Man's Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism

By Reder, Violetta | Shofar, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Man's Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism


Reder, Violetta, Shofar


Man's Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism, by Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1954.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had a universal message important for Christians as well as Jews. Inspired by the example of the biblical prophets, Rabbi Heschel spoke on issues crucial to all humanity. It is prophetic audacity that made him deplore both the "spiritual absenteeism of the synagogue" and the "separation of Church and God."

Man's Quest for God is written in the language of a modern Jewish mystic and scholar who can both appreciate the whole of his tradition and distinguish its universal threads. In response to a world that found itself in a "pit full of snakes," Heschel reminds readers of the mystical lift of Shekhinah and mitzvot. In essence, Man's Quest for God is a guidebook for transcendence.

In this attempt by a rabbi to encourage Jews to renew their Covenant with God after the Shoah, Catholics will find a map to the Church's biblical and liturgical roots. The whole of Man's Quest is an explication of Shema Israel-the absolute priority of God in human life. To prioritize God means to make room for His presence, Shekhinah, and His Word, the Torah, and to answer God's will as formulated in the Revelation.

In Man's Quest for God, Heschel makes it clear that the essential thing in life-worship of God with the whole of all human powers (as directed by the Commandment of Commandments)-has two inextricable aspects: prayer and deeds. This is explained in his paradoxes: "Prayer is the queen of all commandments," but "a mitzvah is a prayer in the form of a deed." "The philosophy of Jewish living is essentially a philosophy of worship," but, at the same time, "Judaism stands and falls with the idea of the absolute relevance of human deeds." Given this key, we notice that the definitions of prayer throughout the book reflect the role of mitzvot as well: prayer means "feeling God's concern," "coming close to hearing the eternal theme and discerning our place in it," "expressing God,""participation in the mystery,""expanding God's presence in the world,""establishing His kingship,""bringing God back to the world."

And it is no wonder that this should be so. At the source of Jewish religious integrity there is the word Shema ("Listen"), which epitomizes worship. Isn't the full meaning of Shema "hear and fulfill"? Or sometimes even "fulfill and hear?" Similarly, the religious integrity in Judaism is guarded by the central Jewish idea of kiddush-ha-Shem. As Heschel says, "to Judaism religion is... an answer to Him who is asking us to live in a certain way"; it is "an order of all man's existence." This notion of an integral religious life-with the centrality of both prayer and human action-can serve as a model for Christians.

Moving with Heschel between the poles of aggadah and halacha, kavanah and external performance, "spontaneity" and "continuity," we see that the paradox of living with the God of Israel can be also summed as follows: The very heart of God's Law addresses the human heart! "You shall love the Lord your God"-and serve Him (Deut 11:13)-"with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deut 6:5). "If the heart could be offered alone [without words], this would be enough to fulfill the commandment." Thus, "prayer is sacrifice." But "we do not sacrifice. We are the sacrifice."

If only people meditated on this central directive/petition of God every day, would this not bring Heschel's dream of spiritual revolution to the world? …

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