Abraham Joshua Heschel

5. Knowledge by Appreciation

A Perception at the End of Perception

We are rarely aware of the tangent of the beyond at the
whirling wheel of experience. In our passion for knowledge,
our minds prey upon the wealth of an unresisting world and,
seizing our limited spoils, we quickly leave the ground to lose
ourselves in the whirlwind of our own knowledge.
      The horizon of knowledge is lost in the mist produced by
fads and phrases. We refuse to take notice of what is beyond
our sight, content with converting realities into opinions, mys-
teries into dogmas and ideas into a multitude of words. What
is extraordinary appears to us as habit, the dawn a daily rou-
tine of nature. But time and again we awake. In the midst of
walking in the never-ending procession of days and nights,
we are suddenly filled with a solemn terror, with a feeling
of our wisdom being inferior to dust. We cannot endure the
heartbreaking splendor of sunsets. Of what avail, then, are
opinions, words, dogmas? In the confinement of our study
rooms, our knowledge seems to us a pillar of light. But when
we stand at the door which opens out to the infinite, we real-
ize that all concepts are but glittering motes that populate a
      To some of us explanations and opinions are tokens of the
wonder's departure, like a curfew ringing the end of insight
and search. However, those to whom reality is dearer than
information, to whom life is stronger than concepts and the
world more than words, are never deluded into believing that
what they know and perceive is the core of reality. We are
able to exploit, to label things with well-trimmed words; but
when ceasing to subject them to our purposes and to impose
on them the forms of our intellect, we are stunned and in-
capable of saying what things are in themselves; it is an ex-
perience of being unable to experience something we face:
too great to be perceived. Music, poetry, religion—they all
initiate in the soul's encounter with an aspect of reality for
which reason has no concepts and language has no names.

The Way of Expediency

Most of our attention is given to the expedient, to that which
is conducive to our advantage and which would enable us to
exploit the resources of our planet. If our philosophy were a
projection of humanity's actual behavior, we would have to define 
the value of the earth as a source of supply for our indus-
tries, and the ocean as a fishpond. However, as we have seen,
there is more than one aspect of nature that commands our
attention. We go out to meet the world not only by way of
expediency but also by the way of wonder. In the first we
accumulate information in order to dominate; in the second
we deepen our appreciation in order to respond. Power is
the language of expediency, poetry the language of wonder.
      When seeking to expand our knowledge for the sake of
gratifying our passion for power, the world turns out to be
alien and weird, while the knowledge we acquire in our
yearning to invoke appreciation is a way of discovering our
unison with things. With information we are alone; in ap-
preciation we are with all things.

The Will to Wonder

As civilization advances, the sense of wonder almost neces-
sarily declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our
state of mind. Humanity will not perish for want of informa-
tion, but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our
happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder
is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but
a will to wonder.
      To intercept the allusions that are submerged in percepti-
bilities, the interstitial values that never rise to the surface,
the indefinable dimension of all existence, is the venture of
true poetry. This is why poetry is to religion what analysis
is to science, and it is certainly no accident that the Bible was
not written more geometrico but in the language of poets.
However, the ineffable as sensed by the artist is anonymous,
it is like a foundling. To the religious a person nothing is ever
deserted or unclaimed; it is as if God stood between a them
and the world. The most familiar retires from their sight, and they 
discern the original beneath the palimpsests of things.

The World as an Object

Our self-assured mind specializes in producing knives, as if
it were a cutlery, and in all its thoughts it flings a blade, cut-
ting the world in two: in a thing and in a self; in an object
and in a subject that conceives the object as distinct from it-
self. A mercenary of our will to power, the mind is trained
to assail in order to plunder rather than to commune in order
to love. Moreover, selective as our attention necessarily is,
beholding one thing, we overlook all others which, being out
of control, set our authority at naught.
      When ceasing to convert the world into objects of our
abstraction, a person comes to realize that they are treated like a satel-
lite by their own mind, which keeps them from getting in touch
with reality itself and never gives its own secret away, de-
barring them from the essence rather that initiating them into
      Where a person meets the world, not with the tools that they have 
made but with the soul with which they were born, not like a
hunter who seeks their prey but like a lover to reciprocate love;
where a human and matter meet  as equals before the mystery,
both made, maintained and destined to pass a way, it is not an
object, a thing that is given to their sense, but a state of fellow-
ship that embraces them and all things; not a particular fact
but the startling situation that there are facts at all; being, the
presence of a universe; the unfolding of time. The sense of
the ineffable does not stand between a human and mystery;
rather than abutting them out of it, it keeps  them together
with it.
      To our knowledge the world and the "I" are two, an ob-
ject and a subject; but within our wonder the world and the
"I" are one in being, in eternity. We become alive to our
living in the great fellowship of all beings, we cease to regard
things as opportunities to exploit. Conformity to the ego is
no longer our exclusive concern, and our right to harness
reality in the service of so-called practical ends becomes a
      Things surrounding us emerge from the triteness with
which we have endowed them, and their strangeness opens
like a void between them and our mind, a void that no words
can fill. How does it happen that I am using this pen and
writing these lines? Who are we to scan the esoteric stars, to
witness the settings of the sun, to have the service of the
spring for our survival? How shall we ever reciprocate for
breathing and thinking, for sight and hearing, for love and
achievement? Some prolonged, mind-piercing evidence weans
us then from mistaking the benignity of the world for owner-
lessness, its symbolic living for dull order.
      One of the greatest shocks that we experience in our child-
hood comes with the discovery that our needs and deeds are
not always approved by our fellow humans, that the world is not
mere food for our delight. The resistance we encounter, the
refusals we incur, open our eyes to the existence of a world
outside ourselves. But growing older and stronger, we grad-
ually recover from the shock, try to forget its dolorous les-
son and apply most of our ingenuity to enforcing our will on
nature and humanity. No recollection of our past experience com-
pletely upsets the arrogance that time and again jams the traf-
fic in our mind. Dazzled by the brilliant achievements of the
intellect in science and technique, we have been deluded into
believing that we are the masters of the earth and our will the
ultimate criterion of what is right and wrong.

Is the World at the Mercy of Humanity?

We are today beginning to awake from a state of intoxica-
tion, from a juvenile happiness with the triumphs of our wis-
dom. We are beginning to realize in what a sad plight both
nature and humanity would be if they were completely at the
mercy of humans and their vagaries. We must not be deceived
by the limited splendor of theories that answer none of our
most vital problems and only ridicule the inborn urge to ask
the most crying, urgent question: What is the secret of ex-
istence? Wherefore and for whose sake do we live? Only
those who have not tasted the terror of life, only those who
claim that it is a pleasure to live and that more and only
pleasure is in store for the generations to come, can deny the
essential necessity of asking: Wherefore? For whose sake?

We Sing for All Things
The practical mind pays more attention to the commas and
colons in the great text of reality than to its content and
meaning, while to the sense of the ineffable things stand out
like marks of exclamation, like silent witnesses; and the soul
of a person is an urge to sing for all beings about that for which
they all stand. All things carry a surplus of meaning over
being-they mean more than what they are in themselves.
Even finite facts stand for infinite meaning. It is as if all things
were vibrant with spiritual meaning, and all we try to do in
creative art and in good deeds is to intone the secret strain,
an aspect of that meaning.
      As long as we see only objects we are alone. When we
begin to sing, we sing for all things. Essentially music does
not describe that which is, rather it tries to convey that which
reality stands for. The universe is a score of eternal music,
and we are the cry, we are the voice.
      Reason explores the laws of nature, trying to decipher the
scales without grasping the harmony, while the sense of the
ineffable is in search of the song. When we think, we employ 
words or symbols of what we feel about things. When we
sing, we are carried away by our wonder; and acts of wonder
are signs or symbols of what all things stand for.