Friday, April 16, 2021

A safe distance

It is true of course that most synagogues [and churches] offer adults the chance to study the Bible. But most of these classes are ineffectual. Instead of trying to bring forth the relevance of certain biblical passages and their lasting significance to us, we sometimes discuss their historic importance or their textual difficulties. Instead of standing face to face, soul to soul with the biblical word, we often try to stand above it by trying to show our own superiority to it. The fact that the prophets knew less about physics than we do does not imply that we know more than the prophets about the meaning of existence and the nature of man.

Nor is the “literary appreciation" approach more satisfactory. When I was a student in Germany, I often heard discussion about what a great collection of books the Bible is. What a great achievement, it was said, that Goethe's Faust begins with a scene from Job. We praise the Bible because it has had such a great impact on the English language and the development of English literature. But perhaps it is the other way around. Perhaps this is the greatness of English literature—that it was influenced by the Bible.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 150–151

Thursday, April 15, 2021


To make the mistake we are making is to forget how much anguish there is in every human being. Scratch the skin of any person and you come upon sorrow, frustration, unhappiness. People are pretentious. Everybody looks proud; inside he is heartbroken. We have not understood how to channel this depth of human suflfering into religious experience. Forgive me for saying so, but we have developed Jewish [Christian] sermons as if there were no personal problems. And when we do speak about the inner problems of men we borrow from psychoanalysis…—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 146

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

It's called metaphysical for a reason...

Religion is not within but beyond the limits of mere reason. Its task is not to compete with reason, to be a source of speculative ideas, but to aid us where reason gives us only partial aid. Its meaning must be understood in terms compatible with the sense of the ineffable. Frequently where concepts fail, where rational understanding ends, the meaning of observance begins. Its purpose is not essentially to serve hygiene, happiness, or the vitality of man; its purpose is to add holiness to hygiene, grandeur to happiness, spirit to vitality.

Spiritual meaning is not always limpid; transparency is the quality of glass, while diamonds are distinguished by refractive power and the play of prismatic colors.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 136–37 (emphasis original)

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The lure of technology

Let us never forget that some of the basic theological presuppositions of Judaism [and Christianity] cannot be justified in terms of human reason. Its conception of the nature of man as having been created in the likeness of God, its conception of God and history, of prayer, and even of morality, defy some of the realizations at which we have honestly arrived at the end of our analysis and scrutiny. The demands of piety are a mystery before which man is reduced to reverence and silence. In a technological society, when religion becomes a function, piety too is an instrument to satisfy his needs. We must therefore be particularly careful not to fall into the habit of looking at religion as if it were a machine which can be worked, an organization which can be run according to one's calculations.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 136

Monday, April 12, 2021

Stronger than I

Indeed, there is something which is far greater than my desire to pray. Namely, God’s desire that I pray. There is something which is far greater than my will to believe. Namely, God’s will that I believe. How insignificant is my praying in the midst of a cosmic process! Unless it is the will of God that I pray, how ludicrous is it to pray.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 131

Friday, April 09, 2021

The real problem

The problem to my [philosophy] professors was how to be good. In my ears the question rang: How to be holy. At the time I realized that there is much that philosophy could learn from Jewish life. To the philosophers the idea of the good was the most exalted idea, the ultimate idea. To Judaism the idea of the good is penultimate. It cannot exist without the holy. The good is the base, the holy is the summit. Man cannot be good unless he strives to be holy.

To have an idea of the good is not the same as living by the insight, Blessed is the man who does not forget Thee.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 129

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Defining humanity

Prayer is not a need but an ontological necessity, an act that expresses the very essence of man. Prayer is for human beings, by virtue of our being human. He who has never prayed is not fully human. Ontology, not psychology or sociology, explains prayer.

The dignity of man consists not in his ability to make tools, machines, guns, but primarily in his being endowed with the gift of addressing God. It is this gift which should be a part of the definition of man. —Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 116 (emphasis original)