Abraham Joshua Heschel

6. A Question beyond Words

We Do Not Know How to Ask

The universe is an immense allusion, and our inner life an
anonymous quotation; only the italics are our own. Is it within
our power to verify the quotation, to identify the source, to
learn what all things stand for?

      The question is the beginning of all thinking. In knowing
how to ask the right question lies the only hope of arriving
at an answer. In asking a question we must faintly anticipate
something of the nature of what we ask about. On that ac-
count, the question about the ultimate source of all reality
is one we do not know how to ask. It concerns something
which cannot be pressed into our finite categories, put in
chains of a sentence and converted into a definite matter to
be inquired into. Formulas—such as: What is the ultimate ori-
gin of the universe? What is behind all events?—are travesties
of what is overwhelmingly given to our pristine sense of won-
der. Is it the origin we want to ask about and not the presence,
goal and task of the universe? Do we know where to draw
the line between the unknown origin and the known product,
or where the source ends and the derivation begins? Even the
sentence structure of such formulas is pregnant with logical
assumptions which upon close analysis disclose immense
      A profound awareness of the incongruity of all categories
with the nameless, unfathomable omnipresence of the mys-
tery is a prerequisite for our efforts in reaching toward an
answer. The more we beware of letting our incomparable
question be adulterated or even stifled by inadequate formula-
tions, the better will be our chance of braving final, specious

Wherefore? For Whose Sake?

For in our anxiety, all caution and prudence are forgotten.
Neither sage nor savage is able to circumvent the problem:
Who is the great author? Why is there a world at all? What 
is the sense of being alive?
      Despite our conquests and might, we are like blind beg-
ars in a labyrinth who do not know at which door to knock
to obtain relief for our anxieties. We know how nature acts
but not why for whose sake; we know that we live but
not why and wherefore. We know that we must inquire but
not who has planted in us the anxiety to inquire.
      Intimidated by the vigor of agnosticism that proclaims ig-
norance about the ultimate as the only honest attitude, mod-
ern humans shy away from metaphysics and are inclined to
suppress their innate sense, to crush their mind-transcending ques-
tions and to seek refuge within the confines of their finite self.
Yet such an attitude is a trap, both inconsistent and self-de-
ceptive. In insisting that we are unable to know, we exhibit
a knowledge which we claim is unattainable. The allegation
that there is no ultimate meaning sounds shrilly in the deep
stillness of the ineffable.
      Is it possible to evade the ultimate issue by withdrawing
within the confines of the self? The awareness of wonder is
often overtaken by the mind's tendency to dichotomize, which
makes us look at the ineffable as if it were a thing or an as-
pect of things apart from our own selves; as if only the stars
were surrounded with a halo of enigma and not our own ex-
istence. The truth is that the self, our "lord," is an unknown
thing, inconceivable in itself. In penetrating the self, we dis-
cover the paradox of not knowing what we presume to know
so well.

Who is "I"

A human sees the things that surround them long before they be-
come aware of their own self. Many of us are conscious of the
hiddenness of things, but few of us sense the mystery of our
own presence. The self cannot be described in the terms of
the mind, for all our symbols are too poor to render it. The
self is more than we dream of; it stands, as it were, with its
back to the mind. Indeed, to the mind even the mind itself
is more enigmatic than a star. Elusive is the manner in which
the human mind operates; the ideas, the bricks of which con-
victions are made, are symbols the meaning of which a person
never fully penetrates, and what they wish to express is sub-
merged in the unfathomable depth of the unconscious. Be-
yond my reach is the bottom of my own inner life. I am not
even sure whether it is the voice of a definite personal unit
that comes out of me. What in my voice has originated in me
and what is the resonance of transsubjective reality? In saying
"I," my intention is to differentiate myself from other people
and other things. But what is the direct, positive content of
the "I": the blooming of consciousness upon the impenetrable
soil of the subconscious? The self comprises no less unknown,
subconscious, than known, conscious reality. This means that
the self can be distinctly separated only at its branches,
namely, from other individuals and other things but not at 
its roots.
      All we know of the self is its expression, but the self is
never fully expressed. What we are, we cannot say; what we
become, we cannot grasp. It is all a cryptic, suggestive ab-
breviation which the mind tries in vain to decipher. Like the
burning bush, the self is aflame but is never consumed. Carry-
ing within itself more than reason, it is in travail with the
ineffable. Something is meant by the simile of a human. But what?
      As we shall see to exist implies to own time. But does a
person own time? The fact is that time, the moments through
which I live, I cannot own, while the timeless in my tempo-
rality is certainly not my private property. However, if life
does not belong exclusively to me, what is my legal title to
it? Does my essence possess the right to say "I"? Who is that
"I" to whom my life is supposed to belong? Nobody knows
either its content or its limits. Is it something that withers or 
is it something that time cannot take a way?
      As an individual, as an "I," I am separated from external
reality, from other humans and other things. But in the only
relation in which the "I" becomes aware of itself, in the
relation to existence, I find that what I call "self" is a self-
deception; that existence is not a property but a trust; that
the self is not an isolated entity, confined in itself, a kingdom
ruled by our will.
      What we face in penetrating the self is the paradox of not
knowing what we presume to know so well. Once we dis-
cover that the self in itself is a monstrous deceit, that the self
is something transcendent in disguise, we begin to feel the
pressure that keeps us down to a mere self. We begin to real-
ize that our normal consciousness is in a state of trance, that
what is higher in us is usually suspended. We begin to feel
like strangers within our own normal consciousness, as if our own
will were imposed on us.
      Clear-sighted souls, caught in the tension of the lavishly
obvious and the clandestine stillness, are neither dazzled nor
surprised. Watching the never-ending pantomime that goes
on within an ostentatious, turbulent world, they know that
the mystery is not there, while we are here. The truth is we
are all steeped in it, imbued with it, we are, partly, it.

I Am that I Am Not
                   And God said unto Moses:
                   I Am that I Am, and He said:
                   Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel,
                   I Am hath sent me unto you.
                                                         Exodus 3:14

I am endowed with a will, but the will is not mine; I am
endowed with freedom, but it is a freedom imposed on the
will. Life is something that visits my body, a transcendent
loan; I have neither initiated nor conceived its worth and
meaning. The essence of what I am is not mine. I am what is
not mine. I am that I am not.
      Upon the level of normal consciousness I find myself wrapt
in self-consciousness and claim that my acts and states origi-
nate in and belong to myself. But in penetrating and exposing
the self, I realize that the self did not originate in itself, that
the essence of the self is in its being a non-self, that ultimately
a person is not a subject but an object.     

No Subject to Ask

It is easy to raise verbally the question: Who is the subject,
of which my self is the object? But to be keenly sensitive to
its meaning is something which surpasses our power of com-
prehension. It is, in fact, impossible to comprehend logically
its implications. For in asking the question, I am always aware
of the fact that it is I who asks the question.  But as soon as
I know myself as an "I," as a subject, I am not capable any
more of grasping the content of the question, in which I am
posited as an object. Thus, on the level of self-consciousness
there is no way to face the issue, to ask the absolute question.
On the other hand, when we are overtaken with the spirit
of the ineffable, there is no logical self left to ask the ques-
tion or the mental power to stand as the judge with God as
an object, about the existence of whom I am to decide. I am
unable to raise my voice or to sit in judgement. There is no
self to say: I think that...
      There is, indeed, no speculative level where the question
could be raised. We either do not sense the meaning of the
issue or, when realizing what we ought to ask about, there is
no logical subject left to ask, to examine, to inquire.