It is difficult, if not impossible, to place Abraham Joshua Heschel in one of our 20 categories. He could be considered a philosopher, but he lived about 600 years too late to fit in. Some might call him a mystic, but he produced no works of genuine mysticism. He followed in the footsteps of the Hasidic Masters, but was hardly one himself. He represented among the best examples of traditional religion confronting modernity, but would be shunned by other members of the group for not being traditional enough. He was neither an atheist, a pantheist, nor an exponent of Mussar. Even placing him in the non-Orthodox category is questionable, being as his writings bear almost no trace of Conservative or Reform leanings.
At the end of the day, Heschel’s name is forever associated with the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship of the Conservative movement. He taught there for 26 highly productive years and was a guiding light to many of its students. Because of this association, the Orthodox will have nothing to do with him. His writings can hardly be quoted as an authoritative source in Orthodox circles. He is quoted widely in Conservative circles even though his books have a strikingly Orthodox tenor. He is far too traditional to fit comfortably into Reform theology, whatever that may be.
Among other works, he wrote a book called ‘God in Search of Man’ - the title of this essay. This book covers a bewildering variety of topics, including one that matches the book’s title. On page 136, Heschel introduces the controversial idea that God needs us as much as we need God. He calls this:
‘The mysterious paradox of Biblical faith: God is pursuing man. It is as if God were unwilling to be alone, and He had chosen man to serve Him. Our seeking Him is not only man’s, but also His concern, and must not be considered an exclusively human affair. His will is involved in our yearnings. All of human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of man. Faith in God is a response to God’s question…When Adam and Eve hid from His presence, the Lord called: Where art thou? It is a call that goes out again and again. It is a still small echo of a still small voice, not uttered in words, not conveyed in categories of the mind, but ineffable and mysterious, as ineffable and mysterious as the glory that fills the whole world. It is wrapped in silence; it is concealed and subdued, yet it is as if all things were the frozen echo of the question: Where art thou?’
Talk about profound. Sometimes it seems amazing that the Orthodox have been able to disregard this guy. We’ve seen the rudiments of this idea previously, in the essay on Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. But there is an additional element in Heschel’s take on this eternal question. It is not just God putting a tough existential question to Adam and Eve as a consequence of their fall. It is also God expressing His need for our companionship and the tragic divine longing that God experiences when we turn our backs on Him.
Now wait just a minute. God needs us? God misses us if we ignore Him? What about the philosophical foundation that God has nothing resembling human needs and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that we mere humans can do to add to or change God in any way? We did mention that the idea was controversial and that Heschel is not readily acceptable in an Orthodox setting. So is this officially heretical or is it legit?
It turns out that many ideas in Judaism were not there from the outset, but were added as Jewish thinkers encountered different modes of thought. We’ve seen this with philosophy and mysticism in general, but it may even apply to other areas like Talmudic reasoning and Mussar ideas. The notion that God has no need of creation is one of these. From the Bible itself, there may be hints along these lines, but there is certainly no shortage of Biblical quotes that convey the exact opposite. Is it really so heretical to take these Biblical allusions at face value and to not apply the traditional anthropomorphic brush off that claims they are just the Bible’s way of attributing non-existent human feelings to God so that we could better understand what’s going on in God’s mind.
This is really what Heschel is doing. He is taking all those statements at face value and saying that God indeed does want our offerings and our loyalty, and almost desperately craves our faith and love. This desire of God, he claims, is what human history is really all about, at least from the perspective of the Bible. The radical nature of this idea cannot be overemphasized. Up to now, we have seen plenty of ‘search for God’ themes in our search for the meaning and purpose of life. But we have never seen this before. In reality the search starts from the other side – God is searching for man.
Taken to its limit this is nothing less than a new take on the purpose of creation. Why did God create this whole universe? The answer is so that God, in His austere and sublime holiness, could have companionship. God did not want to be alone. We are those companions. We human beings, our flesh and blood, or DNA, with our bad breath and our constant backsliding, were created so God would have someone to play God with. God is the divine version of a creative child, living out His divine dreams through the very real creation of this universe and its inhabitants.
What does God expect to get out of all this? Among other things, God expects an answer to His eternal question. ‘Where art thou?’ This question, first addressed to Adam and Eve, but repeated throughout human history to every single one of us, is at the forefront of God’s mind. We can almost hear God asking this question as He searches among the masses of humanity going about their daily business oblivious to any higher calling. It is almost as if God can only see us if we stop and recognize Him and acknowledge His presence. ‘Where art thou? Are you still there, or have you totally abandoned Me to the vast emptiness of the universe I created just so you could have an arena to know Me and to experience Me?’ This is God’s question to us that we must strain to hear, but if we are sensitive we can detect its echo in everything.
What are we to do about this divine dilemma? Heschel answers this question head on. In the next paragraph he states: ‘Faith comes out of awe, out of an awareness that we are exposed to His presence, out of anxiety to answer the challenge of God, out of an awareness of our being called upon. Religion consists of God’s question and man’s answer…Unless God asks the question, all our inquiries are in vain.’
Our first task is to hear the question. Without the question, there is no answer, no response, no point. Once we recognize that God is calling upon us, we can proceed to the next step. Without that first step, we are like blind people groping in the darkness. With it we have a mission, a question to answer. Answering that question, even if the answer is ambivalent or evasive, is a huge advance. At the very least, it enables God to feel noticed. But God, of course, wants more than a quick dismissal or a clever excuse. God wants a real answer.
That answer comes in the form of faith. But faith, to Heschel, should not be limited to the simple act of belief in a divine source of assistance that can be relied upon when all else fails. It springs from awe, that elusive emotion that penetrates through all the superficial layers to the core of reality. As Heschel puts it on page 106: ‘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 is the answer God wants to hear. It is a silent answer that reverberates with power and speaks the only response that will ever satisfy God’s profound need. ‘I am here. I, in my own small way, am part of Your great purpose. I need You as You need me. Your efforts were not in vain, Your purpose not forgotten. I, in my own human way, sense that You are real. I am aware of Your presence in all things, silent and veiled as it may be, imparting meaning to all. This is my answer to Your eternal question. It is the best I can do. I, like everything else, have transcendent worth. This is where I am.’
Nobody said Heschel wasn’t profound, He may be a little too profound for everyday life, but there is no denying that he has hit something important. Life and existence have transcendent worth. We all have transcendent worth. We matter. That alone should be enough to get us through the day. That alone should shake off a little of the lethargy and apathy that lulls us into blissful unawareness of where we are and why we are here.
The idea that God needs us may strike many Jews as sacrilegious, being as it puts God in a position of neediness. But maybe this idea is a product of our times, a feeling born from the steady abandonment of God as we struck out on our own path to self-sufficiency. More than ever, perhaps, God searches for us and wants to hear our answer. Are we ready to come to God’s need as God came to ours so many times in our past? God brought the rain in its time, cured the sick, and delivered us from countless situations in which we were totally helpless. Now that we have matured and no longer need God for all those things, are we willing to be there for God? It is like dealing with an aging parent who took you through birth and childhood and adolescence but who now needs you to help deal with old age and infirmity. Will you be there for that parent? Will you answer when that parent asks you where you are? What is your answer for God?
Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath every once in a while and pay attention to the Old Guy. We may find that it actually does us some good. We may even want to take a stab at answering that gnawing question. ‘Where art thou?’ If you really care about getting some idea of the meaning of life, it all starts with this question. Pretend that in some way the creator of the universe, the source of all being, the source of your being, is actually posing this question to you and eagerly awaiting your answer. A word of caution, however – allowing God to ask you this question and attempting to answer it is the essence of religion. You may find that once you dip, in even a little bit, you don’t want to come out.
Food for Thought
The question posed to Adam and Eve, and to all of us as we live our lives, lays at the core of discovering meaning in life. Why is it that we so rarely broach this question, even over an entire lifetime? What are we hiding from?
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