Friday, April 30, 2021

Beyond words

Stirred by a yearning after the unattainable, they [mystics] want to make the distant near, the abstract concrete, to transform the soul into a vessel for the transcendent, to grasp with the senses what is hidden from the mind, to express in symbols what the tongue cannot speak, what the reason cannot conceive, to experience as a reality what vaguely dawns in intuitions. “Wise is he who by the power of his own contemplation attains to the perception of the profound mysteries which cannot be expressed in words.“—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 164–65

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Which came first? The institutions or the rituals?

Throughout history religion is the constant element in diverse and changing institutions. Therefore we cannot discount it in favor of the pseudo—solution that takes it as a mere nothing, the fifth wheel of all the coaches, without coming to grips with the opposite possibility, disagreeable as it is for modern antireligion. This possibility is that religion is the heart of every social system, the true origin and original form of all institutions, the universal basis of human culture. This solution is all the more difficult to avoid because since the golden days of rationalism we have learned more about ancient societies, Among many of these societies the institutions that the Enlightenment took for indispensable to humanity didn’t yet exist: in their place there were only sacrificial rituals.—Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening, 89

<idle musing>
I'm finally getting around to reading this, 20+ years after it was first published. The book is fascinating and explains much that we see going on in society, with the "single-victim mentality" and scapegoating. But I find his exegesis a bit loose and I don't think his attempt to make the founding victim myth the myth is convincing. But then, anytime someone comes up with what they think is the monolithic Ur-myth usually fails. Humanity is too complex for that.

That being said, I definitely recommend the book. It might be a hard slog for people who are unfamiliar with anthropology and mythological studies, but I think the time spent would definitely repay itself in insight into human society.

I got the book via Interlibrary Loan, and won't be posting much from it as I need to get it read and returned...
</idle musing>

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

We see but dimly…

The universe, exposed to the violence of our analytical mind, is being broken apart. It is split into the known and unknown, into the seen and unseen. In mystic contemplation all things are seen as one. The mystic mind tends to hold the world together: to behold the seen in conjunction with the unseen, to keep the fellowship with the unknown through the revolving door of the known, “to learn the higher supernal wisdom from all" that the Lord has created and to regain the knowledge that once was in the possession of men and “that has perished from them." What our senses perceive is but the jutting edge of what is deeply hidden. Extending over into the invisible, the things of this world stand in a secret contact with that which no eye has ever perceived. Everything certifies to the sublime, the unapparent working jointly with the apparent. There is always a reverberation in the Beyond to every action here.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 165

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

What's the big idea?

The process of forming an idea is one of generalization and abstraction. Such a process implies a distinction between a situation and an idea. Disregard of the fullness of what transpires leads to the danger of regarding the part as the whole. An idea of a theory of God can easily become a substitute for God. This is why I have always been careful not to define God in terms of one idea. God in search of man is an ongoing process. It is not a notion, it is a process. The prophets had no idea of God. What they had was an understanding.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 162 (emphasis original)

Thursday, April 22, 2021

A notion? Or a name?

I do not approve of the term the notion of God.” The God of Israel is a name, not a notion. There is a difference between a “name” and a “notion.” I am suggesting to you: don’t teach notions of God, teach the name of God. A notion applies to all objects of similar properties. A name applies to an individual. The name “God of Israel” applies to the one and only God of all men. A notion describes, defines; a name evokes. A notion is derived from a generalization; a name is learned through acquaintance. A notion you can conceive; a name you call. I even suggested that notions and the name of God of Israel are profoundly incompatible. All notions crumble when applied to Him.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 162

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Too truthful

If I had to write a Bible, I would say that once they left Sinai, they become great Tzadikim and great Hasidim and the only thing that they did henceforth was to praise God. They would not murmur against Moshe Rabbenu. Instead, we have frequent rebellion. It was worse than at Columbia [University in the 1960s]! Does this make sense in the light of all the great things that happened to them? And so the question I ask myself is: “Ribono Shel Olam, why do you bother with us?” That the Ribono Shel Olam should bother with us who are so rebellious and so ungrateful, so callous, so hard-necked, so stiff-necked is the great paradox. The only way to understand the paradox is that God takes man very seriously.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 157

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Concerning teaching

According to Jewish tradition, God Himself teaches.

This implies that the teacher has a very great responsibility. He must mobilize all his personal power, love, insight, and understanding. The most clever gimmicks will not achieve anything of lasting value. Unless there is an inner engagement, an attachment, a personal appreciation of the subject matter, the finest instructor will become inelfective.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 152

<idle musing>
That is so true. Think back about the best teachers you have had. Their techniques were varied, but what didn't vary was their love and appreciation for the subject matter they were teaching. They weren't so much teaching, as giving you a glimpse of what motivated and inspired them. You can't help but be motivated by that kind of fire. How much moreso when what they are teaching is the love of God!
</idle musing>

Monday, April 19, 2021

empty forms

Our concern ought, therefore, to be less about technique and more about content. Judaism is not merely a matter of external forms—it is also a matter of inner living. Is Judaism still aware of inner living? We have a synagogue, certainly, but we have very little prayer. There are important institutions but no crucial commitments, many facts but no appreciation; indeed, the impulse to popularize has drained Judaism of a sense of the complexity, the subtlety, the reality of its teachings and mitzvot. What remains is a lifeless devotion to external actions, to a pattern of religious behaviorism that rests on a conviction of the utter irrelevance of theology and belief.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 149

<idle musing>
Substitute Christianity for Judaism, and church building for synagogue, and it describes contemporary U.S. Christianity all too well...
</idle musing>

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)

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

And yet more on prayer…

Decisive is not the mystic experience of our being close to Him; decisive is not our feeling but our certainty of His being close to us—although even His presence is veiled and beyond the scope of our emotion. Decisive is not our emotion but our conviction. If such conviction is lacking, if the presence of God is a myth, then prayer to God is a delusion. If God is unable to listen to us, then we are insane in talking to Him.

The true source of prayer, we said above, is not an emotion but an insight. It is the insight into the mystery of reality, the sense of the ineffable, that enables us to pray. As long as we refuse to take notice of what is beyond our sight, beyond our reason; as long as we are blind to the mystery of being, the way to prayer is closed to us. 110 (emphasis original)

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

More thoughts on prayer

If God is a what, a power, the sum total of values, how could we pray to it? An “I” does not pray to an “it.” Unless, therefore, God is at least as real as my own self; unless I am sure that God has at least as much life as I do, how could I pray?—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 109 (emphasis original)

Monday, April 05, 2021

Prayer? Essential for theology!

To live without prayer is to live without God, to live without a soul. No one is able to think of Him unless he has learned how to pray to Him. For this is the way man learns to think of the true God—of the God of Israel. He first is aware of His presence long before he thinks of His essence. And to pray is to sense His presence.

There are people who maintain that prayer is a matter of emotion. In their desire to “revitalize” prayer, they would proclaim: Let there be emotion! This is, of course, based on a fallacy. Emotion is an important component; it is not the source of prayer. The power to pray does notdepend on whether a person is of a choleric or phlegmatic temperament. One may be extrenely emotional and be unable to generate that power. This is decisive: worship comes out of insight. It is not the result of an intellectual oversight.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 108

Friday, April 02, 2021

Why pray?

If God does not have power to speak to us, how should we possess the power to speak to Him? Thus, prayer is a part of a greater issue. It depends upon the total spiritual situation of man and upon a mind within which God is at home. Of course, if our lives are too barren to bring forth the spirit of worship, if all our thoughts and anxieties do not contain enough spiritual substance to be distilled into prayer, an inner transformation is a matter of emergency. And such an emergency we face today. The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God. One cannot pray unless he has faith in his own ability to accost the infinite, merciful, eternal God.

...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 the outpouring of my soul in the midst of this great universe! Unless it is the will of God that I pray, unless God desires our prayer, how ludicrous is all my praying.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 107 (emphasis original)

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Who is your model?

Who is our model: Elijah, who disassociated himself from the congregations of his people, or the prophets of the Baal, who led and identified themselves with their people? The prophets of Israel were not eager to be in agreement with popular sentiments.—Abraham Joshua Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, 104-5