Abraham Joshua Heschel




1. The Sense of the Ineffable

 The Awareness of Grandeur

There are three aspects of nature which command a person's at-
tention: power, loveliness, grandeur. Power they exploit, loveli-
ness they enjoy, grandeur fill them with awe. We take it for
granted that a person's mind should be sensitive to nature's
loveliness. We take it equally for granted that a person who is 
not affected by the vision of earth and sky, who has no eyes to
see the grandeur of nature and to sense the sublime, however
vaguely, is not human.
      But why? What does it do for us? The awareness of gran-
deur does not serve any social or biological purpose; a person
is very rarely able to portray their appreciation of the sublime to
others or to add it to their scientific knowledge. Nor is its percep-
tion pleasing to the senses or gratifying to our vanity. Why, then,
expose ourselves to the disquieting provocation of something
that defies our drive to know, to something which may
even fill us with fright, melancholy or resignation? Still we
insist that it is unworthy of a person not to take notice of the
sublime.
      Perhaps more significant than the fact of our awareness of
the cosmic is our consciousness of having to be aware of it, as
if there were an imperative, a compulsion to pay
attention to that which lies beyond our grasp. 

 The Sense of the Ineffable

The power of expression is not the monopoly of a human. Ex-
pression and communication are, to some degree, something 
of which animals are capable. What characterizes a human is
not only their ability to develop words and symbols, but also their
being compelled to draw a distinction between the utterable 
and unutterable, to be stunned by that which is  but cannot be
put into words.
   It is the sense of the sublime that we have to regard as the
root of a person's creative activities in art, thought and noble
living. Just as no flora has ever fully displayed the hidden vitality
of the earth, so has no work of art ever brought to expression the
depth of the unutterable, in the sight of which the souls of
saints, poets and philosophers live. The attempt to convey
what we see and cannot say is the everlasting theme of  human-
ity's unfinished symphony, a venture in which adequacy is
never achieved. Only those who live on borrowed words be-
lieve in their gift of expression. A sensitive person knows that 
the intrinsic. the most essential, is never expressed. Most—and
often the best—of what goes on in us is our own secret; we have
to wrestle with it ourselves. The stirring in our hearts when
watching the star-studded sky is something no language can
declare. What smites us with unquenchable amazement is not
that which we grasp and are able to convey but that which lies
within our reach but beyond our grasp; not the quantitative
aspect of nature but something qualitative; not what is beyond
our range in time and space but the true meaning, source and
end of being, in other words, the ineffable.

 The Encounter with the Ineffable

The ineffable inhabits the magnificent and the common, the
grandiose and the tiny facts of reality alike. Some people sense
this quality at distant intervals in extraordinary events, others
sense it in the ordinary events, in every fold, in every nook;
day after day, hour after hour. To them things are bereft of
triteness; to them being does not mate with non-sense. They
hear the stillness that crowds the world in spite of our noise, in
spite of our greed. Slight and simple as things may be—a
piece of paper, a morsel of bread, a word, a sigh—they hide and guard
a never-ending secret: A glimpse of God? Kinship with the
spirit of being? An eternal flash of a will?
      Part company with preconceived notions, suppress your
leaning to reiterate and to know in advance of your seeing, , try
to see the world for the first time with eyes not dimmed by
memory or volition, and you will detect that you and the
things that surround you—trees, birds, chairs—are like par-
lel lines that run close and never meet. Your pretense of being
acquainted with the world is quickly abandoned.
      How do we seek to apprehend the world? Intelligence in-
quires into the nature of reality, and, since it cannot work
without its tools, takes those phenomena that appears to fit its
categories as answers to its inquiry. Yet, when trying to hold
an interview with reality face to face, without the aid of either
words or concepts, we realize that what is intelligible to our
mind is but a thin surface of the profoundly undisclosed, a
ripple of inveterate silence that remains immune to curiosity
and inquisitiveness like distant foliage in the dusk.

 Is There an Entrance to the Essence?

Analyze, weigh and measure a tree as you please, observe and
describe its form and functions, its genesis and the laws to
which it is subject; still an acquaintance with its essence never
comes about. Looking at things through the medium of our
thoughts remains an act of crystal-gazing; the pictures we in-
duce happen to be part of the truth, nevertheless, what we see
is a mental image, not the things themselves. Hastily running
down the narrow path of time, man and world have no station,
no present, where they can get acquainted. Thinking is never
co-temporal with its object, for it follows the process of per-
ception that took place previously. We always deal in our
thoughts with posthumous objects. Acting  always behind per-
ception, thinking has only memories at its disposal. Its object
is a matter of the past, like a moment before the last: so close
and so far away. Knowledge, therefore, is a set of reminis-
cences, and, our perception being always incomplete and full 
of omissions, a subsequent combination of random memories.
We rarely discover, we remember before we think, we see the
present in the light of what we already know. We constantly
compare instead of penetrate, and are never entirely unpreju-
diced. Memory is often a hindrance to creative experience.
      Thinking is fettered in words, in names, and names describe
that which things have in common. The individual and unique
in reality is not captured by names. Yet our mind necessarily
compromises with words, with names. This is an additional
reason why we rarely find the entrance to the essence. We
cannot even adequately say what it is that we miss.
      Is it necessary to ascend the pile of ideas in order to learn
that our solutions are enigmas, that our words are indiscretions?
A world of things is open to our minds, but often it appears as
if the mind were a sieve in which we try to hold the flux of
reality, and there are moments in which the mind is swept
away by the tide of the unexplorable, a tide usually stemmed
but never receding.

The Disparity of Soul and Reason

The awareness of the unknown is earlier than the awareness of 
the known. The Tree of Knowledge grows upon the soil of
mystery. Next to our mind are not concepts, words, names,
but the nameless, the inexpressible, being. For while it is true
that the given, the apparent is next to our experience, within
experience it is otherness, remoteness, upon which we come.
Concepts are delicious snacks with which we try to alleviate
our amazement. Try to think reality itself, forget what you
know, and you realize at once your distressing famishment.
We should not expect thoughts to give us more than what
they contain. Soul and reason are not the same. It seems as if
concepts and our own selves were strangers who  somewhere in
the endlessness of time met and became friends. They often
mate and often alienate, for the benefit of both. The more in-
cisive the awareness of the unknown and the sustaining
our immediate grasp of reality, the more trenchant and unre-
lenting becomes our realization of that disparity.
      Just as simple-minded equates appearance with reality,
so does the overwise equate the expressible with the ineffable,
the logical with the metalogical, concepts with things. And
just as critical thought is conscious of its not being identical
with things, so does our self-reflecting soul bear in its heart an
awareness of itself, distinct from the logical content of its
thoughts.
      The awareness of the ineffable is that with which our search
must begin. Philosophy, enticed by the promise of the known,
has often surrendered the treasures of higher incomprehension
to poets and mystics, although without the sense of the inef-
fable there are no metaphysical problems, no awareness of
being as being, of value as value.
      The search of reason ends at the shore of the known; on the
immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can
glide. It alone knows the route to that which is remote from
experience and understanding. Neither of them is amphibious:
reason cannot go beyond the shore, and the sense of the inef-
fable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh.
      We do not leave the shore of the known in search of ad-
venture or suspense or because of the failure of reason to an-
swer our questions. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic
sea shell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a per-
petual murmur from the waves beyond the shore.
      Citizens of two realms, we all must sustain a dual allegiance:
we sense the ineffable in one realm, we name and exploit real-
ity in another. Between the two we set up a system of refer-
ences, but we can never fill the gap. They are as far and as
close to each other as time and calendar, as violin and melody,
as life and what lies beyond the last breath.
      The tangible phenomena we scrutinize with our reason, the
sacred and indemonstrable we overhear with the sense of the in-
effable. The force that inspires readiness for self-sacrifice, the 
thoughts that breed humility within and behind the mind, are
not identical with the logician's craftsmanship. The purity of
which we never cease to dream, the untold things we insatiably
love, the vision of the good for which we either die or perish
alive—no reason can bound. It is the ineffable from which we
draw the taste of the sacred, the joy of the imperishable.