Onging Formation 10/2017
OGF 2017-10 Heschel – God In Search of Man
OGF 2017-10 Heschel – God In Search of Man


God In Search of Man
Abraham Joshua Heschel


Most theories of religion start out with defining the religious situation as man’s search for God and maintain the axiom that God is silent, hidden and unconcerned with man’s search for Him. Now, in adopting that axiom, the answer is given before the question is asked. To Biblical thinking, the definition is incomplete and the axiom false. The Bible speaks not only of man’s search for God but also of God’s search for man. “Thou dost hunt me like a lion,” exclaimed Job (10:16).

“From the very first Thou didst single out man and consider him worthy to stand in Thy presence.” (from The liturgy of the Day of Atonement) This is 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.

Lord, where shall I find Thee? High and hidden in Thy place;
And where shall I not find Thee? The world is full of Thy glory.
I have sought Thy nearness; With all my heart have I called Thee, God in search of man
And going out to mut Thee I found Thee coming toward me.
Even as, in the wonder of Thy might, In holiness I have beheld Thee,
Who shall say he hath not seen Thee? Lo, the heavens and their hosts
Declare the awe of Thee, Though their voice be not heard
See Selecled Poems of Jehudah H. translated by N. Salamon, Philadelphia, 1928, pp. 134-135)

When Adam and Eve hid from His presence, the Lord called: Where art thou (Genesis 3:9). 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; concealed and subdued, yet it is as if all things were the frozen echo of the question: Where art thou?

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. The way to faith is the way of faith. The way to God is a way of God. Unless God asks the question, all our inquiries are in vain.

The answer lasts a moment, the commitment continues. Unless the awareness of the ineffable mystery of existence becomes a permanent state of mind, all that remains is a commitment without faith. To strengthen our alertness, to refine our appreciation of the mystery is the meaning of worship and observance. For faith does not remain stationary. We must continue to pray, continue to obey to be able to believe and to remain attached to His presence.

Recondite is the dimension where God and man meet, and yet not entirely impenetrable. He placed within man something of His spirit (see Isaiah 63 :10), and “it is the spirit in a man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand” (Job 32:8).


Men have often tried to give itemized accounts of why they must believe that God exists. Such accounts are like ripe fruit we gather from the trees. Yet it is beyond all reasons, beneath the ground, where a seed starts to become a tree, that the act of faith takes place.

The soul rarely knows how to raise its deeper secrets to discursive levels of the mind. We must not, therefore, equate the act of faith with its expression. The expression of faith is an affirmation of truth, a definite judgment, a conviction, while faith itself is an event, something that happens rather than something that is stored away; it is a moment in which the soul of man communes with the glory of God.

Man’s walled mind has no access to a ladder upon which he can, on his own strength, rise to knowledge of God. Yet his soul is endowed with translucent windows that open to the beyond. And if he rises to reach out to Him, it is a reflection of the divine light in him that gives him the power for such yearning. We are at times ablaze against and beyond our own power, and unless man’s soul is dismissed as an insane asylum, the spectrum analysis of that ray is evidence for the truth of his insight.

For God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. His glory fills the world; His spirit hovers above the waters. There are moments in which, to use a Talmudic phrase, heaven and earth kiss each other; in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a vision of what is eternal in time. Some of us have at least once experienced the momentous realness of God. Some of us have at least caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him. There may come a moment like a thunder in the soul, when man is not only aided, not only guided by God’s mysterious hand, but also taught how to aid, how to guide other beings. The voice of Sinai goes on for ever: “These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice that goes on for ever.”


The fact that ultimatdy the living certainty of faith is a conclusion derived from acts rather than from logical premises is stated by Maimonides:

“Do not imagine that these great mysteries are completely and thoroughly known to any of us. By no means: sometimes truth flashes up before us with daylight brightness, but soon it is obscured by the limitations of our material nature and social habits, and we fall back into a darkness almost as black as that in which we were before. We are thus like a person whose surroundings are from time to time lit up by lightning, while in the intervals he is plunged into pitch-dark night. Some of us experience such flashes of illumination frequently, until they are in almost perpetual brightness, so that the night turns for them into daylight. That was the prerogative of the greatest of all prophets (Moses), to whom God said: But as for thee, stand thou here by Me (Deuteronomy 5:28), and concerning whom Scripture said: the skin of his face sent forth beams (Exodus 32 :39).
Some see a single flash of light in the entire night of their lives. That was the state of those concerning whom it is said:
they prophesied that time and never again (Numbers 11 :25). With others again there are long or short intermissions between the flashes of illumination, and lastly there are those who are not granted that their darkness be illuminated by a flash of lightning, but only, as it were, by the gleam of some polished object or the like of it, such as the stones and [phosphorescent] substances which shine in the dark night; and even that sparse light which illuminates us is not continuous but flashes and disappears as if it were the gleam of the ever-turning sword (Genesis 3:24). The degrees of perfection in men vary according to these distinctions. Those who have never for a moment seen the light but grope about in their night are those concerning whom it is said: They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness (Psalms 82:5). The Truth is completely hidden from them in spite of its powerful brightness, as it is also said of them: And now men see not the light which is bright in the skies (Job 37 :21). These are the great mass of mankind.” (More Nebuchim, introduction, ed.. Ibo Shmuel, Jerusalem, 1947, pp. 6-7. The G11Uie of the Perplexed, translated by Ch. Rabin, London, 1952, p. 43f).

Only those who have gone through days on which words were of no avail, on which the most brilliant theories jarred the ear like mere slang; 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 conceits; 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.

We must first peer into the darkness, feel strangled and entombed in the hopelessness of living without God, before we are ready to feel the presence of His living light.

“And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud” (Genesis 9:14). When ignorance and confusion blot out all thoughts, the light of God may suddenly burst forth in the mind like a rainbow in the sky. Our understanding of the greatness of God comes about as an act of illumination. As the Baal Shem said, “like a lightning that all of a sudden illumines the whole world, God illumines the mind of man, enabling him to understand the greatness of our Creator.” This is what is meant by the words of the Psalmist: “He sent out His arrows and scattered [the clouds]; He shot forth lightnings and dis, comfited them.” The darkness retreats, “The channels of water appeared, the foundations of the world were laid bare” (Psalms 18: 15-16) (Rabbi Yaalcov Yosef of Ostrog, R11fl Yftli, Ostrog, 1808, p. 43b).

The essence of Jewish religious thinking does not lie in entertaining a concept of God but in the ability to articulate a memory of moments of illumination by His presence. Israel is not a people of definers but a people of witnesses: “Ye are My witnesses” (Isaiah 43:10). Reminders of what has been disclosed to us are hanging over our souls like stars, remote and of mind-surpassing grandeur,

They shine through dark and dangerous ages, and their reflection can be seen in the lives of those who guard the path of conscience and memory in the wilderness of careless living.

Since those perennial reminders have moved into our minds, wonder has never left us. Heedfully we stare through the telescope of ancient rites lest we lose the perpetual brightness beckoning to our souls. Our mind has not kindled the flame, has not produced these principles. Still our thoughts glow with their light. What is the nature of this glow, of our faith, and how is it perceived?


We do not have to discover the world of faith; we only have to recover it. It is not a terra incognita, an unknown land; it is a forgotten land, and our relation to God is a palimpsest rather than a tabula rasa. There is no one who has no faith. Every one of us stood at the foot of Sinai and beheld the voice that proclaimed, I am the Lord thy God. (T11nhum11, Yitzo, I. The words, according to the Rabbis, were not heard by Israel alone, but by the inhabitants of all the earth. The divine voice divided itself into “the seventy tongues” of man, so that all might understand it, Exodus R.llbb4, 5, 9). Every one of us participated in saying, We shall do and we shall hear. However, it is the evil in man and the evil in society silencing the depth of the soul that block and hamper our faith. “It is apparent and known before Thee that it is our will to do Thy will. But what stands in the way? The leaven that is in the dough (the evil impulse) and the servitude of the kingdoms.” (Berachot 17a)

In the spirit of Judaism, our quest for God is a return to God; our thinking of Him is a recall, an attempt to draw out the depth of our suppressed attachment. The Hebrew word for repentance, teshuvah, means return. Yet it also means answer. Return to God is an answer to Him. For God is not silent. “Return O faithless children, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 3:14).10 According to the understanding of the Rabbis, daily, at all times, “A Voice cries: in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3). “The voice of the Lord cries to the city” (Micah 6:9).

“Morning by morning He wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught” (Isaiah 50:4). The stirring in man to turn to God is actually a “reminder by God to man.” It is a call that man’s physical sense does not capture, yet the “spiritual soul” in him perceives the call. The most precious gifts come to us unawares and remain unnoted. God’s grace resounds in our lives like a staccato. Only by retaining the seemingly disconnected notes do we acquire the ability to grasp the theme.

Is it possible to define the content of such experiences? It is not a perception of a thing, of anything physical; nor is it always a disclosure of ideas hitherto unknown. It is primarily, it seems, an enhancement of the soul, a sharpening of one’s spiritual sense, an endowment with a new sensibility. It is a discovery of what is in time, rather than anything in space.

Just as clairvoyants may see the future, the religious man comes to sense the present moment. And this is an extreme achievement. For the present is the presence of God. Things have a past and a future, but only God is pure presence.


But if insights are not physical events, in what sense are they real?

The underlying assumption of modern man’s outlook is that objective reality is physical: all non-material phenomena can be reduced to material phenomena and explained in physical terms. Thus, only those types of human experiences which acquaint us with the quantitative aspects of material phenomena refer to the real world. None of the other types of our experience, such as prayer or the awareness of the presence of God, has any objective counterpart. They are illusory in the sense that they do not acquaint us with the nature of the objective world.

In modern society, he who refuses to accept the equation of the real and the physical is considered a mystic. However, since God is not an object of a physical experience, the equation implies the impossibility of His existence. Either God is but a word not designating anything real or He is at least as real as the man I see in front of me.

This is the premise of faith: Spiritual events are real. Ultimately all creative events are caused by spiritual acts. The God who creates heaven and earth is the God who communicates His will to the mind of man.

“In Thy light we shall see light” (Psalms 36:10). There is a divine light in every soul, it is dormant and eclipsed by the follies of this world.

We must first awaken this light, then the upper light will come upon us. In Thy light which is within us will we see light (Rabbi Aaron of Karlin). We must not wait passively for insights. In the darkest moments we must try to let our inner light go forth. “And she rises while it is yet night” (Proverbs 31:15).