One of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century was the Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Heschel was an extraordinarily prolific writer. After his death, Ruth Marcus Goodhill endeavored to capture core thinking from his vast writings through quotations she published in The Wisdom of Heschel.
Here I have taken just 36 of these quotations to give you “a single sitting with coffee” look at some of the very best ideas of this remarkable religious figure.
The flow of thought here follows this trajectory of topics:
A. Meaning in life,
B. Relationship with God,
C. The importance of awe and reverence,
D. The true purpose of religion,
E. The crucial place of the moral and the ethical,
F. The essence of holiness and piety,
G. The significance of prayer, and
H. The nature and imperative of living the commanded life in covenant with God.
I hope that the value you find in this short list will lead you to read Heschel’s books. Truly, “there is nothing better than the book itself.” But, at least, I hope that this brief encounter with a few of Heschel’s most profound insights will well inform your own knowledge and ways of living.
(A) 1. “What is the meaning of my being?
My quest – man’s quest – is not for theoretical knowledge about myself…
What I look for is…primarily how to live a life that would deserve and evoke an eternal Amen.”
2. “Judaism takes deeds more seriously than things. Jewish law is, in a sense, a science of deeds…Every deed is a problem; there is a unique task at every moment. All of life at all moments is the problem and the task.”
3. “Needs are looked upon today as if they were holy, as if they contained the quintessence of eternity. Needs are our gods, and we take and spare no effort to gratify them. Suppression of a desire is considered a sacrifice that must inevitably avenge itself in the form of some mental disorder.”
4. “Personal needs come and go, but one anxiety remains. Am I needed? There is no man who has not been moved by that anxiety?”
(B) 5. “Man is not an innocent bystander in the cosmic drama. There is more kinship with the Divine than we are able to believe. The souls of man are the candles of the Lord, lit on the cosmic way, and every soul is indispensable to Him. Man is needed, he is a need of God.”
6. “Man’s understanding of what is right and wrong has often varied throughout the ages; yet the consciousness that there is a distinction between right and wrong is permanent and universal.”
7. “The central problem is that we do not know how to think, how to pray, how to cry, how to resist the deceptions of too many persuaders.”
(C) 8. “We fail to wonder…This is the tragedy of every man: “to dim all wonder by indifference.” Life is routine, and routine is resistance to the wonder.”
9. “Awe is an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves…The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe.”
10. “Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the Divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple, to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”
11. “A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom.”
12. “The story of the creation is not a description of how the world came into being but a song about the glory of the world’s having come into being.”
13. “Every moment is a new arrival, a new bestowal. How to welcome the moment? How to respond to the marvel? The cardinal sin is in our failure not to sense the grandeur of the moment, the marvel and mystery of being, the possibility of quiet exaltation.”
(D) 14. “This is precisely our task: to recall the urgencies, the perpetual emergencies of human existence, the rare cravings of the spirit, the eternal voice of God, to which the demands of religion are the answer.”
15. “Religion begins with the certainty that something is asked of us, that there are ends which are in need of us. Unlike all other values, moral and religious ends invoke in us a sense of obligation. They present themselves in tasks rather than as objects of perception.”
16. “There is only one way to define the Jewish religion. It is an awareness of God’s interest in man, the awareness of a covenant, of a responsibility that lies on Him as well as on us…God is in need of man for the attainment of His ends, and religion, as Jewish tradition understands it, is a way of serving those ends.”
17. “The essence of Judaism is the awareness of the reciprocity of God and man…For the task of living is His and ours, and so is the responsibility.”
18. “God stands in a passionate relationship with man. His love or anger, His mercy or disappointment, is an expression of His profound participation in the history of Israel and all men.”
(E) 19. “A moral person is a partisan who loves the good.”
20. “To be free of selfish interests does not mean to be neutral, indifferent, or devoid of interests, but, on the contrary, to be a partisan of the self-surpassing.”
21. “What we have learned from Jewish history is that if a man is not more than human then he is less than human.”
(F) 22. “Our flesh is not evil but material for applying the spirit. The carnal is something to be surpassed rather than annihilated.”
23. “Holiness does not signify an air that prevails in the solemn atmosphere of a sanctuary, a quality reserved for supreme acts,…or the distinction of hermits and priests…It is (rather) primarily in the way in which we gratify physical needs that the seed of holiness is planted.”
24. “The pious man is ever alert to see behind the appearance of things a trace of the Divine and thus his attitude toward life is one of expectant reverence. Because of this attitude the pious man is at peace with life, in spite of its conflicts.”
(G) 25. “Prayer clarifies our hope and intentions, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification…It teaches in us what to aspire to, implants in us the ideals we ought to cherish.”
26. “Prayer is an invitation to God to intervene in our lives, to let His will prevail in our affairs; it is an opening of a window to Him in our will, an effort to make Him the Lord of our soul. We submit our interests to His concern, and seek to be allied with what is ultimately right.”
(H) 27. “Judaism does not stand on ceremonies…Jewish piety is an answer to God, expressed in the language of mitzvot rather than in the language of ceremonies and symbols. The mitzvah rather than the ceremony is our fundamental category.”
28. “Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man…To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.”
29. “The supreme imperative is not merely to believe in God but to do the will of God.”
30. “To the Jewish mind, life is a complex of obligations, and the fundamental category of Judaism is a demand rather than a dogma, a commitment rather than a feeling.”
31. “No religious act is properly fulfilled unless it is done with a willing heart and a craving soul.”
32. “The problem of the soul is how to live nobly in an animal environment – how to persuade and train the tongue and the senses to behave in agreement with the insights of the soul.”
33. “The Jewish way of living is an answer to a supreme human problem, namely: How must man, a being who is in essence the likeness of God, think, feel, and act? Every act of man is an encounter of the human and the holy.”
34. “Righteousness goes beyond Justice. Justice is strict and exact, giving each person his due. Righteousness implies benevolence, kindness, generosity.”
35. “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time.” The great teacher of this is the Sabbath. “In the tempestuous ocean of time are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments, and practical affairs, as well as of attachment to the spirit.
36. “He who seeks an answer to the most pressing question (what is living?) will find an answer in the Bible…There is a task, a law, and a way: the task is redemption; the law, to do justice, to love mercy; and the way is the secret of being human and holy.”