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.
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 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.
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....
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