RABBI ABRAHAM HESCHEL

The breadth and depth of Heschel's corpus is daunting. His writing skill, alone, merits full attention. With astonishing regularity in all of his works, Heschel chose felicitous words, crafted sentences with musical cadences, and expressed beautiful ideas. He was as skilled a writer as I have ever read. 

To make a reasonably concise use of this space, I will focus on two topics that appears in much of Heschel's writings: time and wonder. But before we begin puffing on a Heschel Special (the name his students gave the cigars he smoked in class) and read his thoughts, clarity is needed on the Kabbalistic notion of "ayin."

 

What is ayin?

 

In the Jewish mystical tradition—Kabbalah—the unfathomed, ultimate origin of the universe is termed “ayin,” which means nothingness, in that the origin is “no thing” and contained by “no thing.” But ayin does not convey emptiness. Ayin does exist. It is fertile and overflowing:

 

  • “In all change and growth, the mysterious ayin is present. There is an ungraspable instant in the midst of all transformation when that which is about to be transformed is no longer what it had been until that moment, but has not yet emerged as its transformed self. That moment belongs to ayin. Since change and transformation are constant, all moments are moments of contact with ayin, a contact we are usually too blind to acknowledge.” (Art Green) 

  • “Ayin is the moment—destructive and creative--of transformation from non-being to new being.  This is much like a seed in the earth, disintegrating as it begins to sprout. Annihilation engenders fresh life. Ayin is the root of all things, and when you bring anything to its root, you can transform it. Only then can it become something else. Ayin, nothingness, embraces all potentiality. Every birth and rebirth navigates the depths of ayin, as when a chick emerges from an egg: For a moment, it is neither chick nor egg. Ayin is a swirl, generating and recycling being, where for a moment boundaries disappear. Ayin’s ‘no’ clears everything away, making room for a new ‘yes.’  One of the many names for the divine presence is zot--זאת--which simply means ‘this.’ God is right here, in this very moment, fresh and unexpected, taking you by surprise. God is this.” (Daniel Matt)

 

Now we can light the cigar and enjoy Rabbi Heschel’s profundity.

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How does Heschel explain "all moments are moments of contact with ayin"?

“Judaism teaches us to learn how a moment can be marvelous. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious. We don’t adore concrete things; we adore moments in time. Shabbat, the seventh day, is a great example. God is closer to time than to space. In the ten commandments there is no reference to a sanctuary in space. On the contrary, following Sinai, Moses is told: 'In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come unto thee and bless thee' (Exodus 20:21), which is to say there are fixed times, but no fixed places, for prayer. Sanctity is not bound to a particular place. Jews do not build magnificent synagogues; they build bridges leading from the heart to God.

“The average person spends time in order to gain space, giving away time in order to make money. But time is life, the heart of existence. Space is not. Space should be conquered for a higher purpose: to sanctify time. However, the trend of modern civilization is away from time and toward accumulation of things of space. In regard to possessions, there is only one proper attitude: to have them and to be able to do without them. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things. What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass.

"It is only within time that there is fellowship and togetherness of all beings. No one possesses time. This very moment belongs to all people as it belongs to me. We share time, we own space. Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of all other beings. Through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings. It is within time that we are able to sense the unity of all beings.

“We cannot conquer time through space, we can only sanctify time through time. Time is continuous creation. Time is God’s presence in the world of space. Time is holy. The quality of holiness is not in the grain of matter. It is preciousness bestowed upon things by an act of consecration. The present moment is the presence of God. In a very deep sense, Judaism is a religion of time. It tells you what to do with the moment. Judaism may be defined as sanctification of time. Every moment is a great opportunity for sanctification and service.

“If you want to search for God, don’t necessarily go to the peak of a mountain or the depth of a forest. Just ponder the moment and the mystery of time. Every moment is holy and therefore calls upon us to respond to it. Every instant is an act of creation, a beginning, opening up new roads. Sanctification is dependent on human behavior and attitude. It’s so marvelous to be alive, such a joy to be a contemporary of God. But very few of us pay attention to it. This presence of God is not like the vicinity of an ocean, the view of which one may relinquish by closing the eyes or removing from the place. Rather is this convergence with God unavoidable, inescapable; like air in space, it is always being breathed in, even though one is not always aware of this continuous respiration.

"Solving one problem, a greater one enters our sight. One answer breeds a multitude  of new questions; explanations are merely indications of greater puzzles. Everything hints at something that transcends it, its mysterious root. What appears to be a center is but a point on the periphery of another center. The totality is actual infinity. All thought is part of an endless context. All philosophy is but a word in a sentence, just as to a composer the  most complete symphony is but a note in an inexhaustible melody.

 

“Don’t let the Sabbath pass by. Think about it. The Sabbath is the presence of holiness in time. Respond to time and its deeper meaning. Six days a week we are busy exploiting space, struggling with other people and with nature. The Sabbath is a day of harmlessness and no conflicts, a day in which we are different, a day to think a little bit higher than the usual categories that you use. The rule that you 'shall not kindle a fire on the Sabbath' can refer to a fire of indignation. He who is angry on the Sabbath desecrates the day.

 

“Judaism is the art of surpassing, transcending, technological civilization. It is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world. There is a war to wage against the vulgar, against the glorification of the absurd. Am I a success or a failure? Sabbath is a day in which I don’t live with this question. After all, nowhere in the Torah is there a commandment to be successful. Lift up your eyes. Don’t be complacent and take what you have for granted. Slavery is always a possibility. Sabbath is a day to remind us how to cherish freedom. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, one must fight for inner liberty to remain independent of enslavement to the material world, exempt from the domination of things as well as from the domination of people. Be excited. Appreciate every tree and every flower. Be surprised, creative, and joyful. Have an attitude of charm, warmth, love, reverence, tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose."

What can we do with our time alone?

Deep, meaningful contemplation had a champion in Heschel, who advocated for the inward glance not in order to push someone into seclusion & isolation, but for these reasons:

 

"Do something with your inner life. Human existence cannot derive its ultimate meaning from society. Man’s service to society does not claim all of one’s life.  Man has more to give than what others are able or willing to accept. Spiritually speaking, what he does is a minimum of what he is. Deeds are outpourings, they are not the essence of the self, not the substance of the inner life. There are alleys in the soul where man walks alone, ways that do not lead to society, a world of privacy that shrinks from the public eye.  

"There is no genuine self-expression without quiet inner preparation: a thought, an attitude, a moment of sensitivity, a moment of stillness and self-examination, solitude, the splendor of thought, the acquisition of spiritual insight. It requires effort, concentration, receptivity, stirring, strain, penetration, preparation, seeking, craving. This higher standard of thinking is a life-long process rather than a passing stage. It is never an arrival; it is always being on the way. Wisdom, maturity, and tranquility do not come all of a sudden. It is the work of a lifetime.   

"The illumination of the soul precedes articulation. Only out of a certainty nurtured in inner experiences, out of the depths of one’s own silence, come words which are audible to the souls of others. Only deep calls to deep. Only a soul can reach a soul. You can affect a person only if you reach his inner life.  

"Sit still and think. Examine premises. Study. Imagine. Sense and affirm that the spirit is real. Reach out toward the ineffable, a realm that lies beyond the reach of verbal propositions. Take notice of what is beyond our sight, beyond our reason. 

"That which goes on within the person, the innerness, the direction of one’s heart, the dimension of privacy, is vague and often indescribable. It indicates, points to, alludes, rather than captures. Every soul is pregnant with a seed of insight. Such pregnancy is a sense of being with meaning. Let the song within grow. Pour it into a deed. Nurse the song in the recesses of the soul. There is no standstill in the life of the spirit. We either ascend or go down. 

"What shall I do with my mind, the center of my being, my anchor? The roots are in reflection, introspection, depth of thought. There is no understanding at first sight. It is an ongoing striving that involves perplexity, doubts, joy of devotion, and moments of illumination. Few are the men who know how to leap out of the valley to the top of the mountain. There is no understanding without strenuous effort, discipline, and contemplation. Despair means paralysis. He who begins will also learn how to continue, how to advance. Even those who have only a minimum of understanding have the capacity for greatness.  

"Understanding does not complete itself in an instant, nor does it move on a level plane. It thrusts itself forward through depths and heights, detours and by-ways. It advances gradually from word to word, from thought to thought, from feeling to feeling. Sometimes we stand before a wall. It is very high. We cannot scale it. It is hard to break through it, but even knocking our heads against the wall is full of meaning. The inner existence is full of searching, seeking, striving."

What is wonder, and why is it important?

I would be remiss if I did not highlight the only other writer, Paul Fleischman, who compares to Heschel--in terms of writing skill--in elucidating wonder.  The synthesis of Heschel of Fleischman illuminates:

 

  • Rabbi David Wolpe's notions that "Judaism is not a scientific proposition but an orientation to the universe. Judaism has no proof, rather it has supporting ideas and experiences. You have to do violence to human experience, as opposed to honoring it, to assume there is not an intangible realm."

  • Rabbi Art Green's notions that "the relationship between God and the world is not of creator and creation, but surface appearance and deep structure. Penetrate the surface and you’ll find the deep underlying Oneness that is God.  There is only One and we are part of it. The religious quest helps us catch a glimpse, every now and then, of the One that lies behind all multiplicity."

The best way to highlight Heschel's and Fleischman's remarkably similar thoughts is to alternate:

Heschel: "Wonder stands in relation to something beyond itself that they eye can never see. It stands for something greater. The sublime is not simply there. It is not a thing, a quality, but rather a happening, an act of God, a marvel, wondrous. The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted: indifference. Recognize the greatness and wonder of things familiar to us: every grain of sand, every drop of water, every flower and snowflake. Sound the note of joyous appreciation and reverent wonder."

Fleischman: "Wonder is the word we preserve to refer to events that provoke a deep echo, that makes us tremble. Wonder is a signpost at a crossroads. Due to the experience of wonder, we change direction. Our term refers to experiences that forge the subsequent days and years, branding them with memory, reverence, and, yes, with intelligent, thoughtful intellectual pursuit. Far from making your mind go blank, wonder refers to experiences that catalyze urgent, ongoing consideration. Wonder is the epicenter of devotion, reverence, and humility that we call religion. Wonder is simply the habit of acknowledgement. Flexible, credible faith is as much an opening as are new discoveries. Wonder is a recipe that mixes both science and reverential religious feeling."

Heschel: "The awareness of grandeur and the sublime is all but gone from the  modern mind. We teach children how to measure, how to weigh. We fail to teach them how to revere, how to sense wonder and awe. Without it the world becomes flat and the soul a vacuum.  The sublime may be sensed in things of beauty as well as in acts of goodness and in the search for truth. The sublime is that which we see and are unable to convey. It is the silent allusion of things to a meaning greater than themselves. It is that which our words, our forms, our categories can never reach."

Fleischman: "We need a term like wonder to help us refer to experiences, thoughts, and feelings that roll powerful tsunamis through our psyches. Wonder is our referent for experiences with staying power. It rides the crests of many moments' ongoing waveforms. Wonder refers to experiences that endure in your psyche, that hitch a ride and won't let go. Wonder gives momentum to a string of serially surging nows."

Heschel: "Wonder is a form of thinking. It is not the beginning of knowledge but an act that goes beyond knowledge. It does not come to an end when knowledge is acquired; it is an attitude that never ceases.  A person of wonder 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. Wonder is the result of what people do with their higher incomprehension. Radical amazement refers not only to what we see, but also to the selves that see and are amazed at their ability to see."

Fleischman: "Wonder is the forceful, welcomed, enduring transformer, the badge of our best moments. Wonder occurs when, out of a powerful, beautiful, unexpected, unknown array of stimuli, disrupting perceptions arise. Some pre-existing psychological gestalt shatters. Comfortable ideas, familiar as old shoes, tear. The mind seeks to receive, to hold, to be aware, and to understand, struggling to retain its revelatory connection to the flood of beauty and incomprehension."

Heschel: "The grandeur or mystery of  being is something with which we are confronted everywhere and at all times. Even the very act of thinking baffles our thinking. Even the minimum of perception is a maximum of enigma. In radical amazement, people face 'the great things that cannot be fathomed, the wondrous things without number' (Job 5:9), the 'miracles that are daily with us' (Amidah). A scientific theory, once it is announced and accepted, does not have to be repeated twice a day. The insights of wonder must be constantly kept alive. Since there is a need for daily wonder, there is a need for daily worship."

Fleischman: "Wonder is not limited to starry nights and natural scenes. The sense of wonder is often triggered in one person by encountering the clarifying insight of another person's mind. The stimulus to wonder can be beautiful language or elegant mathematics. Wonder can be conveyed and taught, and is multidimensional: linguistic, mathematical, educative, revelatory, humbling, silencing, expressive. It is powerful, disorienting enough to require re-orientation, touching on more than one aspect of personality. It is emotional, aesthetic, and intellectual."

Heschel: "One of the goals of the Jewish way of living is to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things. No routine of the physical, social, or psychological order must dull our sense of surprise at the fact that there is a physical, social, or psychological order. Judaism trains you in maintaining a sense of wonder. Uttering blessings and prayers reminds you of the eternal mystery of creation. Trivial acts are references to the supreme miracle: eating bread, drinking a cup of wine, enjoying a pleasant fragrance, seeing a rainbow or the ocean, noticing the trees when they blossom, meeting a sage in Torah or secular learning, hearing good news, or even performing a physiological function."

Fleischman: "A person in a state of wonder is being bombarded, seeing many things in many ways, details and panning-of-the-camera. The fundamental tenor of the experience is safe and aesthetic, not terrifying or dangerous. Their sense of wonder is integrative: hugging together sensation, emotion, thought, and experience. Wonder is an integration of body, mind, and feeling, through qualities of receptivity and attention. Wonder does not reduce the new to the known. Something new is absorbed and retained. There has been a psychic change. A new reality--not merely new facts or events--but a new essence pervades."

Heschel: "The known is but the obvious aspect of the unknown. The deeper we search the nearer we arrive at knowing that we do not know. The world is something we apprehend but cannot comprehend. Knowledge of how the world functions gives us neither an acquaintance with its essence not an insight into its meaning. Science extends rather than limits the scope of the ineffable, and our radical amazement is enhanced rather than reduced by the advancement of knowledge. Solving one problem, a greater one enters our sight. Explanations are merely indications of greater puzzles. Everything hints at something that transcends it. The detail indicates the whole, the whole its idea, the idea its mysterious root. What appears to be the center is but a point on the periphery of another center."

Fleischman: "In wonder's thrall, something is recognized as present. Something, an other, emerges. Wonder feels connected to. In rapt attention and delight, a presence is felt to such an extent as to evoke ongoing involvement, and the desire to understand and relate more, to preserve or follow on the trail of wonder. We feel imprinted. There is an enduring, memorable salience that establishes direction. If we felt wonder we follow it. Wonder contains a sense of invitation. We fall into a silent receptivity, a standing-back, a flooding in, an internal process of disruptions and restorations, a wide-picture realization. Like ducklings we want to follow wonder, and like crows we want to call it out from the treetops. Wonder is something you want to convey."

Heschel: "The ineffable is conceivable in spite of its being unknowable. It inhabits the magnificent and the common, the grandiose and the tiny facts of reality alike, extraordinary events and ordinary events, in every fold, in every nook, day after day, hour after hour. Wonder is not an esoteric faculty but an ability with which everyone is endowed. For just as we are endowed with the ability to know certain aspects of reality, we are endowed with the ability to know that there is more than what we know. Wonder responds to the mystery, but does not produce it. You and I have not invented the grandeur of the sky nor the mystery of birth and death. We do not create the ineffable, we encounter it."

Fleischman: "In wonder, one feels something stretching thought's joints, something incomprehensible, encompassing, and beckoning, beyond answers but not beyond questions. Wonder is an experience that leaps out of categories, It is as if wonder were round and could not fit into any box. Wonder shatters conviction. It is stored in a psyche where the files aren't filled and closed. It is elusive as well as attractive. We have been expanded, in an important and enduring way. Meaning and meaninglessness are both present. The feeling of connection to an integrating presence pulls one way and, tugging you in the opposite direction, is the loss of explanation and answers. This tug of war expands the mind's reach in opposite directions. Wonder is an ability to hold in one frame opposites that are racing away from each other."

 

Heschel: "All worship and ritual are essentially attempts to remove our callousness to the mystery of our own existence and pursuits. The mystery of God remains forever sealed to man. But something sacred is at stake in every event. Perceive in the world intimations of the divine. The foundations of the world are not of this world. Sense in the small things the beginning of infinite significance. Sense the ultimate in the common and the simple. Witness what is immune to analysis. Revere that which surpasses us. We do not revere the regularity of the year's seasons, but that which makes it possible; not the calculating machine, but the mind that invented it; not the sun, but the power that created it. We must respond with wonder."

Fleischman: "We are in a world in which we feel simultaneously embedded and abandoned, a world of familiar beauty, and of forces and histories that deny us any role or purpose. As meaning and meaningless contend in our mind, in their tidal back-and-forth, wonder grows from recognition that we are born out of and cradled within an immeasurable cavern of immeasurable complexity. Wonder is the beach between home and drowning. It contains the tension of complex awareness. It is an adaptation to live with greater receptivity, greater awareness, and less preconception. We feel our senses absorbing. We feel our intellect awakened and challenged. We feel alive and called into the world with a meaningful purpose."

Heschel: "The cardinal sin in thinking about ultimate issues is literal-mindedness. The Torah must not be taken literally, because a literal understanding would be a partial, shallow understanding, because literal meaning is but a minimum of meaning. 'God spoke' is to be taken symbolically. When applied to God our mightiest words are feeble understatements. The nature of revelation, being an event in the realm of the ineffable, is something human language will never be able to portray. Our categories are not applicable to that which is both within and beyond the realm of matter and mind. The words in which the prophets attempted to relate their experiences were not photographs but illustrations, not descriptions but songs. The word 'revelation' is indicative rather than descriptive. Like all terms that express the ultimate, it points to its meaning rather than fully rendering it. The statement 'God speaks' conveys a mystery. It calls upon our sense of wonder to respond to a mystery that surpasses our power of comprehension."

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In case there's fuzziness about the object of wonder, Daniel Matt offers the pithiest, clearest answer: