Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Polish Jewish Religious Leader

"He who sets out to employ the realities of life as means for satisfying his own desires will soon forfeit his freedom and be degraded to a mere tool. Acquiring things, he becomes enslaved to them; in subduing others, he loses his own soul. We feel jailed in the confinement of personal needs. The more we indulge in satisfactions, the deeper is our feeling of oppressiveness. To be an iconoclast of idolized needs, to defy our own immoral interests, though they seem to be vital and have long been cherished, we must be able to say no to ourselves in the name of a higher yes."

"Human happiness does not consist in satisfying one’s personal wishes but in the certainty of being needed, in having the visions of goals still unattained."

"Humanity is an unfinished task, and so is religion. The Law, the creed, the teaching and the wisdom are here, yet without the outburst of prophetic demands coming upon us again and again, religion may become fossilized."

"I maintain that the agony of contemporary man is the agony of the spiritually stunted man."

"I seek to understand the present and the future while I disagree with those who think of the present in the past tense. I consider my own intellectual existence that the greatest danger is to become obsolete."

"If prayer were only the articulation of words, of nothing but psychological relevance and of no metaphysical resonance, nobody would in an hour of crisis waste his time by praying in self-delusion."

"It is in deeds that man becomes aware of what his life really is, of his power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of his ability to derive joy and to bestow it on others; to relieve and to increase his own and other people’s tensions... What he may not dare to think, he often utters in deeds. The heart is revealed in the deeds."

"Jean-Paul Sartre has said, “Man is condemned to be free.” God has given him “choice” – the greatest obligation of freedom."

"Judaism teaches not to flee from the realm of space; to work with things of space, but to be in love with eternity… To disparage space and the blessings of things in space is to disparage the works of creation… Time and space are interrelated."

"Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy. And yet being alive is no answer to the problems of living. To be or not to be is not the question. The vital question is: how to be and how not to be. The tendency to forget this vital question is the tragic disease of contemporary man, a disease that might prove fatal, that may end in disaster. The pray is to recollect passionately the perpetual urgency of this vital question."

"Living involves responsible understanding of one’s role in relation to all other beings."

"Man does not possess religion; he exists in religion. This religious existence precedes his religious experience."

"Man is gradually losing his ability to be in charge of his own life. He is beginning to regard himself not only as a self-contradiction but as an impossibility."

"Man’s task is to reconcile liberty with service, reason with faith. This is the deepest wisdom man can attain. It is our destiny to serve, to surrender. We have to conquer in order to succumb; we have to acquire in order to give away; we have to triumph in order to be overwhelmed. Man has to understand in order to believe, to know in order to accept. The aspiration is to obtain; the perfection is to dispense. This is the meaning of death: the ultimate self-dedication to the divine. Death so understood will not be distorted by the craving for immortality, for this act of giving away is reciprocity on man’s part for God’s gift of life. For the pious man it is a privilege to die."

"Mindfulness of God rises slowly, a thought at a time."

"Modern man’s discovery of the fundamental aloneness and solitude in a universe indifferent to his fate is due to an expectation that it was in the universe where care for what is ultimately precious was to be found. He now suffers from the collapse of naïve self-deception and oversimplification. Our era marks the end of simplification, the end of personal exclusiveness, the end of self-defense through aloofness, the end of a sense of security. "

"No religious act is properly fulfilled unless it is done with a willing heart and a craving soul. You cannot worship Him with your body if you do not know how to worship Him with your soul. The relationship between deed and inner devotion must be understood in terms of polarity. Observance must not be reduced to external compliance with the law. Agreement of the heart with the spirit, not only with the letter of the law, is itself a requirement of the law. The goal is to live beyond the dictates of the law; to fulfill the eternal suddenly; to create goodness out of nothing, as it were... All observance is training in the art of love... Every act of man is an encounter of the human and the holy."

"Our community is in spiritual distress, and some of our organizations are often too concerned with digits. Our disease is a loss of character and commitment, and the cure of our plight cannot be derived from charts and diagrams."

"Our existence carries eternity within it."

"Our history is the most emphatic testimony that injustice to some men spells the doom of all men. Prejudice is like a hydra, a monster which has many heads, an evil which requires many efforts to overcome."

"Our life is beset with difficulties, yet it is never devoid of meaning. The feeling of futility is absent from our souls. "

"Our needs are temporal, while our being needed is lasting."

"Parochialism [excessive narrowness of interest or view, provincialism] has become untenable."

"Philosophy may be defined as the art of asking the right questions... Awareness of the problems outlives all solutions. The answers are questions in disguise, every new answer giving rise to new questions."

"Piety cannot consist of specific acts only, such as prayer or ritual observances, but is bound up with all actions, concomitant with all doings, accompanying and shaping all life’s business. Man’s responsibility to God is the scaffold on which he stands as daily he goes on building life. His every deed, every incident of mind, takes place on this scaffold, so that unremittingly man is at work either building up or tearing down his life, his home, his hope of God."

"Piety does not consist in isolated acts, in sporadic, ephemeral experiences... It is something unremitting, persistent, unchanging in the soul, a perpetual inner attitude of the whole man."

"Piety is the response of man to the holy dimension, the subjective correlative of objective religion."

"Piety, finally, is allegiance to the will of God. Whether that will is understood or not, it is accepted as good and holy, and is obeyed in faith. Life is a mandate, not the enjoyment of an annuity; a task, not a game; a command, not a favor."

"Prayer becomes trivial when ceasing to be an act in the soul."

"We have lost sensitivity to truth and purity of heart in the wasteland of opportunism… Continuity, permanence, intimacy, authenticity, earnestness are its attributes. For the soul, home is where the prayer is."

"Prayer should be an act of catharsis, of purgation of emotions, as well as a process of self-clarification, of examining priorities, of elucidating responsibility. Prayer not verified by conduct is an act of desecration and blasphemy. Do not take a word of prayer in vain. Our deeds must not be a refutation of our prayers."

"Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods… Prayer does not come by default. It requires education, training, reflection, contemplation. It is not enough to join others; it is necessary to build a sanctuary within, brick by brick, instants of meditation, moments of devotion. This is particularly true in an age when overwhelming forces seem to conspire at destroying our ability to pray."

"Prayer is a microcosm of the soul. It is the whole souls in one moment; the quintessence of all our acts; the climax of all our thoughts. It rises as high as our thoughts."

"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."

"Prayer is not for the sake of something else. We pray in order to pray. "

"Prayer is spiritual ecstasy."

"Prayer teaches us what to aspire for."

"Prayer, then is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of God. "

"Professional competence, political independence, and moral sensitivity would be required qualities of the guardian of moral discipline."

"Religion is more than a creed or a doctrine, more than faith or piety; it is an everlasting fact in the universe, something that exists outside knowledge and experience, an order of being, the holy dimension of existence. It does not emanate from the affections and moods, aspirations and visions of the soul. It is not a divine force in us, a mere possibility, left to the initiative of man, something that may or may not take place, but an actuality, the inner constitution of the universe, the system of divine values involved in every being and exposed to the activity of man, the ultimate in our reality. As an absolute implication of being, as an ontological entity, not as an adorning veneer for a psychical wish or for a material want, religion cannot be totally described in psychological or sociological terms."

"Religion is neither a state of mind nor an achievement of intellect. It does not rule hearts by the grace of man; its roots lie not in his inwardness. It is not an event in the soul but a matter of fact outside the soul. Even what starts as an experience in man transcends the human sphere, becoming an objective event outside him. In this power of transcending the soul, time, and space, the pious man sees the distinction of religious acts. "

"Religious observance has more than two dimensions; it is more than an act that happens between man and an idea. The unique feature of religious living is in its being three-dimensional. In a religious act man stands before God."

"Science has become the handmaiden of the state. Now science must satisfy the demand of the state, and that demand is power. Therein lies the danger of its secular subservience and the cause of its conflict with humanity. For power, even if prompted by moral objectives, tends to become self-justifying and creates moral imperatives of its own."

"Self-respect is the fruit of discipline; the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself."

"Sophisticated thinking may enable man to feign his being sufficient to himself. Yet the way to insanity is paved with such illusions. The feeling of futility that comes with the sense of being useless, of not being needed in the world, is the most common cause of psychoneurosis. The only way to avoid despair is to be a need rather than an end. Happiness, in fact, may be defined as the certainty of being needed. But who is in need of man?"

"The chain of causality and of syllogistic reasoning, in which things and thoughts are fettered, is fixed in the space of endless possibilities like the tongue hanging in a silent bell. It is as if all the universe were fixed to a single point. In revelation the bell rings, and words vibrate through the world. "

"The deepest human longing is to be a thought in God’s mind, to be the object of His attention."

"The deepest wisdom man can attain is to know that his destiny is to aid, to serve. We have to conquer in order to succumb; we have to acquire in order to give away; we have to triumph in order to be overwhelmed. Man has to understand in order to believe, to know in order to accept. The aspiration is to obtain; the perfection is to dispense. This is the meaning of death: the ultimate self-dedication to the divine. Death so understood will not be distorted by the craving for immortality, for the act of giving away is reciprocity on man’s part for God’s gift of life. For the pious man it is a privilege to die."

"The essence of a thing is neither tantamount to nor commensurable with the impression it produces; what is reflected in the imagination of an individual is something altogether different from the original. The stratum of inner experience and the realm of objective reality do not lie on the same level."

"The essence of conscious living is to act according to aspirations, to strive for ends which we set for ourselves. The human will is blind and can never by its own power envision the ends of our actions. Ideals grasped by the mind in history’s rare hours of spiritual insight are like sparks of orientation, glittering before our will during the long seasons of obscurity."