God in Search of Man
by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Publisher: New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.
An inspiration for generations of scholars and spiritual seekers through his writings, teaching, and personal example, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was considered the greatest Jewish theologian of the 20th century. Born in Poland into a family descended from famed Hasidic rabbis and mystics, he earned a doctorate in philosophy in Berlin. Facing persecution from the Nazis, he fled to the United States, where he became a professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism, teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America for nearly thirty years.
In God in Search of Man Heschel discusses the nature of God as a spiritual essence - “the Ineffable” - who challenges man to respond to him through awareness, devotion, and action. A scholar in both Jewish texts and traditions and in contemporary philosophy, Heschel weaves together an appreciation of the traditional forms of the Jewish religion with an entirely revolutionary way of discussing its basic beliefs and assumptions. His style is inspirational and passionate.
The book is divided into three parts: God, Revelation, and Response. In the first part, Heschel begins with a discussion of religion and how in its present form it is unable to help us discover God:
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 … its message becomes meaningless.
Religion for Heschel is about responding to God here and now. Indeed, he writes that God reaches out to humans and waits for them to seek him. He is there even for those who are not aware of him: “It is an exceptional act of divine grace that those who do not care for Him should suddenly discover that they are near Him.”
For Heschel, awe, wonder, and radical amazement are the ingredients lacking in the modern response to God. He says, “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.” For him the entire universe is a touchstone for awe of God:
Everything holds the great secret. For it is the inescapable situation of all being to be involved in the infinite mystery. We may continue to disregard the mystery, but we can neither deny nor escape it. The world is something we apprehend but cannot comprehend.
The world can only be understood in relation to God. If we have the ears to hear, all creation sings God’s praises.
“Lift up your eyes on high and see who created these.”[Bible, Isaiah 40:26] There is a higher form of seeing. We must learn how to lift up our eyes on high in order to see that the world is more a question than an answer. The world’s beauty and power are as naught compared to Him. The grandeur of nature is only the beginning. Beyond the grandeur is God.
Heschel uses many biblical passages and mysteries to portray the ineffability of God. He takes up passages from Psalms 19:2-5:
“The heavens declare the glory of God.” How do they declare it? How do they reveal it? “Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge.” Speech? Knowledge? What is the language, what are the words in which the heavens express the glory? “There is no speech, there are no words, neither is their voice heard.” And yet, “Their radiation [radiance] goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” The song of the heavens is Ineffable. The glory is concealed, yet there are moments in which it is revealed, particularly to the prophets…. The glory, then, is not a physical phenomenon…. The glory is neither an aesthetic nor a physical category…. It is, as we said, a living presence or the effulgence of a living presence.
Heschel writes that the ineffable is where our search must begin. Once we sense the ineffable, we search for how to respond to it. “By the ineffable we mean that aspect of reality which by its very nature lies beyond our comprehension.” The grandeur of the universe reveals to us, to our awe and amazement, a meaning greater than man.
Awe, then, is more than a feeling. It is an answer of the heart and mind to the presence of mystery in all things, an intuition for a meaning that is beyond the mystery, an awareness of the transcendent worth of the universe.
In discussing the danger of conceptual thinking about the mystery, he says:
The encounter with reality does not take place on the level of concepts through the channels of logical categories; concepts are second thoughts. All conceptualization is symbolization, an act of accommodation of reality to the human mind. The living encounter with reality takes place on a level that precedes conceptualization…. We have an awareness that is deeper than our concepts; we possess insights that are not accessible to the power of expression.
Our natural response to the mystery, then, will be faith. He says that to have faith is to rise to a higher level of thinking. In faith we share in divine wisdom. There are no adequate words or concepts to describe God or the mystery of existence. Silence is preferable to speech. All language is inaccurate.
Heschel moves into his main theme: that God is not inaccessible, though he is concealed within the mystery of life. He placed his own spirit within man, as the Bible says: “It is the spirit in a man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand” (Job 32: 8). We may often think that God doesn’t answer, and thus we do not see what he is doing for us. He is always present; he is pure presence. We do often hear him but we don’t pay attention.
Again and again His call goes out to the soul: “Open to Me, my sister, my love, my dove”[Bible, Song of Songs 5:2] but the call is usually lost in the confusion of the heart, in the ambiguity of the world…. Without God’s aid, man cannot find Him. Without man’s seeking, His aid is not granted.
In the second part of the book, Revelation, Heschel describes the revelation of the Torah (Bible) to Moses at Sinai as the earthshaking event when “the voice of God overwhelmed us.”
Now, to be perceived by man the word of God must be conveyed by a voice; yet to be divine it must be conveyed by something far greater than a voice…. The word of God is the power of creation. He said, Let there be, and it was…. The spirit of His creative power brought a material world into being; the spirit of His revealing power brought the Bible into being.
The revelation at Sinai is the phenomenon of God reaching out to man - descending to the human level. Moses was not seeking mystic experience, but rather was being sought after, “an act in God’s search of man.”
The third part of the book, Response, concerns how we can respond to God’s call. Heschel says we respond through our deeds. At the time of revelation we made a commitment to fulfil His commands even before we heard them. The people of Israel agreed: “All that the Lord has spoken, we shall do and we shall hear” (Exodus 24:7). This is “the precedence of faith over knowledge.” To act according to God’s will is the basis for morality and ethics.
The problem of the soul is how to live nobly in an animal environment; how to persuade and train the tongue and the senses to behave in agreement with the insights of the soul. The integrity of life is not exclusively a thing of the heart…. Man is body and soul, and his goal is so to live that both “his heart and his flesh should sing to the living God.”
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