Seeking the Awe of Heaven

Gates of HeavenThere are two approaches to the Bible that prevail in philosophical thinking. The first approach claims that the Bible is a naive book, it is poetry or mythology. As beautiful as it is, it must not be taken seriously, for in its thinking it is primitive and immature. How could you compare it to Hegel or Hobbes, John Locke or Shopenhauer?

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. Aristotle, for example, used unambiguous terms, while the prophets employed metaphors.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.
pp 24-25

Everything is within the power of Heaven except fear and awe of heaven.Berachot 33b

Although I may have left the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute’s lesson on Toward a Meaningful Life behind with yesterday’s morning meditation, the Christian search for God in the Torah, Tanakh, and Talmud still occupies me. I’m sure reading Heschel’s classic only provokes my interest.

The quote from his book which I just posted presents a more interesting dilemma than the one Heschel considered. He was presenting how Jews view God through the lens of the Torah as compared the perspective of the Greek (and later) philosophers and their “more rational” position on God. From a Jewish way of looking at the issue, it’s a matter of Jewish religion vs. non-Jewish, secular philosophy. Now let’s toss a monkey wrench into the spinning machinery.

It is said that much of how Christianity understands and interprets the Bible stems from the study and adherence to Greek philosophy. I’ve known more than one believer who has left the church because they came to realize that the Christian tradition had “Helenized” the Bible, stripping it of its original Hebraic meaning and intent. If they are right, then a Christian studying the Jewish perspectives will either discover something precious or lose something essential in their faith.

Almost two months ago, I read a blog post warning Christians that to study Judaism and Jewish writings was an invitation to apostacy and the abandonment of Christ himself. The danger was that becoming too attracted to Judaism would result in a person who would eventually lose their Christian faith and perhaps even decide to convert.

That concern doesn’ t particularly worry me. There’s something else to consider. I wonder if the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible even speak the same language. Ponder this statement from Heschel’s book (page 25):

The central thought of Judaism is the living God.

That begs the question, “what is the central thought of Christianity?” The most obvious answer is “Jesus Christ”, but is that the same answer, a related answer, or does this represent two completely different answers? When a Jew thinks of God, he isn’t thinking of the Messiah because nothing in Judaism presupposes that the Messiah must be God. We imagine because the Jewish Bible makes up the first two-thirds of the Christian Bible, that there must be a significant overlap in how Christians and Jews think of, understand, and approach God, but that isn’t particularly true. As my (Jewish) wife keeps telling me, Jews conceptualize God, faith, and the world around them in a fundamentally different way than everyone else, particularly Christians.

But is there no common meeting ground? Don’t both Jews and Christians seek God? Doesn’t the yearning to walk in His Presence stir in both the Jewish and the Christian heart?

The Bible has several words for the act of seeking God (darash, bakkesh, shahar). In some passages these words are used in the sense of inquiring after His will and precepts (Psalm 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. 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. (Heschel page 28)

Hasid AlleywayI certainly can’t see why this couldn’t be the basis of searching for God for both the Jew and the Christian…or any person seeking the God who calls to them in their pain and their dreams.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that, while I as a Christian am seeking God through a Jewish understanding, there was once a Jew who did quite the opposite…and yet remained Jewish:

He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.

Taken from Jorge Quinonez:
“Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader”
Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34
as quoted from Love and the Messianic Age

Paul Philip Levertoff, born as Feivel Levertoff first encountered a page from the Gospels as a nine-year old Chasidic Jewish boy in the late 19th century. He found a scrap of paper in the snow one day written in Hebrew and assumed it was from a Jewish holy book. He took it home to his father to see what should be done, but when the man realized what was written on the paper, he threw it in the stove to burn. But while that scrap of paper was reduced to ashes, a different kind of fire was kindled in Feivel Levertoff that day and that fire never left him for the remainder of his life.

Levertoff couldn’t believe that anyone not schooled in the Zohar, the Tanya, or other mystic and Chasidic Jewish wisdom could ever understand the words such as are written in John’s Gospel. As much as anything, Levertoff’s experience lets me anticipate that someone with an essential faith in Jesus can hope to allow that faith, understanding, and worship to grow and expand when nurtured with some of the same fertile Jewish prayers and readings (see my review of Levertoff’s Love and the Messianic Age for more).

Returning to Heschel (page 31):

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; the second is the way of sensing His presence in the Bible; the third is the way of sensing His presence in sacred deeds.

What Heschel is describing as three starting points are what he later defines as worship, learning, and action. In my reading and subsequent review of Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, I noticed that it was not recommended for each to person take the same path to God. It seems that not everyone is cut out for the “mystic approach”. Rather, some people are best suited to approaching God through deed, others mainly through study, and still others, primarily through prayer and worship. How interesting that Heschel should offer the same three options, mapped to different scriptures:

  • Worship: “Lift up your eyes on high and see, Who created these? –Isaiah 40;26
  • Learning: “I am the Lord thy God.” –Exodus 20:2
  • Action: “We shall do and we shall hear.” –Exodus 24:7

The human race is a people seeking God. Many don’t understand that His face is the one they long to see and if you ask them about it, they’ll deny it vehemently. And yet, mankind thirsts for justice, cries out for mercy, begs for forgiveness, and pleads for their wounds and sicknesses to be healed. Who are they crying out to if not God?

How much more can this be said of those of us who understand that we are seeking the face of God and yet, there seems to be more than one road to His Throne (not contradicting John 14:6). Even in narrowing these methods to worship, study, and actions, there are still so many choices to consider. I continue to make my choice in one particular direction. Hopefully, Rabbi Heschel wouldn’t have minded.


8 thoughts on “Seeking the Awe of Heaven”

  1. If I remember correctly, Heschel intended the first two sections of “God in Search of Man” to have a universal scope; the third part relates more specifically to Jews and Judaism. Yet even the third part has universal implications, if read carefully.

  2. I don’t doubt that’s true Carl, but I read into the second chapter something that he probably wouldn’t have considered…just how differently Christianity and Judaism see and interpret the Bible. Would Heschel’s “universal scope” have included Christianity?

  3. Heschel saw awe or wonder as a basic human response to reality that precedes exposure to the Bible or distinct ways of worship. Actually, he’s been critiqued as too subjective on this point. Heschel grew up, as you know, in a culturally isolated chassidic community. Apparently, he had that sense of wonder from his earliest years and assumed that it is a natural way of looking at reality.

    That said, Heschel made numerous references to Biblical and Jewish perspectives, which he saw as particular expressions of the universal. His exposure to Christianity was episodic. For example, he studied Kierkegard, who was not exactly a representative Christian thinker. He seems to have been familiar with Paul, though apparently through a Lutheran lens.

  4. Heschel made numerous references to Biblical and Jewish perspectives, which he saw as particular expressions of the universal.

    This is sort of the point I’m trying to get at, the fact that all human beings have a built-in “homing signal” that, when it goes off, drives us to seek God. Of course, a lot of people go “off course” and use maladaptive means to try and respond to this call, but we all have it, Jews, Christians, and everyone else. If you are one of God’s creations, He calls to you.

    There are some Christians who go to church, attend Sunday school, read the latest popular Christian commentaries and books, and who feel quite satisfied that they are connected to God through the grace of Jesus Christ. I don’t doubt that they are. Call me strange and confused, but that approach doesn’t really appeal to me. I’ve been there and it all seems so…well, shallow. Maybe it’s shallow. Maybe it’s just not a match for how I’m wired and programmed. But I think Christianity is missing a lot by not being involved in Judaism.

    Jeffrey García’s “Helek Tov” blog is a perfect example of what I’m looking for. He’s written two recent commentaries, one on his unique insights in introducing the New Testament to students, and the other on how the Pharisees weren’t necessarily the “bad guys” depicted in traditional Christian thinking.

    Judaism and Christianity are light years apart in many ways but at some point they do meet if only because God is God of all living beings. For me though, it’s His relationship with the Jewish people that has provided the rest of humanity with the awareness that there even *is* a God and then describes who He is and how He wants us all to be with Him.

    “God so loved the world…”

  5. James,

    Wounderful article! Like you I’m finding the Mainstream Church shallow. If I where to continue in that way, I would die spirtiually. Because I’ve seen the richness and depth of the Bible through a Jewish perspective. Personally I don’t understand how anyone wouldn’t want to study Hebrew and learn Jewish culture. I, see it like this, if someone really wants to know God, then study his language. This is just so intimate, and that’s what people need, and long for, a sense of intimancy with God. And most of us are searching for it in all the wrong places, that leaves us with a shallow sense of being. I think this is the most profond decision we will ever make. How will we worship him? He wants us to worship him in spirit and in truth, so I choose his way. My kids think I’m a radical, but one day they will understand me, I hope.


  6. All kids think their parents are strange. 😉

    I just want to be clear that there are many fine churches and many fine Christians who attend churches. I don’t want to sound as if I’m painting traditional Christianity with a broad and negative brush. When I say I find Christianity, or some aspects of it shallow, that’s my personal reaction. It may well be just my personality that doesn’t mesh well with what I’ve been exposed to in the church. It’s quite possible that you have concerns or personality traits similar enough to mine to where our experiences are alike.

    I have known good people in the church who serve God and people and who sincerely follow the example that Jesus has given us. I also know that it’s not a type of worship or lifestyle in which I am a good “fit”. But that’s just me.

    Thanks for your comment, Michelle.

  7. James,

    Good to see you’re reading God In Search of Man. I just finished chapter 6 last weekend and I have found Heschel to be very engaging with a lot of depth and many directions to explore in each chapter so far. Sometimes I have a tendancy to gloss over things so I’ve had to re-read some of the chapters 2-3 times to make sure I “get it” or at least feel like I “get it”. I have found Heschel to be one of the most quotable writers I’ve ever read. Enjoy and I look forward to reading your future posts on the book!

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