Abraham Joshua Heschel

9. In the Presence of God

From God's Presence to God's Essence

The sense of the ineffable introduces the soul to the divine
aspect of the universe, to a reality higher than the universe.
However, in stating that to be means to be thought of by
God, that the universe is an object of divine thought, we have
affirmed the existence of a being who is beyond the ineffable.
How do we know that God is more than the holy dimension,
more than an aspect or an attribute of being? How do we go
from the allusiveness of the world—to a being to whom the 
world alludes?
      In thinking on the level of the ineffable, we do not set out
with a preconceived idea of a supreme being in our possession,
trying to ascertain whether God is in reality the way God is in
our minds. The awareness which opens our minds to the ex-
istence of a supreme being is an awareness of reality, an aware-
ness of a divine presence. Long before we attain any
knowledge about God's essence, we possess an intuition of a
divine presence.
      This is wherein the approach through the ineffable differs
from the approach through speculation. In the latter we pro-
ceed from an idea of His essence to a belief in God's existence,
while in the former we proceed from an intuition of God's pres-
ence to an understanding of God's essence.

The Dawn of Faith

The sense of the ineffable does not give us an awareness of
God. It only leads to a plane, where no on can remain both
callous and calm, unstunned and unabashed; where God's pres-
ence may be defied but not denied, and where, at the end,
faith in God is the only way.
      Once our bare soul is exposed to the omnipresence of the
ineffable, we cannot bid it cease to shatter us with its urging
wonder. It is as if there were only signs and hidden reminders
of the one and only true subject, of whom the world is a
cryptic object.
      Who lit the wonder before our eyes and the wonder of our
eyes? Who struck the lightning in the minds and scorched us
with an imperative of being overawed by the holy as un-
quenchable as the sight of the stars?

What to do with Wonder

The beginning of faith is not a feeling for the mystery of
living or a sense of awe, wonder or fear. The root of religion
is the question what to do with the feeling for the mystery
of living, what to do with awe, wonder or fear. Religion, the
end of isolation, begins with a consciousness that something
is asked of us. It is in that tense, eternal asking in which the
soul is caught and in which a person's answer is elicited.
      Wonder is not a state of esthetic enjoyment. Endless won-
der is endless tension, a situation in which we are shocked at
the inadequacy of our awe, at the weakness of our shock, as
well as the state of being asked the ultimate question.
       Endless wonder unlocks an innate sense of indebtedness.
Within our awe there is no place for self-assertion. Within
our awe we only know that all we own we owe. The world
consists, not of things, but of tasks. Wonder is the state of
our being asked. The ineffable is a question addressed to
      All that is left to us is a choice—to answer or to refuse to
answer. Yet the more deeply we listen, the more we become
stripped of the arrogance and callousness which alone would
enable us to refuse. We carry a load of marvel, wishing to
exchange it for the simplicity of knowing what to live for, a
load which we can never lay down nor continue to carry not
knowing where.
      At the moment in which a fire bursts forth, threatening to
destroy one's home, a person does not pause to investigate
whether the danger they face is real or a figment of their imagina-
tion. Such a moment is not the time to inquire into the chemi-
cal principle of combustion, or into the question of who is
to blame for the outbreak of the fire. The ultimate question,
when bursting forth in our souls, is too startling, too heavily
laden with unutterable wonder to be an academic question,
to be equally suspended between yes and no. Such a moment is
not the time to throw doubts upon the reason for the rise of
the question.

Who is the Enigma

When we think with all our mind, with all our heart, with all
our soul; when we become aware of the fact that the self can-
not stand on its own, we realize that the most subtle explana-
tions are splendid enigmas, that God is more plausible than
our own selves, that it is not God who is an enigma but we.
When all our mind is aglow with the eternal question like a
face in gazing on a mighty blaze, we are not moved to ask:
Where is God? for such a question would imply that we who
ask are present, while God is absent. In the realm of the in-
effable, where our own presence is incredible, we do not ask:
Where is God? We can only exclaim: Where is God not?
Where are we? How is our presence possible?
      At the moment in which we are stirred for the first time
by the ultimate question we unreservedly confess our in-
ability to face the world without a being which is beyond the
world. Our question is in essence a foregone conclusion, an
answer in disguise. For once we accept the legitimacy of the
question, we have affirmed it. Failure of our mind to find
evidence for God's presence is merely an implied admission that
we consider nature to be so perfect that no trace of its being
dependent upon the supernatural can be detected; it is as if
God had poured out a splendor to conceal God's presence.
      Yet there is a dimension where God is not concealed,
wherein we sense God's presence behind the splendor. But are
we able to say what we sense? Are we able to lay bare the in-
most reason for our certainty of the existence of a being who
surpasses all glory?
      The issue that emerges before us is not whether there is a
God, but whether we know that there is a God, not whether
God exists, but whether we are intelligent enough to advance
adequate reasons for affirming it. The problem is: How do
we tell it to our minds? How do we overcome the antinomies
that bar us from knowing clearly and distinctly what God
The Invincible Question

Awareness of the divine that intrudes first as a sense of won-
der gleaming through indifference, as a compulsion to be
aware of the ineffable, grows, imperceptibly, like a hair, to
uneasiness, anxiety, until it bristles with an unbearable concern
that deprives us of complacency and peace of mind, forcing
us to care for ends which we do not wish to care for, for ends
which have no appeal to our personal interest. With all our
might, pride and self-reliance, we try to defy, to suppress and
to combat the concern for the unregarded, for that which is
unconfined by either mind or will or our own life. We would
rather be prisoners, if only our mind, will, passion and am-
bitions were the four walls of the prison. There would, in-
deed, be no greater comfort than to live in the security of
foregone conclusions, if not for that gnawing concern which
turns all conclusions into a shambles.
      What is the nature of that enforced concern we resist so
vehemently? It is not our own; it is a pressure that weighs
upon us as well as upon all people. It does not impart any words;
it only asks, it only calls. It plants a question, a behest, in front
of us, which our heart echoes like a bell, overpowering as if
it were the only sound in endless stillness and we the only
ones to answer it. Our mind, our voice is too coarse to utter
a reply. It is a question that demands our whole being as an
answer. Our words, possessions, achievements are no longer
an answer. Theories, explanations dissipate as mere diversions.
We cease to see the answers for the question, the trees for
the forest. There are neither skies nor oceans, neither birds
nor trees—there is only a question, and the question is in-

In Search of a Soul

Pursued by a question we are unable to fathom, one which
does not fit in our intellectual curiosity, we are caught in its
struggle to find a way to our minds, in its quest of a soul to
engage itself in its understanding.
      We cannot question the supreme invincible question that
extends in front of us, opening itself to us like time, unre-
mittingly, and pleading with us like a voice that had been
melted into stillness.
      There is no knowledge that would be an answer to endless
wonder, that could stem the tide of its silent challenge. When
we are overtaken by endless wonder, all inference is an awk-
ward retrogression; in such moments a syllogism is not self-
evident but an insight is. In such moments our logical 
affirmation, our saying yes, appears like a bubble of thought at
the strand of an eternal sea. We, then, realize that our concern
is not: What may we know? How could we open God to
our minds? Our concern is: To whom do we belong? How
could we open our lives to God?
      Where self-assertion is no more; when realizing that wonder
is not our own achievement; that it is not by our own power
alone that we are shuddered with radical amazement, it is not
within our power  any more to assume the role of an examiner
of a subject in search of an object, such as we are in search of
a cause when perceiving thunder. Ultimate wonder is not the
same as curiosity. Curiosity is the state of a mind in search of
knowledge, while ultimate wonder is the state of knowledge
in search of a mind; it is the thought of God in search of a soul.
      What is decisive is not the existential moment of despair,
the acceptance of our own bankruptcy, but, on the contrary,
the realization of our great spiritual power, the power to heal
what is broken in the world, the realization of our capacity to
answer God's question.    
      Faith is not a product of our will. It occurs without in-
tention, without will. Words expire when uttered, and faith
is like the silence that draws lovers near, like a breath that
shares in the wind.
      It is neither an inference from logical premises nor the out-
come of a feeling that leads us to believe in God's existence; it
is not an idea gained by sitting back and observing or by going
into the soul and listening to one's inner voice. We do not be-
lieve because we have come to a conclusion...or because
we have been overcome by an emotion...It is a turning
within the mind by a power from beyond the mind, a shock
and collision with the unbelievable by which we are coerced
into believing.

The Premise of Praise

Speculative proof is no prelude to faith. The antecedents of
faith are the premise of the wonder and the premise of praise.
We praise before we prove. While in regard to other issues we
doubt before we decide, in regard to God we sing before we
say. Unless we know how to praise God, we cannot learn
how to know God. Praise is our first answer to the wonder.
Indeed, in the face of the sublime what is left for us to do
except to praise, to be aflame with the inability to say what we
see and to feel ashamed of not knowing how to thank for the
ability to see?
      To be overtaken with awe of God is not to entertain a feel-
ing but to share in a spirit that permeates all beings. "They
all thank, they all praise, they all say: There is no one like
God." As an act of personal recognition our praise would be
fatuous, it is only meaningful as an act of joining in the end-
less song. We praise with the pebbles on the road which are
like petrified amazement, with all the flowers and trees which
look as if hypnotized in silent devotion.
     When mind and soul agree, belief is born. But first our hearts
must know the shudder of adoration.

Let the Insight Be
Our awareness of God is a syntax of the silence, in which our
souls mingle with the divine, in which the ineffable in us com-
munes with the ineffable beyond us. It is the afterglow of years
in which soul and sky are silent together, the outgrowth of
accumulated certainty of the abundant, never-ebbing presence
of the divine. All we ought to do is to let the insight be and to
listen to the soul's recessed certainty of its being a parenthesis
in the immense script of God's eternal speech.
      The great insight is not attained when we ponder or infer
the beyond from the here. In the realm of the ineffable, God
is not a hypothesis derived from logical assumptions, but an
immediate insight, self-evident as light. God is not something
to be sought in the darkness with the light of reason. In the
face of the ineffable Godis the light. When the ultimate aware-
ness comes, it is like a flash, arriving all at once. To meditative
minds the ineffable is cryptic, inarticulate: dots, marks of se-
cret meaning, scattered hints, to be gathered, deciphered and
formed into evidence; while in moments of insight the ineffable
is a metaphor in a forgotten mother tongue.
      Thus, awareness of God does not come by degrees: from
timidity to intellectual temerity; from guesswork, reluctance,
to certainty; it is not a decision reached at the crossroads of
doubt. It comes when, drifting in the wilderness, having gone
astray, we suddenly behold the immutable polar star. Out of
endless anxiety, out of denial and despair, the soul bursts out
in speechless crying.

God is Suing for Humanity

To knock timidly at distant gates of silence, inquiring whether
there is a God somewhere, is not the way. We all have the
power to discover in the nearest stone or tree, sound or thought,
the shelter of God's often desecrated goodness. God's waiting for
a person's' heart to affiliate with God's will. It is a travail to perceive
the unfolding of the divine in this world of strife and envy.
Yet a force from beyond our conscience cries at humanity, re-
minding and admonishing that the wanton will fail in rebellion
against the good. They who are willing to be an echo to that
pleading voice opens their life to the comprehension of the un-
seen in the desert of indifference. It is God who sues for our
devotion, constantly, persistently, who goes out to meet us as
soon as we long to know God.
      What gives birth to religion is not intellectual curiosity,
but the fact and experience of our being asked. As long as we
frame and ponder our own questions, we do not even know
how to ask. We know too little to be able to inquire. Faith
is not the product of search and endeavor, but the answer to
a challenge which no one can forever ignore. It is ushered
in not by a problem, but by an exclamation. Philosophy be-
gins with a person's question; religion begins with God's question
and a person's answer.
     A person who chooses a life of utmost striving for the utmost
stake, the vital, matchless stake of God, feels at times as though
the spirit of God rested upon their eyelids—close to their eyes and 
yet never seen. They who have realised that sun and stars and
souls do not ramble in a vacuum will keep their heart in readi-
ness for the hour when the world is entranced. For things are
not mute: the stillness is full of demands, awaiting a soul to
breathe in the mystery that all things exhale in their craving
for communion. Out of the world comes a behest to instill
into the air a rapturous song for God, to incarnate in stones
a message of humble beauty, and to instill a prayer for good-
ness in the hearts of all people.

The Enforced Concern
The world in which we live is a vast cage within a maze, high
as our mind, wide as our power of will, long as our life span.
Those who have never reached the rails or seen what is beyond
the cage know of no freedom to dream of and are willing to
rise and fight for civilizations that come and go and sink into
the abyss of oblivion, an abyss which they never fill.
      In our technological age humanity could conceive of this
world as anything but material for their own fulfilment. They con-
sider themselves the sovereign of their destiny, capable of organ-
izing the breeding of races, of adapting a philosophy to their
transient needs and of creating a religion at will. They postulate
the existence of a Power that would serve as a guarantee for 
their self-fulfilment, as if God were a henchman to cater to a person's
aspirations and help them draw the utmost out of life.
      But even those who have knocked their heads against the
rails of the cage and discovered that life is involved in con-
flicts which they cannot solve; that the drive of possessiveness,
which fills streets, homes and hearts with its clamor and shrill,
is constantly muffled by the irony of time; that our construc-
tiveness is staved in by self-destructiveness—even they prefer
to live on the sumptuous, dainty diet within the cage rather
than look for an exit to the maze in order to search for freedom
in the darkness of the undisclosed.
      Others, however, who cannot stand it, despair. They have
no power to spend on faith any more, no goal to strive for,
no strength to seek a goal. But, then, a moment comes like a
thunderbolt, in which a flash of the undisclosed rends our dark
apathy asunder. It is full of overpowering brilliance, like a
point in which all moments of life are focused or a thought
which outweighs all thoughts ever conceived of. There is so
much light in our cage, in our world, it is as if it were sus-
pended amidst the stars. Apathy turns to splendor unawares.
The ineffable has shuddered itself into the soul. It has entered
our consciousness like a ray of light passing into a lake. Re-
fraction of that penetrating ray brings about a turning in our
mind. We are penetrated by God's insight. We cannot think any
more as if God were there and we here. God is both there and 
here. God is not a being but being in and beyond all beings. 
      A tremor seizes our limbs, our nerves are struck, quiver like
strings; our whole being bursts into shudders. But then a cry,
wrested from our very core, fills the world around us, as if a
mountain were suddenly about to place itself in front of us.
It is one word. GOD. Not an emotion, a stir within us, but
a power, a marvel beyond us, tearing the world apart. The
word that means more than the universe, more than eternity, holy,
holy, holy, we cannot comprehend it. We only know it means
infinitely more than we are able to echo. Staggered, embar-
rassed, we stammer and say: God, who is more than all there
is, who speaks through the ineffable, whose question is more
than our mind can answer, God to whom our life can be the
spelling of an answer.
      An inspiration passes, having been inspired never passes. It
remains like an island across the restlessness of time, to which
we move over the wake of undying wonder. An eagerness is
left behind, a craving and a feeling of shame at our ever being
tainted with oblivion...
      We may be able to say no, if we decide to feed our mind
on presumption and conceit, to cling to duplicity and to refuse
to mean what we sense, to think what we feel. But there is
no person who is not shaken for an instant by the eternal. And
if we claim we have no heart to feel, no soul to hear, let us
pray for tears or a feeling of shame.