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Reclaiming Abrahamic Heritage: Reading Abraham Joshua Heschel as a Sage for Our Times


By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

02 Dec 2017

There are some people who are irreplaceable and indispensable for proper appreciation of our collective heritage and flowering of world culture. For instance, Iqbal and Heschel. Today we read Heschel, “a Prophet’s Prophet,” one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and theologians and revered religious leaders of the twentieth century. As a philosopher, a theologian, a mystic, an interpreter and advocate of the Biblical prophets and their activist mysticism and a passionate critic of secular modernity Heschel’s call for transcendence recalls key themes and arguments in Biblical/Judaic idiom, in Iqbal’s various works especially Asrar-i Khudi, Bal-i Jibril, Zarb-i Kaleem and The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.

The Muslim world especially needs to take note of him to help fight increasingly pervading scepticism and nihilism, clarify certain aspects of Islamic engagement with Israiliyat and Islam’s Judaic context, illuminate many theological (especially questions of prophecy and reservation for heaven) and juristic debates (such as Ijtihad) and help building bridges  between faiths and communities.

      In his classic work God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism that every serious student of world religions and Islam’s proper history (Abrahamic/Judaic context) should read, he pioneered an idea (whose echoes are heard in many Muslim sages  including Iqbal) that it is God who is in search of man rather than the vice versa. For him the Biblical view of history is summed up as “God in search of Man.” We are all restless because of this summon from the above and can’t find rest except in God as Augustine put it. He wrote many classic works that constitute a veritable Proof of Religion.

      He speaks to all of us – believers and non-believers – bringing home the realization that mystics and poets have embodied: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” One can’t imagine being depressed or committing suicide after reading him. He shows how something is asked of us, we are needed and not alone and how God is an all pervasive Reality we are required to witness rather than prove. “In our religious situation we do not comprehend the transcendent; we are present at it, we witness it.”

Recall that one becomes a true Muslim by witnessing rather than asserting/believing God’s Unity. (How come we could be asked to bear witness if we have not seen or have not been present before the Real?)  For him the problem is not of doubt but of indifference to the world/life in its depths: “What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.” “The most incomprehensible fact is that we comprehend at all.”

This recalls Einstein’s “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” This comprehension itself is a miracle of intellect, a veritable mystery. “The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted...Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.” “We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn, or scoff at the totality of being.” We are called to witness, to see, to reflect, to sing the Ineffable.

Who says we are invited to believe in God? We are called to be co-partners in God’s work and we and all that we see is the work of the Other/non-self/God. As Heschel noted “Previously we searched for the proofs for the existence of God. Today we are searching for man.” Isn’t it difficult to see even one man now in our vicinity whose soul is not on hire or who is true to his divine image and dignity?

      He admired Sayyed Hussain Nasr who in turn read him and admired him. Nasr reports about his concern for justice to Palestinians and his shared love of Abrahamic mysticism. Heschel was quite active protesting against Vietnam War and said that he is parrying with legs and to someone who asked how come a religious figure like him was indulging in politics he said because he could not pray hearing the cries and seeing the images of victims in Vietnam. “How can I pray when I have my conscience of being co-responsible for the death of innocent people in Vietnam? In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” “To speak about God," he proclaimed, "and remain silent on Vietnam, is blasphemous." Today silence on Rohingya Muslims, Palestine, Kashmir, capitalism’s rape of environment, rights of minorities, tribals and women and a long list of other issues would be blasphemous.

      Heschel warns religionists: “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, and insipid.” And notes: “Religion is a means, not the end. It becomes idolatrous when regarded as an end in itself. Over and above all being stands the Creator and Lord of history. He who transcends all. To equate religion and God is idolatry.” When we hear about damage to shrines under mysterious circumstances we may recall Maimonides for whom there is no ontological or essential relation to the Sacred in sacred spaces) and Heschel’s point “God is not in things of space, but in moments of time.”

Post Script: 

Heschel has something special to offer the world that no other sage can. And that is his understanding of Sabbath (Saturday reserved for rest). Holidays – healing days, holy days, days devoted to living as against this or that work/engagement/official assignments/money making – are invitations to feasts we mostly miss.

 In The Sabbath: It’s meaning for Modern Man Heschel states:

 “Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work.” “The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.” We need weekly leave from civilization or five days or better four days week for all including self employed or toiling non-salaried class. We have forgotten distinction between labour and toil (where soul is not) and means (“work,” time) and end (rest/living/eternity). Pity those who rest to work confusing means (work) for an end (rest). Angels flee from the shops/ offices where work goes on even after designated closing time and on some holidays. Hell is being constrained to say, thanks to “diligent” officers, “ I am in office and have no time”  when it is not office time but time for God/oneself. Pray for the victims who don’t have the courage to say no to such officers who volunteer and take pride for burning in hell.