02 Apr

Abraham J. Heschel, God in Search of Man (1955)

Abraham J. Heschel was a Jewish scholar, theologian, and author. While living in Germany in 1938, Heschel was deported to Poland by the Gestapo (Nazi Germany’ secret police). In Poland, he taught Jewish philosophy and Torah at the Institute for Jewish Studies. Shortly before the German invasion of Poland, Heschel escaped. He made his way to London and then the United States with the support of Julian Morgenstern, president of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Morgenstern and other Jewish Americans helped prominent Jewish scholars’ living under the Nazi regime immigrate to the United States during World War II. Heschel began teaching at Hebrew Union College on his arrival in 1940. Heschel’s mother and sisters remained in Europe and were killed by Nazi forces. Heschel also taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York as a Professor of Ethics and Mysticism until his death in 1972. Heschel participated in the American Civil Rights Movement and spoke out against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Heschel wrote God in Search of Man in response to the religious climate he encountered in America.


God in Search of Man urged Jews to commit themselves to right living and right action. Observing Judaism meant engagement with the living God, the Torah, and God’s concerns in the mitsvah. Heschel argued that religion was not observation first, but a commitment and acquiescence to God first. Jews should show their commitment to God, not through piety and faith, but by taking action. Jews needed to live as Jews, not just believe as Jews. “Right living is a way to right thinking.” Deeds carried out according to the mitsvah were the tests, trials, and risks of life. They helped man become “aware of what his life really is.” Man’s ultimate embarrassment was that he had infinite responsibility to others, but finite knowledge and power. Heschel argued that Jews should take a “meta-ethical approach” to life. This approach meant not thinking about what we ought to do or individual deeds, but thinking about all of our deeds and “what is our right to act at all?” God and man are in a partnership in this meta-ethical approach. God and man share in the act of a mitsvah. But, this partnership also meant that man and justice are obligations to God. Man should follow Gods way, not just His individual laws. Acts taken as a whole, not particular acts, “can be established as a link between man and God.” Deeds can be divine, reflect the holiness of God, and “disclose a divine intention.” Humans must not only act in the name of God, but for the sake of God. According to Heschel, “Jewish law is, in a sense, a science of deeds.”

This way of living contrasts with religion in America, particularly Protestantism. Judaism is not faith alone, it is not about ideas, it is not about good intentions, it is not about individual, spiritual inwardness, and it is not about one’s own conscious. Judaism is “a demand rather than a dogma, a commitment rather than a feeling. God’s will stands higher than man’s creed. Reverence for the authority of the law is an expression of our love.” Jewish living is not a set of rituals, but an “order of all man’s existence, shaping all his traits, interests, and dispositions.” Judaism is not a cult or system of ceremonies. Judaism was right living through right action.

Excerpt from: Abraham J. Heschel. “God in Search of Man.” In American Religions: A Documentary History, 434-446. Edited by R. Marie Griffith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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