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Man Is Not Alone is a masterly analysis of faith and the search for authentic religious expression. Abraham Joshua Heschel was most concerned with the act of believing, not the contents of believing, as were many philosophers and theologians. What makes Heschel distinctive among Jewish thinkers is his belief that God needs people as partners in the work of creation.

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Heschel’s perspective is that of an interpreter of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and Judaic tradition. He deeply and personally felt the horrors, pain, and sorrow of the Holocaust, which he viewed as a threat to the future of Jews and the traditions of Judaism. He struggled to kindle his contemporaries’ faith in God and to preserve the Jewish perspective. Heschel believed that God needs humanity to do the work of his creation, so he devoted his life to reawakening people’s faith in God and alerting them to their need to do God’s work as his partner. Humanity is endowed with the ability to fulfill what God demands. Sin, in Heschel’s view, is the failure to fulfill one’s obligations to God. He ignites people’s sense of the ineffable, their amazement, and their wonder that the world and they themselves even exist. He urges people to live a pious life.

Man Is Not Alone is a systematic exposition of Jewish ethics, faith, mysticism, and prayer. Heschel said God requires people to act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with him, and revere the Sabbath. Ultimately, religion is not based on people’s awareness of God, but on God’s need of human beings as partners. This means no one is ever truly alone, as God is everywhere.

The Ineffable

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The book focuses on the problem of God and problem of living from a Jewish perspective. It opens with an exploration of the ineffable—Heschel’s word for the reality that lies beyond people’s ability to articulate it. People encounter the ineffable; people do not create it. The ineffable is conceivable despite its being inexpressible or even unknowable. It is a universal perception. The concept of the ineffable accounts for the diversity of humanity’s attempts to describe reality in words. When people sense the ineffable, they are immediately as certain of the value of the world as they are that it exists. People are compelled to pay attention to that which lies beyond their grasp.

Heschel wrote that human beings must stand in radical amazement that they exist at all. Sadly, Heschel said, too many people have lost their will to wonder. A life without wonder is not worth living. After Heschel resurrects people’s sense of the ineffable, he urges them to revel in the awe and wonder that the world and they themselves exist. He then leads readers to the awareness that people are objects of God’s concern. Further, he says, people are obliged to be partners with God in doing his work. Religion begins with people’s sensing the ineffable, with an awareness of a reality beyond their logical concepts. People must open themselves to encounters with God. People first must possess an intuition of a divine presence and then acknowledge his essence.

Acknowledging God

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Heschel differs from the speculative philosophers and theologians who proceed from an idea of God’s essence to a belief in his existence. He proceeds from an intuition of God’s presence to his essence. The root of religion is the question of what people do with their awe and wonder. People can either accept the presence and reality of God or accept the absurdity of denying it. For Heschel, the issue is not whether God exists, but whether people acknowledge there is a God. God exists and people must be faithful, intelligent, and intuitive enough to affirm that reality. Belief is born when mind and soul agree. God is not an abstract concept derived from philosophical investigations. Rather, people know God exists because of immediate and self-evident insight.

God sues for people’s devotion as soon as they long to know him. Faith is people’s aspiration to maintain their responsiveness to the living God. Humanity must first sense the ineffable, then react to God’s expectations. Heschel shows people how to respond to their obligations to God and their fellow human beings. He says God is neither an explanation of the world’s enigmas and horrors nor a guarantee of salvation. The only thing people know about God is his name, which is ineffable. Neither an image nor a definition of God exists. Although people cannot express what they know about God, God expresses his will to them. People know through God himself that he is not beyond good and evil. For Heschel, the notion that God is a perfect being is just pure insolence. Neither biblical nor rabbinical literature attributes perfection to God. For Heschel, the ultimate principle of religion and ethics is that people feel obliged to do good because it is good. Wickedness is a disease, and evil is identical with death. Evil alienates people from other human beings and from God.

Religion begins where experience ends. It is at that point that people acquire the perception of being perceived. The essential content of Heschel’s prophetic revelation is that people comprehend only what God asks of people. According to Heschel, the Hebrew Bible is the record of God’s vision of humanity. The Hebrew Bible is the story of God’s quest for the righteous person, not a history of the Jewish people. It reveals what God asks of humanity. It shows people how to commune with God’s will. God is not the object of discovery but the subject of revelation. The Hebrew Bible shows that people know nothing about the attributes of God. All people can ascribe to God is his existence. Asking why people believe is like asking why people perceive. People trust in God because he is the living God. People arrive in the dimension of the holy when they grow beyond their self-interest, when they are concerned about the interest and welfare of others. God exhibits pure concern for his creatures. From the Hebrew Bible, people learn only about God’s acts done for the sake of humanity—acts of creation, acts of redemption, and acts of revelation. We also learn that people should be faithful to the concerns of God. The only attribute the Hebrew Bible ascribes to God is that he is the Merciful One.

Faith in Action

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According to Heschel, people forced God into exile or hiding through their acts of evil and horror. Humankind forsook its covenant with God. Humanity can rely on God only if God can rely on humanity. Having faith in God means justifying God’s faith in humanity. Faith is a communion between God and humanity. Heschel says people must live their lives as if the fate of all time depends on a single moment and a single act. Whatever people do to other people, they do to God. People must strive to become what they are able to become. The true meaning of existence is found in fulfilling other people’s needs. Living the religious life means serving God’s ends, which he needs people’s help to achieve. Humanity is thus indispensable to God. Humanity is not an innocent and passive bystander in the universe. Whatever one does to another person, one does to God. Ignoring God means defying him.

To Heschel, all religion begins with a sense that something is asked of people. That something is an ultimate commitment to God. The Judaism of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinical tradition defines religion as people’s awareness that God is interested in them. Judaism teaches people never to be pleased with what they are. Happiness for Jews is having the vision of a goal that is yet to be reached. A life lived with God is the central idea of Judaism. The core of the Jewish religion is the quest for right living, right here, right now. Judaism is a theology of the common deed.

According to Heschel, piety is putting faith into action. The pious life is compatible with God’s presence and will. Pious people are at peace with this life because of their attitude of reverence. When calamities occur, pious people do not grumble or lapse into despair. They do not do so because they regard nature and their own thoughts, life, and destiny as the property of God. Pious people recognize that all life and all their possessions are gifts of God. Every person—regardless of gender, mind, possessions, and race—is made in the image of God. Pious people believe they are obligated to give back to God what they have received from him by serving God. They have pledged their allegiance and faith to God. Piety is a life spent in pursuit of God’s will. Pious people believe it is their destiny to contribute. They place their entire life at the disposal of God. Humanity is independent and free only before God. People know that it is their destiny to aid and to serve God’s will. Their reward is in the here and now, not the hereafter.

The Return of Wonder

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The publication of Man Is Not Alone in 1951 was widely hailed as a significant event. The prominent Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, said the book revealed how to accept the ineffable reality of God. In hindsight, he was correct in predicting that Heschel would become a commanding and authoritative figure in the life of Jews and non-Jews in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Other contemporary reviewers suggested the book represented a breakthrough in the prevalent poverty of religious thought and expression. Theologians and philosophers had forgotten the living God and were single-mindedly focused on proving the existence of an abstract God. They had lost their sense of the ineffable and radical amazement at the very existence of a living God. In his book, Heschel wrote that God is not an object of cognition, and reason cannot furnish people with the clue to the ultimate reality of God. People possess an intuition of God’s presence and voice. God is waiting and looking for humanity and reveals himself in people’s everyday deeds.

Heschel’s reputation as one of the leading Jewish thinkers has grown with time. For many Jews and non-Jews alike, he restored the place of awe, radical amazement, and wonder in their lives and religion. Heschel helped many people recognize the power of prayer to shift the center of living from self-consciousness and self-importance to surrender to God’s voice and will. He resurrected the living God, the God who cares passionately about the quality of human life. He sought to turn people’s focus to God and to encourage them pray to him.


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Additional Reading

Friedman, Maurice. Abraham Joshua Heschel and Elie Wiesel: You Are My Witnesses. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1987. This book features an assessment of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s life and work by a noted expert on Martin Buber and other Jewish thinkers. Friedman also includes a revealing account of his personal relationship with Heschel.

Granfield, Patrick. Theologians at Work. New York: Macmillan, 1967. The author, a theologian, interviewed Heschel on a variety of topics, such as cooperation between Christians and Jews, evil, and God. The interviews show Heschel’s commonsense approach to theology and his opinion of the Jewish thinker Martin Buber.

Heschel, Susannah, ed. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays by Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996. Heschel’s daughter, a noted Jewish scholar, has written a compelling and revealing short biography of her father as an introduction to the book. She includes stories on Heschel’s relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope Paul VI. She says the title of the book is the best description of her father’s work and legacy.

Kaplan, Edward K., and Samuel H. Dresner. Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. This book, the first of two planned volumes, is a comprehensive biography of Heschel. The volume traces Heschel’s life in Europe and ends with his immigration to the United States in 1940. It is based on interviews with Heschel’s friends and family, archival documents, and previously unknown writings by Heschel. The authors portray Heschel’s charisma and shortcomings. It is an important work on an important Jewish thinker.

Kasimow, Harold, and Byron L. Sherwin, eds. No Religion Is an Island: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Interreligious Dialogue. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991. This collection includes remembrances of Heschel written by his daughter Susannah Heschel and others who knew him as a friend and teacher. The second part of the book contains an assessment of Heschel’s message from a variety of viewpoints, including those of Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Hindus.

Merkle, John C. Abraham Joshua Heschel: Exploring His Life and Thought. New York: Macmillan, 1985. The author, a theologian, collected a variety of essays that remember Heschel the man and assess Heschel the biblical theologian, philosopher, poet, and social critic.

Merkle, John C. The Genesis of Faith: The Depth Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Macmillan, 1985. This work is a thorough and valuable exploration and assessment of Heschel’s doctrines.

Moore, Donald J. The Human and the Holy: The Spirituality of Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Fordham University Press, 1989. The author, a theologian, examines Heschel from a Christian perspective and assesses Heschel’s spiritual legacy. This account is an affectionate one of Heschel as a person, a thinker, and a contributor to stronger bonds between Christians and Jews. It also shed lights on Heschel’s prominent role in the Vatican II council.

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