Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Polish Jewish Religious Leader

"The fear of living arises most commonly... in the failure to live in complete involvement with what transcends our being."

"The highest peak of spiritual living is not necessarily reached in rare moments of ecstasy; the highest peak lies wherever we are and may be ascended in a common deed. Religion is not made for extraordinary occasions."

"The human being is uniquely graced with the ability to search the soul and reflect, For what purpose am I alive? Does my life have a meaning, a reason? Is there a need for my existence? Will anything on earth be impaired by my disappearance? Would my absence create a vacuum in the world? And if we say that there would be a void and an impairment in the world, and that this means that my life has value beyond its simple existence, is it incumbent upon me to fulfill a purpose in this life? Do I exist that I might build or restore?"

"The modern man has not only forgotten how to be alone; he finds it difficult even to be with his fellow man. He not only runs away from himself; he runs away from his family."

"The most unnoticed of all miracles is the miracle of repentance. It is not the same thing as rebirth; it is transformation, creation… Repentance is an absolute, spiritual decision made in truthfulness. Its motivations are remorse for the past and responsibility for the future."

"The problem of our youth is not youth. The problem is the spirit of our age: denial of transcendence, the vapidity of values, emptiness in the heart, the decreased sensitivity to the imponderable quality of the spirit, the collapse of communication between the realm of tradition and the inner world of the individual. 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."

"The true source of prayer is not an emotion but an insight It is the insight into the mystery of reality, the sense of the ineffable, that enables us to pray."

"The ultimate truth is not capable of being fully and adequately expressed in concepts and words. The ultimate truth is about the situation that pertains between God and man… Revelation is always an accommodation to the capacity of man."

"The wall of separation between the sacred and the secular has become a wall of separation between the conscience and God."

"There are four dimensions of religious existence, four necessary components of man’s relationships to God: (1) the teaching, the essentials of which are summarized in the form of a creed, which serve as guiding principles in our thinking about matters temporal or eternal, the dimension of the doctrine; (b) faith, inwardness, the direction of one’s heart, the intimacy of religion, the dimension of privacy; (c) the law, or the sacred act to be carried out in the sanctuary in society or at home, the dimension of the deed; (d) the context in which creed, faith, and ritual come to pass, such as the community or the covenant, history, tradition, the dimension of transcendence."

"There is no liberty except the freedom bestowed upon us by God; that there is no liberty without sanctity."

"There is no vacuum of religion. Religion is neither the outgrowth of imagination nor the product of will. It is not an inner process, a feeling, or a thought, and should not be looked upon as a bundle of episodes in the life of man… The pious man believe that there is a secret interrelationship among all events, that the sweep of all we are doing reaches beyond the horizon of our comprehension, that there is a history of God and man in which everything is involved…Religion to him is the integration of the detail into the whole, the infusion of the momentary into the lasting. As time and space in any perception, so is the totality of life implied in every act of piety. There is an objective coherency that holds all episodes together… Man does not produce what is overwhelming and holy. The wonder occurs to him when he is ready to accept it."

"There is this present moment because God is present. Every instant is an act of creation. A moment is not a terminal but a flash, a signal of Beginning. Time is perpetual innovation, a synonym for continuous creation."

"Time is perpetual innovation, a synonym for continuous creation."

"To be human is to be involved, to act and to react, to wonder and to respond. For man to be is to play a part in a cosmic drama, knowingly or unknowingly."

"To celebrate is to contemplate the singularity of the moment and to enhance the singularity of the self. What was shall not be again... 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. The man of our time is losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating, he seeks to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state - it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle... Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions. Celebration is an act of expressing respect or reverence for that which one needs or honors... inward appreciation, lending spiritual form to everyday acts."

"To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live... Prayer clarifies our hope and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification... It teaches us what to aspire to, implants in us ideals we ought to cherish... Prayer begins where expression ends... The soul can only intimate its persistent striving."

"To the spiritual eye space is frozen time, and all things are petrified events."

"True insight is a moment of perceiving a situation before it freezes into similarity with something else."

"We believe in the possibility of unifying the divine within us with the Infinite Divine, which exists outside of us; we believe that a small bit of loving kindness in a mortal’s heart joins with Eternity; and that ordinary actions are no less significant than the most exalted of projects."

"We cannot understand man in his own terms. Man is not to be understood in the image of nature, in the image of an animal, or in the image of a machine. He is to be understood in terms of a transcendence, and that transcendence is not a passive thing; it is a challenging transcendence."

"We dwell on the edge of mystery and ignore it, wasting our souls, risking our stake in God."

"We fail to wonder... This is the tragedy of every man... Life is routine, and routine is resistance to the wonder. 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... Awe is a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality... Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith... The ineffable inhabits the magnificent and the common, the grandiose and the tiny facts of reality alike... Slight and simple things may be a glimpse of God? kinship with the spirit of being? an eternal flash of a will?"

"We pray because of the experience of the dreadful incompatibility of how we live and what we sense."

"A moment of awe is a moment of self-consecration. They who sense the wonder share in the wonder. They who keep holy the things that are holy shall themselves become holy."

"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 clichés. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is."

"Faith is an act of the whole person, of mind, will, and heart. Faith is sensitivity, understanding, engagement, and attachment; not something achieved once and for all, but an attitude one may gain or lose."

"Fear is the anticipation of evil or pain, as contrasted with hope which is the anticipation of good. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. Fear is “a surrender of the succors which reason offers”; awe is the acquisition of insights which the world holds in store for us. Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is compatible with both love and joy."

"If our basic concepts are impregnable to analysis, then we must not be surprised that the ultimate answers are not attainable by reason alone. If it is impossible to define “goodness,” “value,” or “fact,” how should we ever succeed in defining what we mean by God? Every religious act and judgment involves the acceptance of the ineffable, the acknowledgment of the inconceivable. When the basic issues of religion, such as God, revelation, prayer, holiness, commandments, are dissolved into pedestrian categories and deprived of sublime relevance, they come close to being meaningless."

"In moments in which the soul undergoes the unmitigated realization of the mystery that vibrates between its precarious existence and its inscrutable meaning, we find it unbearably absurd to define the essence of man by what he knows or what he is able to bring about. To the sense of the ineffable the essence of man lies in his being a means of higher expression, in his being an intimation of ineffable meaning… 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 life has meaning, that time is more than evanescence, that beyond all being there is someone who cares."

"Knowledge is fostered by curiosity; wisdom is fostered by awe."

"Man is not for the sake of good deeds; the good deeds are for the sake of man… The goal is not that a ceremony be performed; the goal is that man be transformed; to worship the Holy in order to be holy. The purpose of the mitsvot is to sanctify man."

"Nothing exists for its own sake, nothing is valid by its own right. What seems to be a purpose is but a station on the road. All is set in the dimension of the holy. All is endowed with bearing on God."

"Only those who have experienced ultimate not-knowing, the voicelessness of a soul struck by wonder, total muteness, are able to enter the meaning of God, a meaning greater than the mind. There is a loneliness in us that hears. When the soul parts from the company of the ego and its retinue of petty concepts; when we cease to exploit all things but instead pray the world’s cry, the world’s sigh, our loneliness may hear the living grace beyond all power."

"Reason’s goal is the exploration and verification of objective relations; religion’s goal is the exploration and verification of ultimate personal relations."

"Self-centeredness is the tragic misunderstanding of our destiny and existence… There is no joy for the self within the self. Joy is found in giving rather than in acquiring; in serving rather than taking."

"Small is the world that most of us pay attention to, and limited is our concern."

"The beginning of wisdom is awe. Ultimate meaning and ultimate wisdom are not found within the world but in God, and the only way to wisdom is… through our relationship to God. That relationship is awe. Awe, in this sense, is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding. Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves."

"The Bible is an answer to the question: how to sanctify life."

"The Bible is an answer to the supreme question: what does God demand of us?"

"The intention of scientific thinking is to answer man’s questions and to satisfy his need for knowledge. The ultimate intention of religious thinking is to answer a question which is not man’s, and to satisfy God’s need for man."

"The main aspects of religious existence: worship, learning, and action. The three are one, and we must go all three ways to reach the one destination. "

"The power of religious truth is a moment of insight, and its content is oneness or love. Source and content may be conveyed in one word; transcendence."

"The purpose of observance is not to express but to be what we feel or think, to unite our existence with that which we feel or think; to be close to the reality that lies beyond all thought and feeling; to be attached to the holy."

"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 to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin. Modern man fell into the trap of believing that everything can be explained, that reality is a simple affair which has only to be organized in order to be mastered. "

"The Torah, we are told, is both concealed and revealed, and so is the nature of all reality. All things are both known and unknown, plan and enigmatic, transparent and impenetrable… The world is both open and concealed, a matter of fact and a mystery. We know and do not know – this is our condition."

"The way to truth is an act of reason; the love of truth is an act of the spirit."

"The wisdom, teaching, and counsel of the Bible are not in conflict with the ultimate attainments of the human mind, but, rather, well ahead of our attitudes… Its aim is not to record history but rather to record the encounter of the divine and the human on the level of concrete living. Incomparably more important than all the beauty or wisdom that it bestows upon our lives is the way it opens to man an understanding of what God means, of attaining holiness through justice, through simplicity of soul, through choice. Above all it never ceases to proclaim that worship of God without justice to man is an abomination; that while man'’ problem is God, God’s problem is man."

"The world is a gate, not a wall."

"This is one of the goals of the Jewish way of living: to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things."