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01/28/2019 11:50:19 AM



The speaker stood at the podium and announced:
    “Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just occurred!”

Members of the startled audience would immediately cease talking, lean forward wondering, what miracle could have happened? What miracle did they miss? He would then continue,
    “Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just taken place...the sun has gone down.”

Now they would look at him strangely, some taken aback, incredulous, other might snicker at the strange man with the long beard and prophetic manner. Then he began to speak, and as he spoke, you began to feel deeply embarrassed that the sun had gone down, and you didn't stop to notice. What part of us has been surrendered when the sunset no longer inspires?

His name was Abraham Joshua Heschel, arguably the greatest Jewish thinker of the 20th century, whose message is more alive today than ever before.

“Wonder, or radical amazement,” he wrote, “is the chief characteristic of the religious man's attitude toward nature and history. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as the natural course of things. To find an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder. He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all.”

Religion, for Heschel, is not a matter of accepting a set of beliefs. Religion is a way of knowing the world, a unique way of apprehending reality. And the opposite of religion is not doubt or disbelief or secularity. The opposite of religion is boredom -- to look at the world and find nothing engaging, nothing surprising. The opposite of religion is to miss an essential element of reality -- its mystery, its grandeur -- it is to witness the sunset and just push down the car's sunvisor without a moment of amazement and wonder.

“Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension. As civilization advances,” he continued, “the sense of wonder declines. Such a decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of happiness lies in understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”    

When we think of religion, we think of rituals and symbols, of holy books and their doctrines, of institutions. The most vital part of religion, Heschel argues,  is that which goes on within the person, the innerness of religion. What happens to a person to bring about faith? What are the questions that religious faith comes to answer? We have a prayer book, but what is happening inside the praying person? What sort of human character wrote Genesis? What happened to the soul who wrote the Psalms? The inner life of religion is Heschel's concern. He called it “depth theology” -- probing the antecedents, the presuppositions, the questions that religion comes to answer.

Heschel was a man practiced in the art of living between two worlds. Born in Poland in 1907, the heir to a great Hasidic dynasty, he was educated in the heart of scientific modernity, at the University of Berlin. Six weeks ahead of the invading Nazis, he escaped to America. Here was a soul, steeped in the world of Hasidic piety and mysticism, residing in skeptical, scientific post-war America. Here was a refugee from Jewish history, who carried within himself all the extraordinary moments of the Jewish people's encounter with God, living in an American culture without memory, with little use for the past. Here was an glowing ember plucked from the ashes of the Holocaust, a soul possessed with an extraordinary sensitivity for the enormity of evil deceit in the world. Here was a world-renown scholar who found that scholarship, the writing of books, wasn't enough. Word must give way to deeds.

This man of two worlds discovered that the inner life is never monotone. It is always drawn between opposites, what he called polarities. To ignore the paradoxical is to miss the truth. Consider this image: A pendulum, swinging back and forth. The arc described by the pendulum is truth.  If you stop the pendulum anywhere along the arc, and you say, this point here, at the zenith, say, right here, that's truth, or if you stop it down here at the midpoint and say, that's truth, you're wrong. You'll always be wrong. Because the truth of the inner life is a pendulum moving between polarities. Keva and Kavannah -- the fixed order of ritual and the spontaneous outpouring of soul. Halacha and Agada -- the structured law of tradition and the playful imaginative, creative grasping for God. Rabim and Yachid -- the life of the community and the experience of the individual. Joy and discipline. Love and fear. Avinu and Malchaynu. Understanding and obedience. Protest and surrender. Time and eternity. Justice and mercy. Now and forever.

The inner life is always fraught with tension, paradox, contradiction, the struggle to maintain equilibrium among polarities. This is what Heschel finds throughout the history of Jewish spirituality. Heschel carries this history in his own memory. He lives with the prophets. Or they live in him. He walks around with the rabbis and the medieval philosophers as he walked with colleagues and students. And the Hasidic masters are his mishpocha. He writes of them, not as impersonal  historical abstractions. He writes of them from a place of intimacy. He is interested not in cold objective scholarly investigation. He is drawn to the inner life of spiritual heroes and their struggles.

Here, in Heschel's masterpiece, The Prophets, is Jeremiah torn between God's rage over the corruption of Jerusalem and God's loving tenderness for His city and His people. Here in Heschel's monumental study of the Talmudic rabbis, the two competing principles of interpretation -- Rabbi Akiba's flights of mysticism, Rabbi Ishmael's solid rationalism.  Here, in Heschel's biography of Maimonides is the master's titanic struggle to hold together the truth of science and philosophy with the truth of Torah and tradition. Here, in Heschel's loving tribute to the Hasidic tradition, is the essential conflict between the Baal Shem Tov's miraculous flights of imagination and exhilaration, and the relentless search of the Kotzker Rebbe for truth. He describes these two spiritual types:  

“I was taught about inexhaustible mines of meaning by the Baal Shem; from the Kotzker I learned to detect immense mountain of absurdity standing in the way. The one taught me song, the other -- silence. The one reminded me that there could be Heaven on earth, the other shocked me into discovering Hell in the allegedly Heavenly places in our world. ... The Baal Shem dwelled in my life like a lamp, while the Kotzker struck like lightning...The Baal Shem gave me wings; the Kotzker encircled me with chains.”

For Heschel, spiritual life is not calm, serene, tranquil. The inner life is fraught with struggle, tension, conflict.  “Blessed is God who creates the opposites: light and darkness, life and death, time and eternity, peace and conflict.” Ours is not a monism, reducing all experience to one, to one principle, to one idea, to one path, denying the contrast, denying the differences and the existence of the tension.  But nor are we dualists who break everything into two with disjunction between good and evil, light and darkness, religious and secular, and us and them. We are monotheists which means that we acknowledge the polarities in experience because we can affirm that beneath them there is a basic unity of experience. In God there is unity and wholeness.  

Alongside this deep spiritual seriousness, the images of inner struggle, there is a playful element in Heschel. He revels in upturning our expectations of religious life. Philosophers spend lifetimes searching for the answers, Heschel declares that the real task is to discover the questions that religion comes to address. Jewish tradition is an ocean of words, texts, literature. Heschel declares that at its heart, religion is built upon our sense of the ineffable -- the place where words end, the moments which cannot describe in language. Genuine religious education is not a matter of teaching proper words for rites and ceremonies but learning to be sensitive to the daily possibility of wordless moments of wonder and awe. We achieve wisdom, not in knowing, but in realizing that at the heart of all being is mystery. We achieve dignity, not in independent self-sufficiency, but in recognizing that we are indebted.

Heschel will not offer proofs for the existence of God or the truth of religion. For the believer, proofs are irrelevant; for the nonbeliever, proofs are unconvincing. Instead, he will reveal to us how a religious person knows the world -- the context of perception in which faith grows, the questions religion comes to answer. Spiritual life  is not the esoteric possession of geniuses and virtuosi. Spirituality is an essential part of being human, it belongs to us all. It comes from the sense that there is more to reality than my words and concepts can contain. Watch the fascination of a three-year old discovering a bug, or eating a Oreo with a glass of milk. A new father and mother contemplating their newborn child. Or the grandparent witnessing the Bar Mitzvah of a grandson.

Heschel writes: “The heart of being confronts me as enigmatic, incompatible with my categories, sheer mystery. My power of probing is easily exhausted, my words fade, but what I sense is not emptiness but abundance, ineffable abundance. What I face I cannot utter or phrase in language. But the richness of my facing the abundance of being endows me with marvelous reward: a sense of the ineffable.”

Heschel builds us a step-ladder of words leading to this moment of discovery: wonder, mystery, awe, insight. And at the end, not a placid, passive faith -- the mystical ecstasy of knowing God -- but an active sense of indebtedness: The deepest truth of religion is that something is asked of us.

The question is how to respond to this sense of indebtedness. How to respond to God's persistent question, Where are you? History is not the story of the human quest for God, but rather, as he titled his philosophical masterpiece, it is God in Search of Man. God is looking for us, waiting for us. God needs us. The God that Heschel discovers is not Aristotle's unmoved mover, or Aquinas's Ground of Being, but the God of the Prophets, a God of pathos, a God who feels and knows the pain of human suffering. The God of the universe who is tormented by the suffering of the poor, the hungry, the helpless and the hopeless.

Why did the Torah prohibit the making of images of God? Because there is only one medium in the world in which God can adequately be represented, that is the entirety of a human life.

Words must gave way to deeds. Only in deeds can we worship a God whose name cannot be pronounced. Only in deeds can we unite the polarities that divide the inner life. Only in deeds can be one as God is one.

Here is Heschel turning to a life of political activism in pursuit of social justice: Open the famous photo of Martin Luther King's march on Selma, Alabama, and you'll see that beside King there's a small man with a flowing white beard and garland of flower about his neck -- that's Heschel. When asked by his colleagues in the Seminary: Why are you, a professor of theology, a scholar of spirituality, marching for civil rights? He replied: With every step, I felt my feet praying.  

Here's Heschel leading protest against the Vietnam War, going to Danbury Prison, just days before his death, to greet the release of the anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan. Asked why he'd risk his already shaky health in the cold of a Connecticut winter, Heschel responded that he went so that Berrigan's first vision of the outside would be a face lit by the Biblical prophets and not the angry hate of Nixon's FBI.  Here's Heschel traveling to Rome at the invitation of the Pope, to represent the Jewish people in negotiating for a change in centuries-old doctrines of Catholic hatred toward Jews and Judaism.

Here is Heschel's telegram to President John F. Kennedy in June, 1963 on the eve of the White House Conference on Race: “[Race relations are] like the weather, everyone talks about it, no one does anything...Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent. Let religious leaders donate one month's salary toward a fund for negro housing and education. Declare a State of Emergency -- a Marshall Plan for aid for negroes. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” High moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Every Jewish family needs to own a library of books. Books of insight when we search for wisdom. Books to comfort us when we are in pain. Books to inspire us to celebrate life and all its blessings. Heschel's books need to be in your library. And Heschel's words need to be heard in your home. For here is a spiritual hero worthy for your children to cherish, an example of a life lived fully in the presence of God.



Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784