Monday, December 31, 2007

Chapters 3-6: The Sublime, Wonder, And The Sense Of Mystery

The Sublime

“Our age is one in which usefulness is thought to be the chief merit of nature; in which the attainment of power, the utilization of its resources is taken to be the chief purpose of man in G-d’s creation. Man has indeed become primarily a tool-making animal, and the world in now a gigantic tool box for the satisfaction of his needs.

The Greeks learned in order to comprehend. The Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man learns in order to use. To Bacon we owe the formulation, “Knowledge is power.” This is how people are urged to study: knowledge means success. We do not know any more how to justify any value except in terms of expediency. Man is wiling to define himself as “a seeker after the maximum degree of comfort for the minimum expenditure of energy.” He equates value with that which avails. He feels, acts, and thinks as if the sole purpose of the universe were to satisfy his needs.

To the modern man everything seems calculable; everything reducible to a figure. He has supreme faith in statistics and abhors the idea of a mystery. Obstinately he ignores the fact that we are all surrounded by things which we apprehend but cannot comprehend; that even reason is a mystery to itself. He is sure of his ability to explain all mystery away. Only a generation ago he was convinced that science was on the way to solve all the enigmas of the world.

In the words of a poet:

Whatever there is to know
That we shall know some day.

Religious knowledge is regarded as the lowest form of knowledge.

…In the place of G-d, humanity – the grand etre – becomes the supreme object of adoration. However, what is considered an achievement from the perspective of modern man may be judged a privation by the post-modern man. “In future generations, people will find difficulty in understanding how at one time generations existed who did not regard the idea of G-d as the highest concept of which man is capable, but who, on the contrary, were ashamed of it and considered the development of atheism a sign of progress in the emancipation of human thought” (Walter Schubart - 1950)

Dazzled by the brilliant achievements of the intellect in science and technique, we have not only become convinced that we are masters of the earth; we have become convinced that our needs and interests are the ultimate standard of what is right and wrong.

Comfort, luxuries, success continually bait our appetites, impairing our vision of that which is required but not always desired. They make it easy for us to grow blind to values. Interest are the value-blind man’s dog, his pathfinder and guide.” (pg. 34-35)

In this brilliant piece Rav Heschel hits the root core of modern man’s folly. “Knowledge is power” is something that we all grew up with and respected as the highest form of allowing us to achieve. Until I read it in this context I never gave it a second thought. What is the power that we refer to? What is the achievement we aim for? The power of, as Rav Soloveitchik labels it, “Majestic Man,” to become “a tool-making animal” to achieve, “the satisfaction of his needs.”

The aim and achievement of our greater society is primarily a heightened level of survival climbing towards thriving. This in itself is not a negative goal or purpose. The problem starts when this becomes its only purpose.

When Rav Heschel writes, “Religious knowledge is regarded as the lowest form of knowledge.” Combined with the quote from Schubart, that is when society starts running into problems. When we don’t realize that becoming a “a tool-making animal” is only the first step of our achievement towards comprehending our purpose, we become no different then a cat who has no greater purpose then its own satisfaction and survival.


“As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines.

…The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.

…Awareness of the divine begins with wonder.” (pg. 46)

For a better idea what Rav Heschel is referring to, watch this five minute video.

What a wonderful world.

There are a million feelings and sensations that can overwhelm our senses with wonder. The diversity and satisfaction of colors, feeling blades of grass with your bare feet, a cool breeze across your cheek. I can fill pages and volumes just with the vast sea of sensations that touch our lives. That doesn’t even scratch the surface of the many other wonders we can perceive. When we are present in the moment, how can we not feel the divine all around us?

Mu Rabbah Masecha Hashem – How wondrous are Your Creations Hashem!

Daily Miracles

“The sense for the “miracles which are daily with us,” the sense for the “continual marvels,” is the source of prayer. There is no worship, no music, no love, if we take for granted the blessings or defeats of living. No routine of the social, physical, or physiological order must dull our sense of surprise at the fact that there is a social, a physical, or a physiological order. We are trained in maintaining our sense of wonder by uttering a prayer before the enjoyment of food. Each time we are about to drink a glass of water, we remind ourselves of the eternal mystery of creation, “Blessed be Thou… by Whose word all things come into being.”

A trivial act and a reference to the supreme miracle. Wishing to eat bread or fruit, to enjoy a pleasant fragrance or a cup of wine; on tasting fruit in season for the first time; on seeing a rainbow, or the ocean; on noticing trees when they blossom; on meeting a sage of Torah or in secular learning; on hearing good or bad tidings – we are taught to invoke His great name and our awareness of Him. Even on performing a physiological function we say “Blessed be Thou… who healest all flesh and doest wonders.”

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.” (pg. 49)

The antidote to being “tool making animals” is to be aware of the sublime. By practicing active awareness, stopping and making conscientious blessings before each and every seemingly mundane and rote act of human existence; elevates us into a constant state of awareness and appreciation for the divine in all things.

Without this form of constant and active appreciation mediation, life takes on a dull veneer. The miraculous becomes rote and hum drum (been there, done that) and the divine is regulated to dusty old books of the past.

However, as Rav Heschel is about to warn us, one can not allow his faith to solely be ruled by his or her emotional sensations. Nor can we dismiss these sensations as mere emotionalism. The key, as always, is balance. The appreciation of both core abilities, emotional sensations, and intellectual discernment, must go hand in hand.

“The sense of wonder and transcendence must not become “a cushion for the lazy intellect.” It must not be a substitute for analysis where analysis is possible; it must not stifle doubt where doubt is legitimate. It must, however, remain a constant awareness if man is to remain true to the dignity of G-d’s creation, because such awareness is the spring of all creative thinking.” (pg. 51)

The Sense Of Mystery

“This is one of Ecclesiastes’ central insights: “I have seen the task that G-d has given to the sons of men… He has made all things beautiful in its time; but he has also implanted in the hearts of men the mystery, so that man cannot find out what G-d has done from beginning to the end” (3:10-11). (pg. 54)

“We explore the ways of being but do not know what, why or wherefore being is.” (pg. 56)

“The deeper we search the nearer we arrive at knowing that we do not know. What do we truly know about life and death, about the soul or society, about history or nature? “We have become increasingly and painfully aware of our abysmal ignorance. No scientist, fifty years ago, could have realized that he was as ignorant as all first-rate scientists now know themselves to be.” (Abraham Flexner – 1930) “Can we not see that exact laws, like all other ultimates and absolutes, are as fabulous as the crock of gold at the rainbow’s end?” (Gilbert N. Lewis – 1926) “Beware lest we say, we have found wisdom” (Job 32:13). (pg. 57)

“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, plain and enigmatic, transparent and impenetrable. “Hidden are the things that we see; we do not know what we see.” The world is both open and concealed, a matter of fact and a mystery. We know and we don’t know – this is our condition.

Strange are the words which conclude the Pentateuch. After telling us all the details about where Moses was buried:

and he was buried in the valley
in the land of Moab
over against Bet Peor

the Torah concludes

And no one knows of his grave unto this day.

The Torah, the Rabbis said, teaches us the way of faith. Though we know the site of Moses’ grave and all the signs of its geographic location, we must realize that we know nothing at all about its whereabouts.” (pg. 59)

The duality of knowing and not knowing is something that humans have a hard time accepting. I saw somewhere (What the bleep do we know) that we are only aware of 2000 bits of information out of the 400 billion bits of information we are processing per second. That would partially explain our intuitive process. More importantly it’s a great example of the concept of knowing but not really knowing. We can comprehend that our mind has many capabilities, yet we don’t understand the extent of its powers.

Many times in different fields, be it psychology, medicine, or the evolutionary sciences, we try to squeeze and deduce theories and grand solutions from very limited information. The magnificent mysteries of our existence requires much more data, comprehension, and even more importantly, personal growth and enlightenment. We rush to connect the dots and solve the mysteries, far before we are ready. We are children playing detective in the majestic mystery of the universe.

We pride ourselves on our achievements with our 2000 bits but we don’t have an inkling of what we would comprehend with 400 billion bits. It’s the height of arrogance and foolishness, as Rav Heschel alludes to in quoting Flexner and Lewis, to assume we understand the grand design and solved the great mysteries with our 2000 bits.

We have a very hard time with duality. We want it to be one or the other. We seemingly can’t find peace with both. The solution is to realize that the universe is not one or two dimensional and neither are we. There are multiple levels within all fields. The higher levels of comprehension and discernment, moral and personal development, and particularly spiritual enlightenment, must be mastered in order to have the best possible chance of knowing (to a degree) the unknowable.

Finally, here are two excerpts (from Imperial College Science Magazine) that showcase how believing that we have solved and removed the mystery is actually detrimental. Our ability to discover the truth and uncover the next layer of understanding about the continual mystery of life requires “humility of thought.”

“When Darwin first presented his theory of evolution it challenged the established way of thinking, whereas now it is almost taboo to challenge it. What is doubly ironic is that it is exactly these constraints that seem to fire creative genius into action. According to Ken Arnold, “Creativity is measuring itself against rules and external constraints. The prompt to creativity is frustration.” Nothing encourages creativity more than being told you can’t do something.”

“Simone Weil, a 20th century philosopher, described genius as humility of thought. She felt that only when the mind stops thinking it knows, is it open to learning something new. Instead of piling up more and more information, all the hard work goes into clearing away the false ideas.”

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Rabbi of His Time, With a Charisma That Transcends It

There is a great article about Rabbi Heschel in today’s New York Times. You can read the entire article here.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts that point to some of the core reasons why I like him so much.

“He turns the lost world of his fathers — the communities of Eastern European Hasidim and their rabbis — into an almost utopian realm.”

“The scholarly skepticism of his colleagues at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where close textual analysis was more eagerly embraced than Heschel’s inspirational philosophy…”

“Nor has any Jewish theologian since Heschel succeeded in speaking to such a wide range of readers while rigorously attending to the nuances of Judaism.”

“The temptation would have been to do the opposite — to chide or stiffen with resentment — particularly given Heschel’s own personal trials. A yeshiva student in Poland, he rebelled not by becoming a secular Jew but by getting a doctorate in theology and philosophy from the University of Berlin. He fled the Nazis (who murdered one of his sisters and caused the death of his mother) but never found a comfortable intellectual home in the United States — neither during his early years at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati nor during his long career at the Jewish Theological Seminary.”

“At the seminary he was a professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism. He was intent on communicating the incommunicable, exploring the ineffable.”

“But amid this fervor Heschel was also a follower of Jewish laws, putting an emphasis on ritual and actions, not just on devotion and belief. This was also the source of Heschel’s ethical perspective: Every deed poses a problem with moral and religious implications.

“Judaism,” he wrote, “is not a science of nature but a science of what man ought to do with nature.” No act is permitted to escape scrutiny.”

Based on what I have read so far Rabbi Heschel reminds me in a lot of ways of Rav Soloveitchik and his struggles. They both never found general acceptance from their peers. They both felt an ontological loneliness. If I am not mistaken Rav Soloveitchik also attended the University of Berlin and got his doctorate in philosophy.

I wonder if they knew each other and interacted. They were peers and had so much in common; I can’t imagine they weren’t very aware of each other. Does anyone know if they had any interactions or thoughts about each other?

I am finding a lot of the same themes in their books. It will be interesting to compare their emphasis and view points, once we complete Man In Search Of G-d and have also written reviews of Halachic Man and The Lonely Man Of Faith.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Chapter 1: Self-Understanding of Judaism

“Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.

Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions. The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in…

There are dead thoughts and there are living thoughts. A dead thought has been compared to a stone which one may plant in the soil. Nothing will come of it. A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.” (pg. 3)

Rabbi Heschel beautifully captures the essence of what I call “Simplistic Judaism.” It is unfortunately widely prevalent in the Judaism that I grew up with. I am in awe of his ability to put in a few short paragraphs a lifestyle and religious approach that I have battled against my entire life.

There is a Yiddish term, “A Pushete Yid” – a simple Jew – that connotes a person of deep faith – unquestioning – immutable - and unshakeable. This person will strictly adhere to all commandments, unquestionably follow anything his Rabbi (authority figure) will tell him and is highly praised as one of the strongest and most devoted of all Jews.

I want to be charitable and compassionate. I want to recognize this form of Judaism as “doing the best they can with the tools that they posses.” But I can’t help this sense of sadness that I feel for their fervently planting “a stone in the soil.” As Rabbi Heschel’s states, “It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.”

They are devout Jews who live normative lives of charitable deeds and strict adherents to the commandments. There is something to be said for this lifestyle when compared with the nature of man and the depths of depravity that we are capable of. However, they will never be able to bring it to the next level. The ultimate personal growth and creative force is out of their reach.

Which begs a different question. Are all people created equal in their growth abilities? There is no question that in regards to human dignity all people are created equal. But when it comes to potential and personal growth everyone must struggle and grow within their own parameters. For some that will end with Simplistic Judaism for others the striving will continue with Insightful Judaism.

A good question for future research is spiritual growth nurture or nature?


“Indeed one of the fatal errors of conceptual theology has been the separation of the acts of religious existence from the statement about it. Ideas of faith must not be studied in total separation from the moments of faith. If a plant is uprooted from its soil, removed from its native winds, sun-rays and terrestrial environment, and kept in a hothouse – will observations made of such a plant disclose its primordial nature?

The growing inwardness of man that reaches and curves towards the light of G-d can hardly be transplanted into the shallowness of mere reflection. Torn out of its medium in human life, it wilts like a rose pressed between the pages of a book. Religion is, indeed, little more than a desiccated remnant of a once living reality when reduced to terms and definitions, to codes and catechisms. It can only be studied in its natural habitat of faith and piety, in a soul where the divine is within reach of all thoughts.

Only those will apprehend religion who can probe its depth, who can combine intuition and love with the rigor of method, who are able to find categories that mix with the unalloyed and forge the imponderable into unique expression. It is not enough to describe the given content of religious consciousness. We have to press the religious consciousness with questions, compelling man to understand and unravel the meaning of what is taking place in his life as it stands at the divine horizon. By penetrating the consciousness of the pious man, we may conceive the reality behind it.” (pg.8)

I love how Rabbi Heschel speaks to people on both ends of the spectrum. First he tackled the inability of Simplistic Judaism to truly grow and take it to the next level. Now in these paragraphs he tackles the scientists and rationalists – the Richard Dawkins’s of the world.

He showcases the futility of studying religion in a vacuum. Faith and religion is too much a mind-body-spirit combination to adequately study it with only one discipline. It is the equivalent of examining a three dimensional entity with two dimensional lenses. The root core is lost in translation.

I love this sentence, “Only those will apprehend religion who can probe its depth, who can combine intuition and love with the rigor of method”.

It very much reminds me of playing Poker. The greatest poker players are not the mathematicians who can calculate the best possible odds. Poker requires knowledge of the odds, combined with a keen sense of intuition, ability to control one’s emotions and pick up all the human cues and clues that you opponent inadvertently leaves.

Poker has taught me that we pick up far more information than we can rationally explain. I happen to be very good at poker and just by watching how a player touches his chips or cards, by his expressions and words, by his or her choice of dollar amount; I can “feel” what cards s/he has. Yes, a lot can be rationally explained, but a lot more info is gathered by my mind then I can rationally point to, that goes into my intuitive process.

Religion is the same. A dry rationalist will be missing half or three quarters of the necessary information to see the whole picture.

Some more on the subject from Rabbi Heschel:

The Worship Of Reason

The way to truth is an act of reason; the love of truth is an act of spirit. Every act of reasoning has a transcendent reference to spirit. We think through reason because we strive for spirit. We think through reason because we are certain of meaning. Reason withers without spirit, without the truth about all of life.

Reason has often been identified with scientism, but science is unable to give us all the truth about life. We are in need of spirit in order to know what to do with science. Science deals with relations among things within the universe, but man is endowed with the concern of the spirit, and spirit deals with the relation between the universe and G-d. Science seeks the truth about the universe; the spirit seeks the truth that is greater than the universe. Reason’s goal is the exploration and verification of objective relations; religion’s goal is the exploration and verification of ultimate personal relations.

…There is, therefore, no rivalry between religion and reason as long as we are aware of their respective tasks and areas. The employment of reason is indispensable to the understanding and worship of G-d, and religion withers without it. The insights of faith are general, vague, and stand in need of conceptualization in order to be communicated to the mind, integrated and brought to consistency. Without reason faith becomes blind. Without reason we would not know how to apply the insights of faith to the concrete issues of living. The worship of reason is arrogance and betrays a lack of intelligence. The rejection of reason is cowardice and betrays a lack of faith.” (pg. 18-20)

For a long time I have been battling with both sides of this equation the scientist/rationalist and the Simplistic Judaism/blindly faithful. They each made very valid points and would use their strength to dismiss their opponents. Rabbi Heschel brings forth poetically and precisely the heart of the matter.

The scientist/rationalist loudly proclaim, “The rejection of reason is cowardice and betrays a lack of faith.” He is completely correct. He also can intuitively sense his righteousness on this point and it gives him the strength to dismiss his opponent.

The Simplistic Judaism/blindly faithful proudly proclaim, “The worship of reason is arrogance and betrays a lack of intelligence.” He is completely correct as well. He can sense his correctness and easily dismisses his opponent.

In my many discussions and debates with both parties I have tried to show them that yes their points are true and very valid but they are only half-truths. To truly grasp and understand the core of faith and religion one must posses both equally valid and true points.

In conclusion, in his first chapter Rabbi Heschel insightfully lays out the foundation of the necessary tools and pathways to understand HOW to search for truth within religion. To this point I am greatly impressed by his elocution and open minded, truth seeking, insightfulness. I am in complete agreement with his methodology and approach and I look forward to the next chapter.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Foreword – G-D In Search Of Man By Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

This is my first in-depth encounter with Rabbi Heschel. I initially discovered him when I came across a profile on Frumster that quoted a beautiful excerpt from him that greatly moved me. His poetic and mystical understanding of life and religion instantly impressed me. He put into a few paragraphs my life’s meaning and striving. I was immediately smitten with his insight and was looking forward to learning more about him and his philosophy.

When the “professor” suggested we begin our Philosophy of Religion course work with G-d In Search Of Man by Rabbi Heschel, I was both excited (for the above mentioned reasons) and apprehensive. I was apprehensive because to my limited understanding on the subject, Rabbi Heschel is not considered Orthodox. I know that he taught at JTS a Conservative Seminary, but I don’t really know his positions on various issues.

I enjoy discovering wisdom and insight from any source regardless of their religious beliefs. However, there is a certain tension when I read a non-Orthodox author and delve into philosophical issues. There is a certain vigilance and wariness ingrained within me that is on the lookout for heretical theories that inherently contradict the core of my faith and the essence of religion.

For example I once attended a retreat with Rabbi Zalman Schechter-Shalomi the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and I was apprehensive that I would encounter philosophies that are counter to my religious sensibilities. I was very pleasantly surprised that I agreed completely with all his public speeches and teachings during the time I was there. When I spoke privately with him about various subjects I was even more surprised at how much he is in synch, at the core, with Torah Judaism.

I am not familiar with all his statements on various issues and there might very well be issues that he and I differ greatly on. My point is that when people of any religious persuasion are truly seeking understanding and the focus is not about proving a particular viewpoint – great minds can discover truths and insights that are not contradictory to ones individual religious beliefs. It’s truly beautiful when this happens because it allows for great dialog and discovery amongst people with very different religious views and practices.

It’s interesting to note how I have a different degree of vigilance when I read Rabbi Heschel versus when I read Rabbi Soloveitchik or Rabbi Sacks. There is a certain trust that I have with the latter that I don’t have with the former. Perhaps I do a disservice to my own growth by not having the same vigilance with Rabbi’s Soloveitchik and Sacks. Obviously if anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, states a troublesome notion, I will challenge it regardless. However, with people who I don’t fully trust religiously I am more wary of subtleties that I wouldn’t be by other authors. It will be interesting to discover (self-discovery) my differing approaches to their various magnum opuses.

The most interesting current tension with Rabbi Heschel is that he has extensive chapters on the issue of Torah from Sinai. I literally have to repeatedly stop myself from jumping ahead and reading his viewpoint on what I consider the most fundamental and defining of religious beliefs. I am resisting doing so because I fear that if my fears are substantiated about his beliefs regarding Torah from Sinai, I would have a harder time being open to his other dialogs and viewpoints. (Please don’t ruin it for me by stating his position until the appropriate time – when I reached his chapters on the subject.)

Based on what I have read so far I am immensely impressed with Rabbi Heschel’s thinking, clarity, and honesty. These are traits that I rarely encounter in my dialogs about religion (both within Orthodoxy and other denominations and religions.) I am very much looking forward to reading how one who has such honesty, deeper, non skeptical, non egotistical reasoning, deals with the Torah from Sinai issue. Can’t wait to get to those chapters and I really hope that I can respect his viewpoint – even if it is not on the same page as mine.

It should be a grand adventure!