The Quotable Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel
For Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, prayer does not fill a psychological or societal need. Rather, it “constitutes the very essence of man.”
The problem is not how to revitalize prayer; the problem is how to revitalize ourselves. Let us begin to cultivate those thoughts and virtues without which our worship becomes, of necessity, a prayer for the dead—for ideas which are dead to our hearts.
We must not surrender to the power of platitudes. If our rational methods are deficient and too weak to plumb the depth of faith, let us go into stillness and wait for the age in which reason will learn to appreciate the spirit rather than accept standardized notions that stifle the mind and stultify the soul. We must not take too seriously phrases or ideas which the history of human thought must have meant in jest, as for example, that prayer is "a symbol of ideas and values," "a tendency to idealize the world," "an act of the appreciation of the self." There was a time when God became so distant that we were almost ready to deny Him, had psychologists or sociologists not been willing to permit us to believe in Him. And how grateful some of us were when told ex cathedra that prayer is not totally irrelevant because it does satisfy an emotional need.
To Judaism the purpose of prayer is not to satisfy an emotional need. Prayer is not a need but an ontological necessity, an act that constitutes the very essence of man. He who has never prayed is not fully human. Ontology, not psychology or sociology, explains prayer.
The dignity of man consists not in his ability to make tools, machines, guns, but primarily in his being endowed with the gift of addressing God. It is this gift which should be a part of the definition of man.
Man's Quest for God by Abraham Joshua Heschel
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954
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