God in Search of ManGod in Search of Man
Abraham Joshua Heschel
Retail Price: $20.00
CBD Price: $13.99
Buy 24 or more for $13.29 each.
( In Stock )
Add To Cart
(PUBFarrar, Straus & Giroux)"Remains the most elegant Jewish theology available. A brilliant thinker and gifted wordsmith, Heschel was strong on God, religious experience, history, and Torah, but weak on Israel. Open the book at random and start reading on any page,"---Shocken Guide to Jewish Books. 436 pages, softcover.

Back To Detail Page
From chapter two, "Ways to His Presence"

(to view a footnote, click on its number)


In reading the works of Western philosophy it is Plato or Aristotle, the Stoics or the Neoplatonists, whom we meet again and again. The spirit of their thinking hovers over every page of philosophical writing. However, we would look in vain for the Bible in the recesses of Western metaphysics. The prophets are absent when the philosophers speak of God.

What we mean by the absence of the Bible in the history of philosophy is not references or quotations; scriptural passages have occasionally found admittance. What we mean is the spirit, the way of thinking, the mode of looking at the world, at life; the basic premises of speculation about being, about values, about meaning. Open any history of philosophy. Thales or Parmenides is there; but is Isaiah or Elijah, Job or Ecclesiastes ever represented? The result of such omission is that the basic premises of Western philosophy are derived from the Greek rather than the Hebraic way of thinking.

There are two approaches to the Bible that prevail in philosophical thinking. The first approach claims that the Bible is a naïve book, it is poetry or mythology. Beautiful as it is, it must not be taken seriously, for in its thinking it is primitive and immature. How could you compare it with Hegel or Hobbes, John Locke or Schopenhauer? The father of the depreciation of the intellectual relevance of the Bible is Spinoza, who may be blamed for many distorted views of the Bible in subsequent philosophy and exegesis.

The second approach claims that Moses taught the same ideas as Plato or Aristotle, that there is no serious disagreement between the teachings of the philosophers and the teachings of the prophets. The difference, it is claimed, is merely one of expression and style. Aristotle, for example, used unambiguous terms, while the prophets employed metaphors. The father of this approach is Philo. Theology was dominated by the theory of Philo, while general philosophy took the attitude of Spinoza [On the attitude of Spinoza, see p. 321 f.]

There is a story of a cub reporter who was sent to cover a wedding. When he came back he said dejectedly that he had no story because the bridegroom did not show up…

It is true that one looks in vain for a philosophical vocabulary in the Bible. But the serious student must not look for what he already has. The categories within which philosophical reflection about religion has been operating are derived from Athens rather than from Jerusalem. Judaism is a confrontation with the Bible, and a philosophy of Judaism must be a confrontation with the thought of the Bible.

The Bible is not the only work in which a concern for ultimate religious problems is found. In many lands and at many ages man has searched for God. Yet the Biblical period is the grand chapter in the history of man's wrestling with God (and of God's wrestling with man). And just as in a study of moral values we cannot ignore the great tradition of moral philosophy, we must not in our wrestling with religious issues ignore the insights accumulated in the Bible. It is, therefore, the age of the Bible, a thousand years of illumination, to which we will turn for guidance.

What do we and the people of the Bible have in common? The anxieties and joys of living; the sense of wonder and the resistance to it; the awareness of the hiding God and moments of longing to find a way to Him.

The central thought of Judaism is the living God. It is the perspective from which all other issues are seen. And the supreme problem in any philosophy of Judaism is: what are the grounds for man's believing in the realness of the living God? Is man at all capable of discovering such grounds? Before attempting to deal with this problem, it is necessary to inquire: is it compatible with the spirit of Judaism to maintain that a man must seek an approach to God, that unless we seek Him we may fail to find Him? Is there a way of developing sensitivity to God and attachment to His presence?

What was the source of the faith of the people in Biblical times? Is it correct to define their faith as an act of relying upon an inherited doctrine? Is it correct to say that for more than three thousand years the Jews had access to only one source of faith, namely the records of revelation? Is it true that Judaism derived its religious vitality exclusively from loyalty to the events that occurred in the days of Moses and from obedience to Scripture in which those events are recorded? Such an assumption seems to overlook the nature of man and his faith. A great event, miraculous as it may be, if it happened only once, will hardly be able to dominate forever the mind of man. The mere remembrance of such an event is hardly powerful enough to hold in its spell the soul of man with its constant restlessness and vitality. There was wrestling for insight out of which Jewish faith drew its strength.
The Bible contains not only the words of the prophets, but also words that came from non-prophetic lips. While it claims to convey words of inspiration, it also contains words of human search and concern. There is in the Bible God's word to man, but there is also man's word to Him and about Him; not only God's disclosure but man's insight. Prophetic experience is far removed from the reach of modern man. But the prophets were human, too; prophetic experiences were single moments in their lives beyond which lay the encounter with good and evil, light and darkness, life and death, love and hatred--issues which are as real today as they were three thousand years ago. These perceptions reflect human, not only prophetic thinking. It is particularly in the so-called wisdom literature, such as the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, as well as the Book of Psalms, that the spontaneity of the Biblical man found its expression.

The concern for God continued throughout the ages, and in order to understand Judaism we must inquire about the way and the spirit of that concern in post-Biblical Jewish history as well.

Tow sources of religious thinking are given us: memory (tradition) and personal insight. We must rely on our memory and we must strive for fresh insight. We hear from tradition, we also understand through our own seeking. The prophets appeal to the spiritual power in man: "Know, therefore, this day, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other" (Deuteronomy 4:39). The psalmist calls on us "O taste and see that the Lord is good" (34:9).1 How does one know? How does one taste?

An allusion to the need for every man's quest for God was seen homiletically in the Song of the Red Sea:
This is my God, and I will glorify Him;
The God of my father, and I will exalt Him.

Exodus 15:2
Out of his own insight a person must first arrive at the understanding: This is my God, and I will glorify Him, and subsequently he will attain the realization that He is the God of my father, and I will exalt Him.2


Burnt offerings, sacrifices are an important part of Biblical piety. And yet, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, understanding (knowledge) of God, rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6). There is a way that leads to understanding. "Ye will seek the Lord thy God, and thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and all thy soul" (Deuteronomy 4:29; Jeremiah 29:13).
"If a man says to you, I have labored and not found, do not believe him. If he says, I have not labored but still have found, do not believe him. If he says, I have labored and found, you may believe him."3 It is true that in seeking Him we are assisted by Him. But the initiative and intensity of our seeking are within our power. "If thou call for understanding, and lift up they voice for discernment; then shalt thou understand the awe and fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God."4 "Everything is within the power of heaven except the awe and fear of heaven."5

The Bible has several words for the act of seeking God (durash, bakkesh, shahar). In some passages these words are used in the sense of inquiring after His will and precepts (Psalms 119:45, 94, 155). Yet, in other passages these words mean more than the act of asking a question, the aim of which is to elicit information. It means addressing oneself directly to God with the aim of getting close to Him; it involves a desire for experience rather than a search for information.6 Seeking Him includes the fact of keeping His commandments, but it goes beyond it. "Seek ye the Lord and His strength, seek His face continually" (Psalms 105:4). Indeed, to pray does not only mean to seek help; it also means to seek Him.

The commandment "is not to hard for thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in they heart, that thou mayest do it" (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). However, the same words cannot be said in regard to God. "Am I a God near at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off?" (Jeremiah 23:23). Indeed, there are moments when He is near and may be found, and there are moments when He is far and hiding Himself from man. "Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near" (Isaiah 55:6).[See p. 129.] Not all of the people of the Bible are satisfied with awareness of God's power and presence. There are those "that seek Him, that seek Thy face O God of Jacob" (Psalms 24:6). "One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after, that I may abide in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord" (Psalms 27:4). "As for me, the nearness of God is my good" (Psalms 73:28).
At Sinai, according to legend, Israel was not content to receive the divine words through an intermediary. They said to Moses, "We want to hear the words of our King from Himself…We want to see our King."7


The craving for God has never subsided in the Jewish soul. Despite the warning, "Thou canst not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live" (Exodus 32:20), there were many who persisted in a yearning, to which Jehuda Halevi gave unforgettable utterance. "To see the face of my King is my sole desire. I fear none but Him; I revere only Him. Would that I might see Him in a dream! I would continue to sleep for all eternity. Would that I might behold His face within my heart! Mine eyes would never ask to look at anything else."8
As a hart yearns for the streams of water,
So does my soul yearn for Thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, the living God,
When shall I come and see the face of the Lord?

Psalms 42:2f
Like Moses who pleaded, "Show me, I pray, Thy glory" (Exodus 33:18), the Psalmist prays:
O God, Thou art my God, earnestly I will seek Thee.
My soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee,
In a dry and weary land, where no water is.
So have I looked for Thee in the sanctuary,
To see Thy strength and Thy glory.

Psalms 63:2-3

With my soul have I desired Thee in the night;
Yea with my spirit within me have I sought Thee earnestly.

Isaiah 26:9

In those days, and in that time, saith the Lord,
The children of Israel shall come,
They and the children of Judah together;
They shall go on their way weeping
And shall seek the Lord their God.

Jeremiah 50:4
God is waiting for man to seek Him. "The Lord looked forth from heaven upon the children of man, to see if there were any man of understanding that sought Him" (Psalms 14:2). "In Thy behalf my heart hath said: 'Seek ye My face'" (Psalms 27:8). And on the Days of Awe we recall in humility: "Until the day of man's death Thou waitest for him" to return.
On the other hand, one is always faced with the possibility of failure, with the danger of being trapped in lofts without lights, without motion. There are those "whose doings will not suffer them to return to their God…With their flocks and with their herds they shall go to seek Him, but they shall not find Him; He hath withdrawn Himself from them" (Hosea 5:4, 6).

We must go on trying to return, to care for Him, to seek Him. It is an exceptional act of divine grace that those who do not care for Him should suddenly discover that they are near Him. "I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for Me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek Me. I said: 'Here am I, here am I,' unto a nation that did not call on My name" (Isaiah 65:1). In his last words, David warned his son Solomon: "If thou seek Him, He will be found of thee; but if thou forsake Him, He will cast thee off for ever" (1 Chronicles 28:9).


How does one seek Him? How does one find in this world, within one's own human existence and response to this world, ways that lead to the certainty of His presence?

Jewish literature contains many indications of an awareness of our problems, but that awareness is rarely spelled out. Usually the Jew of the past shied away from disclosing his personal religious concern and experience, and as a result his reticence has been mistaken frequently for spiritual apathy. The truth is that the soul was never silent. Up to the nineteenth century there were few outstanding Talmudists who were not stirred, for example, by the cravings and meditations of the Zohar. Beneath the calm surface of creed and law the souls were astir. Our task, then, is to go beneath the tranquility of creed and tradition in order to overhear the echoes of wrestling and to recapture the living insights.

There are three starting points of contemplation about God; three trails that lead to Him. The first is the way of sensing the presence of God in the world, in things;9 the second is the way of sensing His presence in the Bible; the third is the way of sensing His presence in sacred deeds. These three ways are intimated in three Biblical passages:
Lift up your eyes on high and see, Who created these?

Isaiah 40:26

I am the Lord thy God.

Exodus 20:2

We shall do and we shall hear.

Exodus 24:7
These three ways correspond in our tradition to the main aspects of religious existence: worship, learning, and action. The three are one, and we must go all three ways to reach the same destination. For this is what Israel discovered: the God of nature is the God of history, and the way to know Him is to do His will.
To recapture the insights found in these three ways is to go to the roots of Biblical experience of life and reality; it means to delve into the religious drama of Israel, to grasp what it was that enabled Job to say:
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,
That He will witness at the last upon the dust.
After my skin has been destroyed,
Out of my flesh I shall see God.
My own eyes shall behold, not another's.
My heart faints within me.

Job 19:25-27
How does a man reach a stage of thinking where he is able to say, "Out of my flesh I shall see God"?

Each of the three parts of this book, accordingly, is devoted to a particular way.

  1. The verb ta'am always means to perceive, to taste. The noun is also used in the same sense of judgment. In our passage, Targum renders the word ta'amu with "realize," the Septuagint with "taste." Compare Seforno's Commentary ad locum, "taste, namely feel with your sense and see with the eye of reason that God is good." (return to the text)

  2. See Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, Shne Lubot Haberith, p. 40a. Compare also Man Is Not Alone, p. 164, n. 2. (return to the text)

  3. See Megillah 6b. (return to the text)

  4. Proverbs 2:3-4. (return to the text)

  5. Berachot 33b. (return to the text)

  6. To mention but a few examples: "He sought the Lord with all his heart" (1 Chronicles 22:9). "In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord" (Psalms 77:3). "I sought the Lord, and He answered me, and delivered me from my fears" (Psalms 34:5). Seeking the Lord is not a synonym for petitioning Him or obeying His law. "Happy are they that keep His testimonies, that seek Him with the whole heart." "With my whole heart I have sought Thee, O let me not err from Thy commandments" (Psalms 119:2, 10). (return to the text)

  7. Mechilta to Exodus 19:9. (return to the text)

  8. See Selected Poems of Jehuda Halevi, translated by Ninah Salaman, Philadelphia, 1928, pp. 115-166. (return to the text)

  9. Man is told, "Look at the heavens and see; behold the clouds which are higher than thee" (Job 35:5); see Amos 5:6, 8-9. "Meditate about the works of the Lord, for thereby you will come to know Him by whose word the world came into being." Quoted in the name of Rabbi Meir by Maimonides, Responsa, ed. A. Friemann, Jerusalem, 1934, 347, p. 312. See also Wisdom of Solomon 13:1ff; Baruch 54:17f. According to old legends, Abraham discovered the true faith by meditating on nature, see Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, vol. V, p. 210, n. 16. Compare also p. 112 of this book. According to Bayha, The Duties of the Heart, ed., Moses Haymson, vol. 1, p. 3, it is our duty to "meditate on the marvels as manifested in His creations, so that they may serve us as evidence of Him." (return to the text)