Abraham Joshua Heschel

11. Faith

Faith is No Short Cut

People have often tried to give itemized accounts of why they
must believe that God exists. Such accounts are like ripe
wheat we harvest upon the surface of the earth. Yet it is be-
yond all reasons, beneath the ground, where a seed turns to
be a tree, where the act of faith takes place.
    The soul rarely knows how to raise its deeper secrets to
discursive levels of the mind. We must not, therefore, equate
the act of faith with its expression. The expression of faith
is an affirmation of truth, a definite judgment, a conviction,
while faith itself is an act, something that happens rather than
something that is stored away; it is a moment in which the
soul of a person communes with the glory of God.
    What is the nature of that act? How does it come about?
    The question of the psalmist: "Is there a person of reason 
who seeks God?" (14:2) was interpreted by Rabbi Mendel 
of Kotzk to mean: Is a person who has nothing but their own
reason capable of seeking God?
    Many of us are willing to embark upon any adventure,
except to go into stillness and to wait, to place all the wealth
of wisdom in the secrecy of the soil, to sow our own soul for
a seed in that tract of land allocated to every life which we
call time — and to let the soul grow beyond itself. Faith is the
fruit of a seed planted in the depth of a lifetime.
    Many of us seem to think that faith is a convenient short
cut to the mystery of God across the endless, dizzy highway
of critical speculation. The truth is that faith is not a way but
the breaking of a way, of the soul's passageway constantly to
be dug through mountains of callousness. Faith is neither a
gift which we receive undeservedly nor a treasure to be found
    We do not stumble into achievements. Faith is the fruit of
hard, constant care and vigilance, of insistence upon remain-
ing true to a vision; not an act of inertia but an aspiration to
maintain our responsiveness to God alive.
    Just as people are unable to notice the most obvious phenom-
ena in nature unless they are anxious to know about them—
as no scientific insight will occur to those who are unprepared
—so are they incapable of grasping the divine unless they
grow sensitive to its supreme relevance. Without cleanliness
of will the mind is impervious to the relevance of God.
    To a savage who appreciates only the commodities of their
tribe a violin may appear to be a queer piece of wood. In-
deed, there are always people to whom all songs, all melodies
sound alike.
    The art of awareness of God, the art of sensing It's pres-
ence in our daily lives cannot be learned off-hand. God's grace
resounds in our lives like a staccato. Only by retaining the
seemingly disconnected notes comes the ability to grasp the

Ways to Faith

Faith will come to those who passionately yearn for ultimate
meaning, who are alert to the sublime dignity of being, who are
alive to the marvel of matter, to the unbelievable core within
the known, evident, concrete.
   In order to grasp what is so overwhelmingly obvious to
the pious person, we must suspend the trivialities of thinking
that stultify unique insights and decline to stifle our minds
with standardised notions. The greatest obstacle to faith is
the inclination to be content with half-truths and half-reali-
ties. Faith is only given to those who live with all their mind
and all their soul; who strive for understanding with all be-
ings not only for knowledge about them; whose permanent
concern is the cultivation of our uncommon sense, education
in sensing the ineffable. Faith is found in solicitude for faith,
in a passionate care for the marvel that is everywhere.
   Highest in the list of virtues, this partisan care extends not
only to the moral sphere but to all realms of life: to oneself
and to others, to words and to thoughts, to events and to
deeds. Unawed by the prevailing narrowness of mind, it per-
sists as an attitude toward the whole of reality: to hold small
things great, to take light matters seriously, to think of daily
affairs in relation to the everlasting. It is not an attitude of
detachment from reality, of passive absorption or of a self-an-
nihilation, but rather the ability to witness the holy within
this world's affairs, and to entertain a feeling of shame and
discontent with living without faith, without responsiveness
to the holy.
      Strange and scattered are the wells from which we draw
the transport of such discontent. Some of us are sickened by
the dismay of living constantly for naught, by the dread of
an unprepared death; some are distressed by the way in which
the innocence of our own limbs and words is exposed to our
rude and reckless power. Others are charmed by the sanctity
of living for God's laws. Instead of indulging in jealousy and
greed, instead of relishing themselves, they decide to keep
their hearts alert to the allusiveness which surrounds us every-
      By foregoing beauty for goodness, power for love, grief
for gratitude, by entreating the Lord for help to understand
our hopes, for strength to resist our fears, we may receive a
gentle sense of the holiness permeating the air like a strange-
ness that cannot be removed. Our crying out of pitfalls of
self-indulgence for purity of devotion will prepare the dawn
of faith.
      Some people go on a hunger strike in the prison of the mind,
starving for God. There is joy, ancient and sudden, in this
starving. There is reward, a grasp of the intangible, in the
flaming reverie breaking through the bars of thought.

Some of Us Blush

God is unwilling to be alone, and a person cannot forever re-
main impervious to what God longs to show. Those of us who
cannot keep their striving back find themselves at times
within the sight of the unseen and become aglow with its rays.
Some of us blush, others wear a mask. Faith is a blush in the
presence of God.
      Some of us blush, others wear a mask which veils spontane-
ous sensitivity to the holy ineffable dimension of reality. We
all wear so much mental make-up, we have almost forfeited
our face. But faith only comes when we stand face to face—
the ineffable in us with the ineffable beyond us—suffer our-
selves to be seen, to commune, to receive a ray and to reflect
it. But to do that the soul must be alive within the mind.
      Responsiveness to God cannot be copied; it must be orig-
inal with every soul. Even the meaning of the divine is not
grasped when imposed by a doctrine, when accepted by hear-
say. It only enters our vision when leaping like a spark from
the anvil of the mind, hammered and beaten upon by trem-
bling awe.
      Those who search after It in abstractions will miss It.
It is not a lost pearl at the bottom of the mind, to be found
when diving in the waves of argument. The greatest is never
that which you expect.
      It is in our inability to grasp It that we come closest to
It. The existence of God is not real because it is conceiv-
able; it is conceivable because it is real. And real it is to a person
who learns to live in tremor and awe for no purpose, for no
reward; who abides in tremor and awe because they could not
do otherwise; who lives in the awareness of the ineffable, even
though it may seem foolish, futile and improper.
      Thinking about God as a hobby, as a part-time occupation,
will fail even to set forth the issue. For what is the issue in
which we are involved? Is it curiosity of the kind we enter-
tain when being inquisitive about the nature of electronics?
Electronics does not ask anything of us, while the begin-
ning of what God means is the awareness of our being com-
mitted to God.
      God is not an explanation of the world's enigmas or a guar-
antee for our salvation. God is an eternal challenge, an urgent
demand. It is not a problem to be solved but a question ad-
dressed to us as individuals, as nations, as humankind.
      God is of no importance unless It is of supreme import-
ance, which means a deep certainty that it is better to be
defeated with God than be victorious without God.

The Test of Faith

The person who lives by their faith is a person who—even if scholars
the world over should proclaim, if all humankind by an over-
whelming majority of votes should endorse and if experi-
ments, which at times adapt themselves to a person's favorite
theories, should corroborate that there is no God—would
rather suffer at the hands of reason than accept their own reason
as an idol, who would grieve, but neither totter nor betray
the dignity of their sense of inadequacy in the presence of the
ineffable. For faith is an earnest we hold till the hour of pass-
ing away, not to be redeemed by a doctrine or even exchanged
for insights. What God means is expressed in the words: "For
Thy kindness is better than life" (Psalms 63:4). God is It
whose regard for me I value more than life.
      Faith is not captured in observing events in the physical
world that deviate from the known laws of nature. Of what
avail are miracles, with our senses unreliable, with our knowl-
edge incomplete? Faith precedes any palpable experience,
rather than derives from it. Without possessing faith, no-
experience will communicate to us religious significance.
      It says in the Song of Songs: "As an apple-tree among the
trees of the wood" (2:3). Rabbi Aha ben Zeira made a com-
parison: "The apple-tree brings out its blossom before its
leaves, so Israel in Egypt had achieved faith even before they
perceived the message of redemption, as it says: 'And the
people believed; and they heard that the Lord had remem-
bered' (Exodus 4:31)" (Midrash Hazita 2, 10)
      A saying of Rabbi Isaac Meir of Ger may illustrate what
we mean. Commenting on the verse: "And Israel saw the great
work which the Lord did upon the Egyptians, and the people
feared the Lord; and they had faith in the Lord, and in Its
servant Moses" (Exodus 14:31), he remarked: "Although
they saw the miracles with their own eyes, they were still in
need of faith, because faith is superior to sight: with faith you
see more than with your eyes."

An Act of Spirit

In the light of faith we do not seek to unveil or to explain
but to perceive and to absorb the rarities of mystery that
shine out from all things, not to know more but to be at-
tached to what is more than anything we can grasp. Only
those who maintain that all things in life and death are within
reach of their will, try to place the world within the frame of
their knowledge. But who can forever remain insensitive to the
fragrance of the holy bestowed upon life?
      With the gentle sense for the divine in all existence, for the
sacred relevance of all being, the pious person can afford to
forego the joy of knowing, the thrill of perceiving. They who
love the grandeur of what faith discloses dwells at at distance
from their goal, eschews familiarity with what is necessarily
hidden and looks for neither proofs nor miracles. God's exist-
ence can never be tested by human thought. All proofs are
mere demonstrations of our thirst for It. Does the thirsty
one need proof of their thirst?
      The realm toward which faith is directed can be approached
but not penetrated; approximated but not entered; aspired to
but not grasped; sensed but not examined. For to have faith is
to abide rationally outside, while spiritually within, the mys-
      Faith is an act of the spirit. The spirit can afford to acknowl-
edge the superiority of the divine; it has the fortitude to
realize the greatness of the transcendent, to love its superiority.
The person of faith is not enticed by the ostensible. They abstain
from intellectual arrogance and spurn the triumph of the
merely obvious. They know that possession of truth is devotion
to it. Rejoicing more in giving than in acquiring, more in be-
lieving than in perceiving, they can afford to disregard the de-
feciencies of reason. This is the secret of the spirit, not disclosed
to reason: the adaption of the mind to what is sacred, intel-
lectual humility in the presence of the supreme. The mind
surrenders to the mystery of spirit, not in resignation but
in love. Exposing its destiny to the ultimate, it enters into an
intimate relationship with God.
      Is it surrender to confide? Is it a sacrifice to believe? True,
beliefs are not secured by demonstration nor are they impreg-
nable to objection. But does goodness mean serving only as
long as rewarding lasts? Towers are more apt to be shaken
than graves. Insistent doubt, contest and frustration may stul-
tify the trustworthy mind, may turn temples into shambles.
Those of faith who plant sacred thoughts in the uplands of
time—the secret gardeners of the Lord in humanity's desolate
hopes—may slacken and tarry, but they rarely betray their
      It is extremely easy to be cynical. It is as easy to deny God's
existence as it is to commit suicide. Yet no one is deprived of
some measure of suggestibility to the Holy. Even the poorest
souls have wings, soaring above where despair sees a ceiling.