The Experience and Nearness of God

Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel stressed the human encounter with God.

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Multiple Paths to God

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a descendant of famous Hasidic masters such as Dov Baer of Mezhrich and Levi Isaac of Berdichev, also relied heavily on Hasidic sources for examples of the ultimate religious experience. Like Buber, Heschel emphasized the presence of God in nature and in the human encounter. In Heschel's writing on Jewish theology, he describes the experience of deep awareness and wonder at the "sublime mystery" of nature and other beautiful aspects of the world as a source of "radical amazement." This kind of awe and amazement is an essential element of faith.

In his well-known book God In Search of Man (1956), Heschel describes multiple paths to religious truth: through nature, through revelation, and through mitzvot, or commandments. In a religious life, all three aspects work together and produce the foundation of a relationship with God. God, for Heschel, is the basis of any being, of anything. God is the premise of our existence, not something that we search for outside of ourselves and possibly find with enough inquiry.

Heschel's philosophy of faith includes three basic elements: 1) a sense of indebtedness, 2) a desire to praise, and 3) the performance of mitzvot. Praise is a central element in the human relationship with God, as it is a response to the experience of God. If one is moved to praise God because of the power of one's experiences in life, one is likely, Heschel thought, to have a deeper faith in God and a greater desire to serve God. Human beings serve God by responding to God's call to add to the holiness of the world. This is achieved through prayer, study, and ethical deeds.

In his writings, Heschel emphasized the God of the Bible. Though many biblical characters try to avoid, reject, and rebel against God, God does not abandon Israel. Heschel understands the God of the Bible as one who is known from the experience of self, and of the world. This is a God who, "comes to people to command and console, to judge and forgive, to direct and give hope."

Heschel's God is anthropopathic, that is, God has human-like feelings, and is concerned with goodness. In his early work, The Prophets, Heschel focuses on understanding the God described in the books of the prophets. By examining the lives of the prophets Amos and Jeremiah, in particular, Heschel demonstrates that God is not insensitive, distant, or unconcerned about the human experience, but rather God is a God of pathos, of emotions, sensitive to the suffering of human beings.

While the biblical message gives ethics a prominent place, Heschel, unlike other modern thinkers, did not believe that ethics is the primary substance of revelation. Heschel is essentially a traditionalist, or a neo-traditionalist, and argued for a return to traditional observances. Unlike other liberal thinkers he does not argue that human beings can (even partially) determine the specific kinds of acts that religion should demand, but rather that God's revelation determines the content of religious practice.

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Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi was ordained by the Hebrew Union College?Jewish Institute of Religion and earned her Ph.D. at the Jewish Theological Seminary and serves as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President's Scholar at HUC-JIR. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, Rabbi Ofer Sabath Beit-Halachmi, and their three children.