Abraham Joshua Heschel

4. To Be is to Stand For

The Universality of Reverence

Reverence is an attitude as indigenous to human consciousness
as fear when facing danger or pain when hurt. The scope of
revered objects may vary, reverence itself is characteristic of
man in all civilizations. Let us analyze a rather common and
perhaps universal example of such an attitude, the inner struc-
ture of which will prove to be the same in all examples—what-
ever the object revered may be. Obviously, we can never sneer
at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being.
Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe. Away
from the immense, cloistered in our own concepts, we may
scorn and revile everything. But standing between earth and
sky, we are silenced by the sight...
      Why is it impossible to be overbearing in the face of the uni-
verse? Is it because of fear? The stars could do us no harm, if
we ridiculed them. Is it because of a fear inherited from our
primitive ancestors, an atavistic superstition that should be dis-
carded? No one who is unprejudiced is able in the presence of
grandeur to declare that such reverence is fatuous or absurd.
Is it a higher form of egotism?No sane person could cherish
the desire to venerate himself. Reverence is always for some-
one else; there is no self-reverence.
      Ignorance is not the cause of reverence. The unknown as
such does not fill us with awe. We have no feeling of awe for
the other side of the moon or that which will happen to-
morrow. Nor is it might or mass that arouses such an attitude.
It is not the prize-fighter or the millionaire but the fragile old
man or our mother whom we find venerable. Nor do we re-
vere an object for its beauty, a statement for its logical con-
sistency or an institution for its purposefulness.
      Nor do we ever revere the known, because the known is in
our grasp, and we revere only that which surpasses us. We do
not revere the regularity of the year's seasons, but that which
makes it possible; not the calculating machine, but the mind
that invented it; not the sun, but the power that created it. It
is the extremely precious, morally, intellectually or spiritually,
that we revere.
      Reverence is one of a person's answers to the presence of the
mystery. This is why, in contradistinction to other emotions,
it does not rush to be spoken. When we stand in awe, our lips
do not demand speech, knowing that if we spoke, we would
deprave ourselves. In such moments talk is an abomination. All
we want is to pause, to be still, that the moment may last. It is
like listening to great music; how it reaps the yield from the
fertile soil of stillness, we are swept by it without being able to
appraise it. The meaning of the things we revere is overwhelm-
ing and beyond the grasp of our understanding. We possess
no categories for it and would distort it if we tried to appraise
it by our standard of values; it essentially surpasses our criteria.

Reverence—A Categorical Imperative

The objection may be voiced that a psychological reaction is
no evidence for an ontological fact, and we can never infer an
object itself from a feeling a person has about it. The feeling of
awe may often be the result of a misunderstanding of an or-
dinary fact; one may be overawed by an artificial spectacle or
a display of evil power. That objection is, of course, valid. Yet
what we infer from is not the actual feeling of awe but the
intellectual certainty that in the face of nature's grandeur and
mystery we must respond with awe; what we infer from
is not a psychological state but a fundamental norm of human
consciousness, a categorical imperative. Indeed, the validity
and requiredness of awe enjoy a degree of certainty that is not
even surpassed by the axiomatic certainty of geometry.
      We do not sense the mystery because we feel a need for it,
just as we do not notice the ocean or the sky because we have
a desire to see them. The sense of mystery is not a product of
our will. It may be suppressed by the will but it is not gener-
ated by it. The mystery is not the product of a need, it is a
   That sweep of mystery is not a thought in our mind but a
most powerful presence beyond the mind. In asserting that the
ineffable is spiritually real, independent of our perception, we
do not endow a mere idea with existence, just as I do not do
so in asserting: "This is an ocean," when I am carried away by
its waves. The ineffable is there before we form an idea of it.
To the spirit of man his own spirit is a reliable witness that the
mystery is not an absurdity, that, on the contrary, things
known and perceptible are charged with its heart-stripping,
galvanizing meaning.

Meaning Outside the Mind

Our assumption that there is meaning in things which has the
quality of inspiring the human mind with awe implies a prin-
ciple that may come as a surprise to many readers, namely,
that meaning is something which occurs outside the mind in
objective things—independent of subjective awareness of it.
We do, indeed, claim that meanings, just as facts, are inde-
pendent of the structure of the human mind and given with
or within things and events. In abstract analysis we distinguish
and divide between fact and meaning, yet in actual perception
they are given together. There are no naked, neutral facts. Be-
ing as such is inconceivable; it is always endowed with mean-
      Meaning is not man's gift to reality. To assume that reality
is chaotic, bare of significance, as long as man does not ap-
proach it with the magic touch of his mind, would be to deny
that nature behaves according to law. The essence of thought
is discovery rather than invention.
      In the common man's perception facts appear with a mini-
mum of significance, while to the artist the fact overflows with
meaning; things communicate to them more significance than
they are able to absorb. Creative living in art, science and religion
is a denial of the assumption that a human is the source of signifi-
cance; they merely lend their categories and means of expression
to a meaning which is there. Only those who have lost their
sense of meaning would claim that self-expression rather than
world-expression is the purpose of being.

Expectedness and Certainty of Meaning

Expectedness of meaning, the certainty that whatever exists
must be worth while, that whatever is real must be compatible
with a thought, is at the root of all our thinking, feeling and
volition. It is reason's oracle or axiom, on its vindication we stake
all we possess, and there is no refuge from it but self-slaughter
and the will to madness. Always looking for some intrinsic
quality in reality that would exhibit its significance, we are
sure that the hidden and unknown will never turn out to be
absurd or meaningless. There is a transcendent preciousness
that surpasses our power of appreciation, and of which our
highest values are but a faint indication. The world is resplend-
ent with such preciousness, we sense it wherever we go, with
our hearts too feeble or unworthy to fathom it.
      Should we condemn that certainty as a wild audacity, since
it fails to be constantly vindicated? Or is it our mind which is
to be blamed for misunderstanding its own expectation, for its
compromising with some of its vagaries and eccentric notions,
thus distorting what was originally an authentic insight? The
notion that supreme meaning must be self-advertising like a
clock, the tendency to fling favorite anthropocentric concep-
tions at the world, have made a caricature of mystery. The
scandal of trying to adapt meaning to our minds, of constantly
seeking what is the universe worth to us, may, indeed, seal the
doom of our understanding of meaning.

Science—An Entry into the Endless

Science does not try to fathom the mystery. It merely describes
and explains the way in which things behave in terms of causal
necessity. It does not try to give us an explanation in terms of
logical necessity—why things must be at all, and why the laws
of naturemust be the way they are. We do not know, for ex-
ample, why certain combinations of a definite kind form a con-
stellation which goes with the phenomena of electricity, while
others with the phenomena of magnetism. The knowledge
of how the world functions gives us neither an acquaintance
with its essence nor an insight into its meaning, just as the
knowledge of general physiology and psychology does not
give us an acquaintance with the Dalai Lama whom we have 
never met.
      Trying to pierce the mystery with our categories is like
trying to bite a wall. Science extends rather than limits the
scope of the ineffable, and our radical amazement is enhanced
rather than reduced by the advancement of knowledge. The
theory of evolution and adaptation of the species does not dis-
enchant the organism of its wonder. Men  like Kepler and
Newton who have stood face to face with the reality of the
infinite would have been unable to coin a phrase about the
heavens declaring the glory not of God, but of Kepler and
Newton; or the verse: "Glory to man in the highest! for man
is the master of all things!"
       Scientific research is an entry into the endless, not a blind
alley; solving one problem, a greater one enters our sight. One
answer breeds a multitude of new questions, explanations are
merely indications of greater puzzles. Everything hints at
something that transcends it; the detail indicates the whole, the
whole, its idea, the idea, its mysterious root. What appears to 
be a center is but a point on the periphery of another center.
The totality of a thing is actual infinity.

All Knowledge is a Particle
There is no true thinker who does not possess an awareness
that his thought is a part of an endless context, that his ideas
are not taken from the air. All philosophy is but a word in a
sentence, just as to a composer the most complete symphony
is but a note in an inexhaustible melody. Only when intoxi-
cated with our own ideas do we consider the world of spirit a
soliloquy; ideals, thoughts, melodies our own shadows. The
rich in spirit do not know how to be proud of what they grasp,
for they sense that the things which they comprehend are out-
bursts of inconceivable significance, that there are no lonely
ideas roaming about in a void, to be seized and appropriated.
>em>To beimples to stand for, because every being is representa-
tive of something that is more than itself, because the seen, the
known, stands for the unseen, the unknown. Even the most ab-
stract mathematical formula to which we may reduce the or-
der of the universe arouses the question: What does it signify?
The answer will necessarily be: It represents the majesty of
that which is more than itself. At whatever climax of thinking
we may arrive, we face transcendent significance.
      The world's mystery is either chaos without value of any
kind, or is replete with an infinite significance beyond the
reach of finite minds; in other words, it is either absolutely
meaningless or absolutely meaningful, either too inferior or
too superior to be an object of human comprehension.
      Yet, how would we know of the mystery of being if not
through our sense of the ineffable, and it is this sense that
communicates to us the supremacy and grandeur of the in-
effable together with the knowledge of its reality. Thus, we
cannot deny the superiority of the ineffable to our minds,
although, for the same reason, we cannot prove it.
      On the other hand, the fact of our being able to sense it
and to be aware of its existence at all is a sure indication that
the ineffable stands in some relationship to the mind of a person.
We should, therefore, not label it as irrational, to be disre-
gared as the residue of knowledge, as dreary remains of
speculation unworthy of our attention. The ineffable is con-
ceivable in spite of its being unknowable.

Is the Ineffable an Illusion?

Against our affirmation of the ineffable the following argu-
ment may be raised: Granted that certain meaning-qualities
are given within reality, there are certainly other meaning-
qualities which, while we take them to be real, are mere  illu-
sions. We do not claim, for example, that there is something
in reality that corresponds to the grotesque images of demons
worshipped in primitive religious cults. Is not the ineffable,
too, a mere word, a sham? Does its being meaningful to us
necessarily prove that there is something for which it stands?
What is the guarantee that the awareness of the ineffable is
more than a subjective impression? Let us accept a theory
and say it is a dream that grows at the mind's frontier,
the magical offspring of intense but wishful thinking! Yet the 
smooth and elegant way which this theory offers is deceptive;
it is, in fact, too slippery to walk on. Why in the world
should a person desire or postulate a marvel the they can neither
master nor grasp, that fills them with terror and humility?
Theories are always magnanimous, but their test comes when
applied. Is it imaginable that an international academy of
scholars should one day proclaim: there is nothing to revere;
the mystery of life, of heaven and earth, is but a figment of
the mind?
      To assert that the most sensitive minds of all ages were
victims of an illusion; that religion, poetry, art, philosophy
were the outcome of a self-deception is too sophisticated to
be reasonable. Bringing discredit on the genius of humanity, such
an assertion would, of course, disqualify our own minds for
making any assertion. It is true that the history of religion
abounds in examples of idols and symbols that had meaning
to certain people but were meaningless to others. But did
they really stand for nothing? We can point to psychical
complexes which have presumably affected the desire to pro-
duce those primitive idols as well as to their ludicrousness and
perversity. Yet, rejecting them as wilful products of the mind
does not vitiate the sense of mystery implicit in the urge to
produce and worship them. The idol-worshipper's error be-
 gins in the process of expressing his sense of mystery, when
they begin to relate the transcendent to their conventional needs
and ideas and try to specify that which is beyond their grasp.
In that process motives come into play that have nothing to
do with their original insight. They begin to regard the instru-
mental as final, the temporal as ultimate, thus distorting both
the facts they adore as well as the quality of the divine they are
bestowing upon them. They still have to hear: "Thou shalt not
make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness."
No thing can serve as a symbol or likeness of God— not even
the universe.
      On a lovely summer afternoon an influential educator ad-
mired the sky. His little girl turned and asked: "What is
there beyond the sky?" The father gave her a "scientific" an-
swer: "Ether, my child." Whereupon the girl exclaimed:
"Ether!" and she held her nose...