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

Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism was written by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1954.

Man's Quest for God Heschel

1. The inner world. The essence of spiritual living. Man’s ultimate aspiration. The nature of Kavanah, כַּוָּנָה . An invitation to God.

Kavana Prayer at Egal Kotel Jerusalem Tefila
Image from the Egalitarian Prayer at the Kotel – תפילה שוויונית בכותל Facebook page.

2. The person and the word. The dignity of words. An island in this world. An answer of the whole person. Prayer is a pilgrimage. Prayer begins where expression ends. To thee, silence is praise. Prayer for the community.

Maurycy Gottlieb Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur
Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878, Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur

3. Spontaneity is the goal. Praying by proxy. Spiritual absenteeism. The doctrine of agnosticism. The doctrine of religious behaviorism. The doctrine of prayer as a social act. The doctrine of religious solipsism. The separation of church and God. Know (or understand) before whom you stand. The polarity of prayer. The primacy of inwardness. Prayer and sacrifice.

Siddur Creative Commons by צבי הרדוף
Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license, by צילם צבי הרדוף, רחובות.

4. Continuity is the way. From the point of view of God. God’s desire that I worship. I will betroth you to myself forever. Does God require anything of man? A leap of action. Routine breeds attention. By faith alone? Absolute relevance of human deeds. There is no extraterritoriality.

Women of the Wall reading Torah

5. Symbolism

I. Spatial symbols. Art and religion. The rejection of the image. The world is not a symbol. God in space. Man, the symbol of God.
II. Conceptual symbols. Symbolic knowledge, symbolism, and solipsism. Symbols are substitutes. The will of God is no euphemism.
III. Symbolism and our way of living. The primacy of literal meaning. Mitzvot and ceremonies. The myth of self-expression. Kavanah and symbolic understanding. The status of symbolic meaning. Symbolism and the sense of the ineffable. A new heart or new symbols.

Jewish books Art artifacts old
Image from the National Library of Israel

6. The meaning of this hour. Heschel saw the horrors of Nazism and World War II, and in this chapter he entreats the reader to beware:

Let modern dictatorship not serve as an alibi for our con science. We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil. We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; thus we offered sacrifices on the altar of war.

…The conscience of the world was destroyed by those who were wont to blame others rather than themselves. Let us remember. We revered the instincts but distrusted the prophets. We labored to perfect engines and let our inner life go to wreck. …

…God will return to us when we shall be willing to let Him in into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our courts and investigating committees, into our homes and theaters. For God is everywhere or nowhere, the Father of all men or no man, concerned about everything or nothing. Only in God’s presence shall we learn that the glory of man is not in his will to power, but in his power of compassion. Man reflects either the image of God’s presence or that of a beast.

… Soldiers in the horror of battle offer solemn testimony that life is not a hunt for pleasure, but an engagement for service; that there are things more valuable than life; that the world is not a vacuum. Either we make it an altar for God or it is invaded by demons. There can be no neutrality. Either we are ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil. Let the blasphemy of our time not become an eternal scandal. Let future generations not loathe us for having failed to preserve what prophets and saints, martyrs and scholars have created in thousands of years.

San Francisco Holocaust memorial
Holocaust Memorial at California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park.(Aaron Zhu/ Wikimedia Commons)



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