Abraham Joshua Heschel – God in Search of Man: „The Bible is the perpetual motion of the spirit, an ocean of meaning, its waves beating against man’s abrupt and steep shortcomings, its echo reaching into the blind alleys of his wrestling with despair“

Abraham_Heschel_with_MLK
Rabbi Abraham Heschel presenting Judaism and World Peace award to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1965.

In his Book God in Search of Man. A Philosophy of Judaism (1955), Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) lauds the Bible with following words:

The Omnipotence of the Bible

The omnipotence of God is not always perceptible, but the omni­potence of the Bible is the great miracle of history. Like God, it is often misused and distorted by unclean minds, yet its capacity to withstand the most vicious attacks is boundless. The vigor and veracity of its ideas are perceptible under the rust and batter of two millennia of debate and dogma: it does not fade in spite of theology nor collapse under abuse. The Bible is the perpetual motion of the spirit, an ocean of meaning, its waves beating against man’s abrupt and steep shortcomings, its echo reaching into the blind alleys of his wrestling with despair.

No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own spiritual opacity than his insensitiveness to the Bible. „A ship which looms large in the river seems tiny when on the ocean.“ The great­ness of the Bible becomes more manifest when studied within the frame­work of universal history, and its majesty increases with the reader’s familiarity.

Irrefutably, indestructibly, never wearied by time, the Bible wanders through the ages, giving itself with ease to all men, as if it belonged to every soul on earth. It speaks in every language and in every age. It benefits all the arts and does not compete with them. We all draw upon it, and it remains pure, inexhaustible and complete. In three thousand years it has not aged a day. It is a book that cannot die. Oblivion shuns its pages. Its power is not subsiding. In fact, it is still at the very beginning of its career, the full meaning of its content having hardly touched the threshold of our minds; like an ocean at the bottom of which countless pearls lie, waiting to be discovered, its spirit is still to be unfolded. Though its words seem plain and its idiom translucent, unnoticed meanings, un­dreamed-of intimations break forth constantly. More than two thousand years of reading and research have not succeeded in ex­ploring its full meaning. Today it is as if it had never been touched, never been seen, as if we had not even begun to read it.

Its spirit is too much for one generation to bear. Its words reveal more than we can absorb. All we usually accomplish is the attempt to appropriate a few single lines so that our spirit be­comes synony­mous with a passage.

Precious to God

All flesh is grass,
And all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field …
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God shall stand for ever.
Isaiah 40:6-7,8

Never before and never since has such a claim been expressed. And who will doubt that the claim has proved true? Has not the word, spoken to the people of Israel, penetrated to all the corners of the world and been accepted as the message of God in a thou­sand languages? Why did most religions die which were not born of its seed, while every generation welcomes anew the spirit that sprouts from it? Indeed, countless cults, states, empires withered like grass; books by the millions are in the graves; „But the word of our God shall stand for ever.“ In moments of great crisis they all fail-priests, philosophers, scientists-the prophets alone prevail.

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. The idea of the equality of man, for example, has become a commonplace in our mouths, but how far is it from being an irresistible insight or an honest, ineradicable conviction? The Bible is not behind the times; it is ages ahead of our aspirations.

There is one thing we should try to imagine. In the whirlwind of history the Bible could have been lost; Abraham, Moses, Isaiah retained as vague memories. What would be missing in the world, what would be the condition and faith of man, had the Bible not been preserved?

It is the fountainhead of the finest strivings of man in the Western World. It has elicited more holiness and compassion from mankind than we are able to comprehend. Most of what is noble and just is derived from its spirit. It has given birth and shape to a myriad of precious things in the lives of individuals and peoples.

Free of any tinge of vested interests, of class or nation; free of any regard for persons, be it Moses, the highest of prophets, be it David, the most revered of kings ; unconstrained by false deference to any institution, be it the state of Judah or the temple in Jerusalem; it is a book which can conceivably be precious not only to man but to God. 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’s problem is God, God’s problem is man.

Holiness in Words

The Bible is holiness in words. To the man of our age nothing is as familiar and trite as words. Of all things they are the cheapest, most abused and least esteemed. They are the objects of perpetual defile­ment. We all live in them, feel in them, think in them, but, failing to uphold their independent dignity, to respect their power and weight, they turn waif, elusive—a mouthful of dust. When placed before the Bible, the words of which are like dwellings made of rock, we do not know how to find the door.

Some people may wonder: why was the light of God given in the form of language? How is it conceivable that the divine should be contained in such brittle vessels as consonants and vowels? This question betrays the sin of our age: to treat lightly the ether which carries the light-waves of the spirit. What else in the world is as capable of bringing man and man to­gether over the distances in space and in time? Of all things on earth, words alone never die. They have so little matter and so much meaning.

The Bible does not deal with divinity but with humanity. Ad­dressing human beings about human affairs, whose language should be employed if not man’s? And yet, it is as if God took these Hebrew words and breathed into them of His power, and the words became a live wire charged with His spirit. To this very day they are hyphens between heaven and earth.

What other medium could have been employed to convey the divine? Pictures enameled on the moon? Statues hewn out of the Rockies? What is wrong with the human ancestry of scriptural vocabulary?

If the Bible were a temple, equal in majesty and splendor to the simple grandeur of its present form, its divine language might have carried the sign of divine dignity with more undeniable force to most people. But man would have worshiped His work rather than His will … and this is exactly what the Bible has tried to prevent.

Just as it is impossible to conceive of God without the world, so it is impossible to conceive of His concern without the Bible.

If God is alive, then the Bible is His voice. No other work is as worthy of being considered a manifestation of His will. There is no other mirror in the world where His will and spiritual guidance is as unmistakably reflected. If the belief in the immanence of God in nature is plausible, then the belief in the immanence of God in the Bible is compelling.

Here the whole chapter „The Bible and the World“ as pdf.

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