Rabbi Ed Feinstein will be with us on Friday evening, May 5 for Kabbalat Shabbat services, dinner and discussion, and again on and Saturday, May 6 for Shabbat services, kiddush lunch and continued discussion.
Abraham Joshua Heschel part 1
1. Recovering the Questions It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message become meaningless.
Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions. The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in. The primary task of philosophy of religion is to rediscover the questions to which religion is an answer. (God in Search of Man)
2. Depth Theology Where is religion to be found? What sort of entity is it? What is its mode of being?
He who is in search of art will find it in works of art as preserved, for example, in art collections. He who is in search of literature will find it in books as preserved in libraries. But where is the place of religion? Do visible symbols as preserved in temples, doctrines and dogmas as contained in books, contain the totality of religion?
Religion has been reduced to institution, symbol, theology. It does not affect the pretheological situation, the presymbolic depth of existence. To redirect the trend, we must lay bare what is involved in religious existence; we must recover the situations which both precede and correspond to the theological formulations; we must recall the questions which religious doctrines are trying to answer, the antecedents of religious commitment, the presuppositions of faith.
To some the truth of religion is in its ritual, to others the essence of religion is in its dogma. There is another component, however, which may be regarded as the vital ingredient, and yet because of its imponderable nature it often escapes the eye of the observer. It is that which goes on within the person: the innerness of religion. Vague and often indescribable, it is the heart of religious existence. Ritual and myth, dogma and deed remain externals unless there is a response from within the person, a moment of identification and penetration to make them internals.
We do not have a word for the understanding of these moments, for the events that make up the secret history of religion, …To convey these insights, man must use a language which is compatible with his sense of the ineffable, the terms of which do not pretend to describe, but to indicate; to point to, rather than to capture. These terms are not always imaginative; they are often paradoxical, radical or negative. The chief danger to philosophy of religion lies in the temptation to generalize what is essentially unique, to explicate what is intrinsically inexplicable, to adjust the uncommon to our common sense. (“Depth Theology” The Insecurity of Freedom)
3. The Sense of the Ineffable.
Wonder Wonder, or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a 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. Looking at the world he would say, “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalms 118:23)
As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such 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 our happiness lies in the understand that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.
Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension. The greatest hindrance to such awareness is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.
Radical amazement has a wider scope than any other act of man…What fills us with radical amazement is not the relations in which everything is embedded but the fact that even the minimum of perception is a
maximum of enigma. The most incomprehensible fact is the fact that we comprehend at all. The way to faith leads through acts of wonder and radical amazement. This is an insight we gain in acts of wonder: not to measure meaning in terms of our own mind, but to sense a meaning infinitely greater than ourselves.
Mystery The deeper we search the nearer we arrive at knowing that we do not know. What do we truly know about life and death, about the soul or society, about history and nature? … The mystery is an ontological category. What it stands for is to most people given in the experience of extraordinary events. However, it is a dimension of all existence and may be experienced everywhere and at all times. …. Everything holds a great secret. For it is the inescapable situation of all being to be involved in the infinite mystery…. [Mystery] is not a symbol for the unknown but rather a name for a meaning which stands in relation to God.
Awe The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe. Awe is a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality. …The secret of every being is the divine care and concern that are invested in it. Something sacred is at stake in every event….. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to Him who is beyond all things. It is an insight better conveyed in attitudes than in words. The more eager we are to express it, the less remains of it. The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond.
The sense of the ineffable is a sense for transcendence, a sense for the allusiveness of reality to a super-rational meaning. The ineffable, then, is a synonym for hidden meaning rather than for absence of meaning. It stands for a dimension which in the Bible is called glory, a dimension so real and sublime that it stuns our ability to adore it, and fills us with awe rather than curiosity….
Awe, then, is more than a feeling. It is an answer of the heart and mind to the presence of mystery in all things, an intuition for a meaning that is beyond the mystery, an awareness of the transcendent worth of the universe. …
This, then, is an insight we gain in acts of wonder: not to measure meaning in terms of our own mind, but to sense a meaning infinitely greater than ourselves. On the certainty of ultimate meaning we stake our very lives. In every judgment we make, in every act we perform, we assume that the world is meaningful. ..
The Question The sense of wonder, awe, and mystery does not give us a knowledge of God. It only leads to a place where the question of God becomes an inescapable concern, to a situation in which we discover that we can neither place our anxiety in a safe deposit of opinions nor delegate to others the urgent task of answering ultimate questions.
Religion begins with a consciousness that something is asked of us. It is in that tense, eternal asking in which the soul is caught and in which man’s answer is elicited.
The ultimate question, bursting forth in our souls, is too startling, too heavily laden with unutterable wonder to be an academic question, to be equally suspended between yes and no. We can no longer ask: Is there a God? In humility and contrition we realize the presumption of such asking. The more we meditate, the more clearly we realize that the question we ask is a question we are being asked; that man’s question about God is God’s question about man.
All of human history as described by the Bible may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of man. Faith in God is a response to God’s question.
5. Science and Faith. What are the grounds for our certainty of the realness of God? It is clear that we cannot submit religion to scientific logic. Science is not the only way to truth, and its methods do not represent all of human thinking. Indeed, they are out of place in that dimension of human existence in which God is a burning issue….
The moment we utter the name of God we leave the level of scientific thinking and enter the realm of the ineffable. Such a step is one which we cannot take scientifically, since it transcends the boundaries of all that is given. It is in spite of all warnings that man has never ceased to be stirred by ultimate questions. Science cannot silence him, because scientific terms are meaningless to the spirit that raises these questions, meaningless to the concern for a truth greater than the world that science is engaged in exploring….
….Thus, unlike scientific thinking, understanding for the realness of God does not come about by way of syllogism, by a series of abstractions, by a thinking that proceeds from concept to concept, but by way of insights. The ultimate insight is the outcome of moments when we are stirred beyond words, of instants of wonder, awe, praise, fear, trembling and radical amazement; of awareness of grandeur, of perceptions we can grasp but are unable to convey, of discoveries of the unknown, of moments in which we abandon the pretense of being acquainted with the world, of knowledge by inacquaintance. It is at the climax of such moments that we attain the certainty that life has meaning, that time is more than evanescence, that beyond all being there is someone who cares.
To repeat, it is only in such moments, in moments lived on the level of the ineffable, that the categories and acts of religion are adequately meaningful. Acts of love are only meaningful to a person who is in love, and not to him whose heart and mind are sour. The same applies to the categories of religion. For ultimate insight takes place on the presymbolic, preconceptual level of thinking. It is difficult, indeed, to transpose insights phrased in the presymbolic language of inner events into the symbolic language of concepts.
6. Sacred Moments. The soul rarely knows how to raise its deeper secrets to discursive levels of the mind. We must not, therefore, equate the act of faith with its expression. The expression of faith is an affirmation of truth, a definite judgment, a conviction,conviction, while faith itself is an event, something that happens rather than something that is stored away; it is a moment in which the soul of man communes with the glory of God.
Man’s walled mind has no access to a ladder upon which he can, on his own strength, rise to knowledge of God. Yet his soul is endowed with translucent windows that open to the beyond. And if he rises to reach out to Him, it is a reflection of the divine light in him that gives him the power for such yearning. We are at times ablaze against and beyond our own power, and unless man’s soul is dismissed as an insane asylum, the spectrum analysis of that ray is evidence for the truth of his insight.
For God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. His glory fills the world; His spirit hovers above the waters. There are moments in which, to use a Talmudic phrase, heaven and earth kiss each other; in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a vision of what is eternal in time. Some of us have at least once experienced the momentous realness of God. Some of us have at least caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him.
Abraham Joshua Heschel part 2
I. THE OUTBREAK OF WAR WAS NO SURPRISE.
“The Meaning of this Hour” (1937, 1943)
We have trifled with the name of God. We have taken the ideals in vain. We have called for the Lord. He came. And was ignored. We have preached but eluded Him. We have praised but defied Him. Now we reap the fruits of our failure. Through centuries His voice cried in the wilderness. How skillfully it was trapped and imprisoned in the temples! How often it was drowned or distorted! Now we behold how it gradually withdraws, abandoning one people after another, departing from their souls, despising their wisdom. The taste for the good has all but gone from the earth. Men heap spite upon cruelty, malice upon atrocity. …
There has never been more reason for man to be ashamed than now. … Like Moses, we hide our face; for we are afraid to look upon Elohim, upon His power of judgment. Indeed, where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?
Let modern dictatorship not serve as an alibi for our conscience. We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil. We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; thus we offered sacrifices on the altar of war.
Our world seems not unlike a pit of snakes. We did not sink into the pit in 1939, or even in 1933. We had descended into it generations ago, and the snakes have sent their venom into the bloodstream of humanity, gradually paralyzing us, numbing nerve after nerve, dulling our minds, darkening our vision. Good and evil, that were once as real as day and night, have become a blurred mist. In our everyday life we worshiped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite. The vision of the sacred has all but died in the soul of man. And when greed, envy and the reckless will to power came to maturity, the serpents cherished in the bosom of our civilization broke out of their dens to fall upon the helpless nations.
The outbreak of war was no surprise. It came as a long-expected sequel to a spiritual disaster. Instilled with the gospel that truth is mere advantage and reverence weakness, people succumbed to the bigger advantage of a lie—”the Jew is our misfortune”—and to the power of arrogance—”tomorrow the whole world shall be ours,” “the peoples’ democracies must depend upon force.” The roar of bombers over Rotterdam, Warsaw, London, was but the echo of thoughts bred for years by individual brains, and later applauded by entire nations. It was through our failure that people started to suspect that science is a device for exploitation, parliaments pulpits for hypocrisy, and religion a pretext for a bad conscience. In the tantalized souls of those who had faith in ideals, suspicion became a dogma and contempt the only solace. Mistaking the abortions of their conscience for intellectual heroism, many thinkers employ clever pens to scold and to scorn the reverence for life, the awe for truth, the loyalty to justice. Man, about to hang himself, discovers it is easier to hang others.
The conscience of the world was destroyed by those who were wont to blame others rather than themselves. Let us remember. We revered the instincts but distrusted the prophets. We labored to perfect engines and let our inner life go to wreck. We ridiculed superstition until we lost our ability to believe. We have helped to extinguish the light our fathers had kindled. We have bartered holiness for convenience, loyalty for success, love for power, wisdom for information, tradition for fashion.”
The greatest task of our time is to take the souls of men out of the pit. The world has experienced that God is involved. Let us forever remember that the sense for the sacred is as vital to us as the light of the sun. There can be no nature without spirit, no world without the Torah, no brotherhood without a father, no humanity without attachment to God.
God will return to us when we shall be willing to let Him in into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our courts and investigating committees, into our homes and theaters. For God is everywhere or nowhere, the Father of all men or no man, concerned about everything or nothing. Only in His presence shall we learn that the glory of man is not in his will to power, but in his power of compassion. Man reflects either the image of His presence or that of a beast.
God is waiting for us to redeem the world. We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfactions while God is waiting constantly and keenly for our effort and devotion.
The Almighty has not created the universe that we may have opportunities to satisfy our greed, envy and ambition. We have not survived that we may waste our years in vulgar vanities. The martyrdom of millions demands that we consecrate ourselves to the fulfillment of God’s dream of salvation. Israel did not accept the
Torah of their own free will. When Israel approached Sinai, God lifted up the mountain and held it over their heads, saying: “Either you accept the Torah or be crushed beneath the mountain.” The mountain of history is over our heads again. Shall we renew the covenant with God?
II. RELIGION BEGINS WITH A SENSE THAT SOMETHING IS ASKED OF US. “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement” (1972)
Early in my life, my great love was for learning, studying. And the place where I preferred to live was my study and books and writing and thinking. I’ve learned from the prophets that I have to be involved in the affairs of man, in the affairs of suffering man. For many years I lived by the conviction that my destiny is to serve in the realm of privacy, to be concerned with the ultimate issues and involved in attempting to clarify them in thought and in word. Loneliness was both a burden and a blessing, and above all indispensable for achieving a kind of stillness in which perplexities could be faced without fear. Three events changed my attitude.
One was the countless onslaughts upon my inner life, depriving me of the ability to sustain inner stillness.
The second event was the discovery that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. Even the high worth of reflection in the cultivation of inner truth cannot justify remaining calm in the face of cruelties that make the hope of effectiveness of pure intellectual endeavors seem grotesque. Isolationism is frequently all unconscious pretext for carelessness, whether among statesmen or among scholars…
The third event that changed my attitude was my study of the prophets of ancient Israel, a study on which I worked for several years until its publication in 1962. From them I learned the niggardliness of our moral comprehension, the incapacity to sense the depth of misery caused by our own failures. It became quite clear to me that while our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience. There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.
The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. It also became clear to me that in regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.
The Prophets, (1933, 1960)
This divine pathos is the key to inspired prophecy. God is involved in the life of man. A personal
relationship binds Him to Israel; there is an interweaving of the divine in the affairs of the nation. The divine commandments are not mere recommendations for man, but express divine concern, which, realized or repudiated, is of personal importance to Him. The reaction of the divine self, its manifestations in the form of love, mercy, disappointment or anger convey the profound intensity of the divine inwardness. ..
…An analysis of prophetic utterances shows that the fundamental experience of the prophet is a fellowship with the feelings of God, a sympathy with the divine pathos, a communion with the divine consciousness which comes about through the prophet’s reflection of, or participation in, the divine pathos. The typical prophetic state of mind is one of being taken up into the heart of the divine pathos. Sympathy is the prophet’s answer to inspiration, the correlative to revelation.
Race Telegram to President Kennedy on eve of White House Conference on Race, 1963.
I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogue have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.
“Religion and Race,” 1963
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.” The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses. Let us dodge no issues. Let us
yield no inch to bigotry, let us make no compromise with callousness…
Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the word “race” and feel no self reproach?
Race as a normative legal or political concept is capable of expanding to formidable dimensions. A mere thought, it extends to become a way of thinking, a highway of insolence, as well as a standard of values, overriding truth, justice, beauty. As a standard of values and behavior, race operates as a
comprehensive doctrine, as racism. And racism is worse than idolatry. Racism is satanism, unmitigated evil. Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking. Perhaps this Conference should have been called “Religion or Race.” You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.
To think of man in terms of white, black, or yellow is more than an error. It is an eye disease, a cancer of the soul. The redeeming quality of man lies in his ability to sense his kinship with all men. Yet there is a deadly poison that inflames the eye, making us see the generality of race but not the uniqueness of the human face.
There is a form of oppression which is more painful and more scathing than physical injury or economic privation. It is public humiliation. What afflicts my conscience is that my face, whose skin happens not to be dark, instead of radiating the likeness of God, has come to be taken as an image of haughty assumption and overbearance. Whether justified or not, I, the white man, have become in the eyes of others a symbol of arrogance and pretension, giving offense to other human beings, hurting their pride, even without intending it. My very presence inflicting insult!
We are all Pharaohs or slaves of Pharaohs. It is sad to be a slave to Pharaoh. It is horrible to be a Pharaoh.
War “The Moral Outrage of Vietnam” 1969
It is weird to wake up one morning and find that we have been placed in an insane asylum. It is even more weird to wake up and find that we have been involved in slaughter and destruction without knowing it. What is being done by our government is done in our name. Our labor, our wealth, our civic power, our tacit consent are invested in the production and use of napalm, the bombs and the mines that explode and bring carnage and ruin to Vietnam. …
The encounter of man and God is an encounter within the world. We meet within a situation of shared suffering, of shared responsibility. This is implied in believing in One God in whose eyes there is no dichotomy of here and there, of me and them. They and I are one; here is there, and there is here. What goes on over there happens even here. Oceans divide us, God’s presence unites us, and God is present wherever man is afflicted, and all of humanity is embroiled in every agony wherever it may be.
Susannah Heschel, Intro to Essential Writings
A journalist once asked my father why he had come to a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. “I am here because I cannot pray,” my father told him. Confused and a bit annoyed, the journalist asked him, “What do you mean, you can’t pray so you come to a demonstration against the war?” And my father replied, “Whenever I open the prayerbook, I see before me images of children burning from napalm.” Indeed, we forfeit the right to pray, my father said, if we are silent about the cruelties committed in our name by our government. In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible. How dare we come before God with our prayers when we commit atrocities against the one image we have of the divine: human beings.
What is it, after all, to pray? “Prayer must never be a citadel for selfish concerns but rather a place for deepening concern over other people’s plight.” Rather than making us feel reassured, relaxed, and self-satisfied, “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive.” Subversive, that is, of our callousness and indifference – for the opposite of good, my father writes, is not evil, but indifference. To be religious is never to be callous or indifferent, never to be self-satisfied; looking at the world from God’s perspective means living in the prophetic tradition: to give voice to those who live in silent agony, to eradicate injustice, to emulate God’s compassion for human beings.
III. OUR QUESTIONS ABOUT GOD ARE GOD’S QUESTIONS ABOUT US.
Who is Man? (1965)
Our difficulty is that we know so little about the humanity of man. We know what he makes, but we do not know what he is. In the characterizations of man, for example, as a tool-making or thinking animal, reference is made to the functions, not to the being, of man. Is it not conceivable that our entire civilization is built upon a misrepresentation of man? Or that the tragedy of modern man is due to the fact that he is a being who forgot the question: Who is man? The failure to identify himself, to know what is authentic human existence, leads him to assume a false identity, to pretend to be what he is unable to be or fail to accept what is at the very root of his being. Ignorance about man is not lack of knowledge but false knowledge.
A new skepticism has emerged….the humanity of man is no longer self-evident. … The tragedy of this creeping self-disparagement is in its cultivation of doubt whether man is worthy of being saved. Massive defamation of man may spell the doom of all of us. Moral annihilation leads to physical extermination. If man is contemptible, why be upset about the extinction of the human species? The eclipse of humanity, the inability to sense our spiritual relevance, to sense our being involved in the moral task is itself a dreadful punishment.
Essential to biblical religion is the awareness of God’s interest in man, the awareness of a covenant, of a responsibility that lies on Him as well as on us. . . . Life is a partnership of God and man; God is not detached from or indifferent to our joys and griefs. Authentic vital needs of man’s body and soul are a divine concern. This is why human life is holy. God is a partner and a partisan in man’s struggle for justice, peace, love, and beauty, and it is because of His being in need of man that He entered a covenant with him for all time, a mutual bond embracing God and man, a relationship to which God, not alone man, is committed.
This is the most important experience in the life of every human being: something is asked of me. Every human being has had a moment in which he sensed a mysterious waiting for him. Meaning is found in responding to the demand, meaning is found in sensing the demand. … From the perspective of the Bible: Who is man? A being in travail with God’s dreams and designs, with God’s dream of a world redeemed, of reconciliation of heaven and earth, of a mankind which is truly His image, reflecting His wisdom, justice, compassion. God’s dream is not to be alone, [but] to have mankind as a partner in the drama of continuous creation. By whatever we do, by every act we carry out, we either advance or obstruct the drama of redemption, we either reduce or enhance the power of evil.