God's Omnipotence and Presence in Abraham Joshua Heschel's Philosophy

By Even-Chen, Alexander | Shofar, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

God's Omnipotence and Presence in Abraham Joshua Heschel's Philosophy


Even-Chen, Alexander, Shofar


In this essay I will address Heschel's reflections on the presence and the power of God, as they appear in his different writings: in his poems, his articles and his books. It was Heschel's belief that a man's works are "windows allowing us to view the author's soul."1 Heschel's writings attest to the deep inner struggle in his soul, as he considers the almightiness and presence of God. I will examine how historical events shaped Heschel's spiritual insights and brought on new conceptions, new in the sense that they represent renewed spiritual discoveries for Heschel. I will then attempt to analyze Heschel's changing perspectives on the matters of the almightiness and of the potency of God throughout his lifetime.

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1. Evil and the Presence of God

Heschel published his book of poetry in Warsaw in 1933. His poetry attests to the profound expectations he has of God and to the deep suffering of the soul when these are not fulfilled. In his famous poem "I-Thou" Heschel points to the immense closeness between God and man. It has been pointed out that the title of the poem is related to the basis of Buber's philosophy of dialogue.2 Unlike Buber, though, Heschel describes a relationship akin to mystical unity. Despite this unity man does not relinquish his personality like a drop disappearing in an ocean.3 The poem refers to the mutual dependence between God and man. The metaphors used are physical rather than spiritual or abstract:

When a need pains you, alarm me!

When You miss a human being

Tear open my door!

You live in Yourself, You live in me.4

The appeal to God is fraught with pain and terror. Heschel's God is in pain and Heschel rushes to His aid. The gates of the world may have closed before God, but Heschel leaves his personal door open and demands that God enter. There is a deep prophetic ring to this call, and the prophet is Heschel himself. The concept of divine pathos is one of the main precepts in Heschel's thought, and God is described as having deep feelings for his sons.5 Heschel counters divine pathos with his human pathos. The poem attests to deep fear of the possible destruction of the spiritual as well as the physical world, but it is also a manifest of the belief that what has been damaged may be repaired. The aspiration to set the world right leads Heschel to state that his heart and soul are His dwelling place. God is indeed in exile, but his exile is not absolute; He still resides in the hearts of a few souls.

In the poem "Millions of Eyes, Clogged" Heschel makes an explicit demand of God to repair the world, and if He is not prepared to do so, to allow Heschel to complete the task:

God, pass me Your weapons!

Let me slash through the Gordian knots

Of that idolatrous embroidery of people's star-shaped fate!

The poem escalates in specific demands of God to prevent the slaughter of his children and ends:

I am responsible for You too

And demand of you-feel!

Like us, like me.

If not, I'll wander all around and scream

That God has forgotten his heart with me.6

Reading these lines we cannot ignore the gravity of Heschel's rebellion and his disappointment with God's conduct. These are not words of heresy. I mentioned before that one of the innovative concepts of Heschel's thought is divine pathos. Here Heschel protests against God's apathy and demands that He announce that he is indifferent to his sons. Heschel is aghast at the fact that God has forgotten him and the bond between His heart and Heschel's heart. Heschel feels that the partnership between man and God is no more. Is it possible that it had never really existed?

Heschel's desperate cry is clearly heard in the poem "Help":7

Set me at the head of all the dying

With a greeting, a message from you.

The desolate call to You, and You don't come. …

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