The Many Faces of God, also has a good brief introduction at pages 43-44.
Heschel’s “root” text is Isaiah 40:26. I refer to it as such because Heschel frequently alludes to this text.
Biblical text: “Lift up your eyes on high and see, Who created these?”
Lift up your eyes and see. How does a man lift up his eyes to see a little higher than himself? The grand premise of religion is that man is able to surpass himself…that man who is part of this world may enter into a relationship with Him who is greater than the world…How does one rise above the horizon of the mind? How does one free oneself from the perspectives of ego, group, earth, and age? How does one find a way in the world that would lead to an awareness of Him who is beyond this world?
Small is the world that most of us pay attention to, and limited is our concern…Our age is one in which usefulness is thought to be the chief merit of nature…
The Greeks learned in order to comprehend. The Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man learns in order to use…We do not know any more how to justify any value except in terms of expediency. Man is willing to define himself as “a seeker after the maximum degree of comfort for the minimum expenditure of energy”…He is sure of his ability to explain all mystery away. Only a generation ago he was convinced that science was on the way to solve all the enigmas of the world…
The awareness of grandeur and the sublime is all but gone from the modern mind…We teach the children how to measure, how to weigh. We fail to teach them how to revere, how to sense wonder and awe…
The sublime is that which we see and are unable to convey. It is the silent allusion of thins to a meaning greater than themselves…It is that which our words, our forms, our categories can never reach…
The sublime, furthermore, is not necessarily related to the vast and overwhelming in size. It may be sensed in every grain of sand, in every drop of water. Every flower in the summer, every snowflake in the winter, may arouse in us the sense of wonder that is our response to the sublime.
A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
(William Wordsworth, “The Old Cumberland Beggar”)
Heschel refers to man’s religious or spiritual response to the world as “radical amazement”.
Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.
Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension…Wonder, or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.
Radical amazement has a wider scope than any other act of man. While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality; not only to what we see, but also to the very act of seeing as well to our own selves, to the selves that see and are amazed at their ability to see…
What fills us with radical amazement is not the relations in which everything is embedded but the fact that even the minimum of perceptions is a maximum of enigma. The most incomprehensible fact is the fact that we comprehend at all.
Heschel quotes at length from Chapter 37 of Job. Here is a brief excerpt:
Stand still and consider the wondrous works of the Lord.
Do you know how God lays His command upon them,
And causes the lightning of His cloud to shine?
Do you know the balancing of the clouds…
1All quotes are from the selection of Heschel’s texts included in Between God and Man, ed. Fritz A. Rothschild, New York, Free Press, 1959. Page references are to that volume. Most excerpts are from God in Search of Man or Man is Not Alone.