Many, many years have passed since I was assigned to read this book in college. It makes me laugh when I reflect on that which we read in class to develop "critical thinking" skills and how much more it all resonates once we experience life and gain smarts that don't come from classrooms and the regurgitation of facts.
I pulled this book out recently. I had marked up many passages, but I'll try to stay focused in this "review", which is really a commentary. In particular, I believe that the passage below has particular relevance in light of the passing of Coretta Scott King and the whole of the Martin Luther King legacy. So, here it is:
"Human existence cannot derive its ultimate meaning from society, because society itself is in need of meaning. It is as legitimate to ask: Is mankind needed? - as it is to ask: Am I needed? Humanity begins in the individual man, just as history takes its rise from a singular event. It is always one man at a time whom we keep in mind when we pledge: 'with malice toward none, with charity for all,' or when trying to fulfill: 'Love they neighbor as thyself.'
The term 'mankind,' which in biology denotes the human species, has an entirely different meaning in the realm of ethics and religion. Here mankind is not conceived as a species, as an abstract concept, stripped from its concrete reality, but as an abundance of specific individuals; as a community of persons rather than as a herd of a multitude of nondescripts. While it is true that the good of all counts more than the good of one, it is the concrete individual who lends meaning to the human race. We do not think that a human being is valuable because he is a member of the race; it is rather the opposite: the human race is valuable because it is composed of human beings."
I find Heschel's explorations compelling because they not only explore the relationship between God and man. Rather, he responds to two questions that challenge: First, what are the fundamental tenets of Judaism? - a much heftier question than might appear at first blush, and second, why should people choose to adhere to the obligation of following laws that appear to restrain actions?
Heschel believes that God is concerned about the world; he holds that God has revealed His moral nature by his intimate involvement with mankind throughout history; his God is principally concerned with fostering unity on earth. For Heschel, God "holds our fitful lives together . . . God means: Togetherness of all beings in holy otherness." And Heschel's perspective on the purpose(s) of the Torah -- to encourage people to sense God's presence in life and to understand the Torah as not a set of provisions that restrict, but, rather an answer to life's difficulties for "the more we do for His sake the more we receive for our sake."
What is particularly intriguing to me is that whether one believes in God or not, Heschel's wisdom prevails. Why? Because there is an opportunity to perform Mitzvot - to do "good." Mitzvot enable us to attain a sense of the holy, to fulfill, if you will, our souls, ourselves. Therefore, mitzvot are for our benefit, inner fulfillment so to speak; the laws are not ever a "yoke."
If through doing "good" by way of our actions, we are afforded the possibility to transcend ourselves; to sense the ineffable as we can by experiencing and appreciating great music. Furthermore, Heschel doesn't behoove us to fulfill "laws" perfectly; only to the best of our ability. In "doing the finite we may perceive the infinite . . (man gains) a perception of life eternal in everyday deeds." It's Kavanah, an awareness not of duty, but of inner spirituality. While the laws (or Halachah) direct, the essence is found in the human. "Without faith, inwardness and the power of appreciation of the law is meaningless." Both faith and action will better the world. Through deeds, we are able to confront the human and the holy. I buy this. It's a reminder that we need to preserve our sense of wonder and respect for that which we don't know or don't yet know.
The beauty of the Torah is that it is always relevant: it preserves life. Religious or spiritual observances are cherished for they are opportunities that allow us to find ourselves. Heschel explains that an internal peace is the result of study, of understanding, of acting and of giving.
Which leads me to my final thought: Heschel is not just talking of Judaism. His thinking applies everywhere we turn. The ethnicity or race - actually, ethnicities and races - all matter. They all count. All we are asked to do is listen, watch, and act. Whom shall we listen to? Whom shall we watch? How should we act? I ask myself these questions; I hope that my daughters will, too.