Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Prophet's Prophet

Heschel aimed, through his writing and teaching, to shock modern people out of complacency and into a spiritual dimension

Print this page Print this page

How can modern man regain a personal awareness of God? A universally accessible feeling is the experience of the sublime—for example, in the presence of the grandeur of nature. A sense of the sublime entails wonder and “radical astonishment” Astonishment is radical because it embraces not only what one sees but the very act of seeing and the very self that is astonished in its ability to see.

The individual confronts the “ineffable,” that which cannot ever be expressed in words. Heschel insists that the ineffable is not a psychological state but an encounter with a mystery “within and beyond things and ideas” The divine is “within” because the self is “something transcendent in disguise.” The divine is “beyond” because it also is, “a message that discloses unity where we see diversity; that discloses peace where we are involved in discord…God means: No one is ever alone.”

A second experience that, according to Heschel, awakens the individual to the presence of God is a pervasive, underlying anxiety that he calls “the need to be needed.” Religion entails the certainty that something is asked of man and that he is not a mere bystander in the cosmos. When the individual feels the challenge of a power, not born of his will, that robs him of self-sufficiency by a judgment of the rightness or wrongness of his actions—then God’s concern for his creatures is grasped.

The Prophetic Model of Spirituality

For Heschel, it is the Bible—particularly the prophets—that provides a primary model for authentic spirituality. Biblical revelation is not a mystical act of seeking God but an awareness of being sought and reached by Him: The prophets bear witness to an event that they formulate in their own words, but the event itself is God’s reaching out. It is not propositonal truths about God or general norms and values that the prophets transmit but the “divine pathos” (pathos from the Greek root denoting emotion, feeling, passion). The divine pathos is God’s outraged response to man’s sin and his merciful response to man’s suffering and anguish. Heschel does not actually attribute “pathos” to God’s metaphysical essence, but sees it as a corrective to a conception of monotheism that restricts the scope of God’s knowledge to universal principles only…

A Jew Takes Leaps of Action

A third mode of apprehending God’s presence is the life of holiness. A few of Heschel’s aphorisms convey his rejection of a utilitarian, sociological approach to Jewish observance and his supracognitive, mystical feeling for halakhah [Jewish law]. The halakhah sharpens men’s sympathy to the ineffable: “To perform deeds of holiness is to absorb the holiness of deeds.” “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.” Whereas the term ceremony merely expresses what we think, mitzvah expresses what God wills: a mitzvah [commandment/good deed] is “a prayer in the form of a deed.”

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Robert M. Seltzer

Robert Seltzer is a Professor of History at Hunter College (CUNY).