Book Excerpt

The Wisdom of Heschel

Abraham Joshua Heschel; Translated by Ruth M. Goodhill

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Wisdom of Heschel
Questions Man AsksWHAT IS THE meaning of my being? ... My quest--man's quest--is not for theoretical knowledge about myself ... What I look for is not how to gain a firm hold on myself and on life, but primarily how to live a life that would deserve and evoke an eternal Amen.IT IS NOT ENOUGH for me to be able to say "I am"; I want to know who I am, and in relation to whom I live. It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face: What am I here for?IT IS NOT ONLY the question of how to justify our own existence but, above all, how to justify bringing human beings into the world. If human existence is absurd and miserable, why give birth to children?DO WE BUILD cities in order to supply ruins for the archaeologists of a later age? Do we rear children in order to prepare ashes for the outcome of nuclear wars?THE IMPERATIVE according to the logic of biology may be: "Eat, drink, and be merry!" Yet a life essentially dedicated to the fulfillment of such an imperative results in depriving human being of all the qualities of being human.WHY BE CONCERNED with meaning? Why not be content with satisfaction of desires and needs? The vital drives of food, sex, and power, as well as the mental functions aimed at satisfying them, are as characteristic of animals as they are of man. Being human is a characteristic of a being who faces the question: After satisfaction, what?MAN CANNOT RESTRAIN his bitter yearning to know whether life is nothing but a series of momentary physiological and mental processes, actions, and forms of behavior, a flow of vicissitudes, desires, and sensations, running like grains through an hourglass, marking time only once and always vanishing ... Is life nothing but an agglomeration of facts, unrelated to one another--chaos camouflaged by illusion?MAN CANNOT be understood in his own terms. He can only be understood in terms of a larger context. Our problem, now, is: What is the context of man, in terms of which he can be ultimately understood?TO BE HUMAN is to be involved, to act and to react, to wonder and to respond. For man, to be is to play a part in a cosmic drama, knowingly or unknowingly ... Man's most important problem is not being but living. To live means to be at the crossroads. There are many forces and drives within the self. What direction to take is a question we face again and again. Who am I? A mere chip from the block of being? Am I not both the chisel and the marble? Being and foreseeing? Being and bringing into being?Copyright @ 1970, 1972, 1975 by Sylvia Heschel, Executrix of the Estate of Abraham Joshua Heschel Abraham Joshua Heschel was internationally known as a scholar, author, activist, and theologian. He was Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.