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Ap. 12-D: Israel - a Spiritual Order

Abraham Joshua Heschel 04.06.2018 00:13
Ap. 12-D:  Israel - a Spiritual Order - Jewish Future - Israel - New Israel - Utopian writings

A short passage from the conclusion of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel masterpiece "God in Search of Man".


 Why is our belonging to the Jewish people a sacred relation? Israel is a spiritual order in which the human and the ultimate, the natural and the holy, enter a lasting covenant in which kinship with God is not an aspiration but a reality of destiny. For us Jews, there can be no fellowship with God without the fellowship with the people Israel. Abandoning Israel, we desert God.

Jewish existence is not only the adherence to particular doctrines and observances, but primarily the living in the spiritual order of the Jewish people, the living in the Jews of the past and with the Jews of the present. It is not only a certain quality in the souls or the individuals but primarily the existence of the community of Israel. It is neither an experience, nor a creed; neither the possession of psychic traits nor the acceptance of a theological doctrine, but the living in a holy dimension, in a spiritual order. Our share in holiness we acquire by living in the Jewish community. What we do as individuals is a trivial episode, what we attain as Israel causes us to grow into the infinite.

The meaning of history is to be a sanctuary in time, and every one of us has his part in the great ritual. The ultimate meaning of human deeds is not restricted to the life of him who does these deeds and to the particular moment in which they occur.

The religious living is not only a private concern. Our own life is a movement in the symphony of ages. We are taught to pray as well as to live in the first person plural. We do a mitzvah "in the name of all Israel". We act both as individuals and as the community of Israel. All generations are present, as it were, in every moment.

Israel is the tree, we are the leaves. It is the clinging to the stem that keeps us alive. There has perhaps never been more need of Judaism than in our time, a time in which many cherished hopes of humanity lie crushed. We should be pioneers as were our fathers three thousand years ago. The future of all men depends upon their realizing that the sense of holiness is as vital as health. By following the Jewish way of life we maintain that sense and preserve the light for mankind's future visions.

It is our destiny to live for what is more than ourselves. Our very existence is an unparalleled symbol of such aspiration. By being what we are, namely Jews, we mean more to mankind than by any particular service we may render.

We have faith in God and faith in Israel. Though some of its children have gone astray, Israel remains the mate of God. We cannot hate what God loves. Rabbi Aaron the Great used to say:

"I wish I could love the greatest saint as the Lord loves the greatest rascal". Israel exists not in order to be, but in order to cherish the vision of God. Our faith may be strained but our destiny is anchored to the ultimate. Who can establish the outcome of our history? Out of the wonder we came and into the wonder we shall return.


Belonging to Israel is in itself a spiritual act. It is utterly inconvenient to be a Jew. The very survival of our people is a Kiddush HaShem. We live in spite of peril. Our very existence is a refusal to surrender to normalcy, to security and comfort. Experts in assimilation, the Jews could have disappeared even before the names of modern nations were known. Still, we are patient and cherish the will to perpetuate our essence.

We are Jews as we are men. The alternative to our existence as Jews is spiritual suicide, disappearance. It is not a change into something else. Judaism has allies but no substitutes. Jewish faith consists of attachment to God, attachment to Torah, and attachment to Israel.

There is a unique association between the people and the land of Israel. Even before Israel becomes a people, the land is preordained for it. What we have witnessed in our own days is a reminder of the power of God!s mysterious promise to Abraham and a testimony to the fact that the people kept its promise, "If I forget thee, a Jerusalem, let my right hand wither" (Psalms 137:5). The Jew in whose heart the love of Zion dies is doomed to lose his faith in the God of Abraham who gave the land as an earnest of the redemption of all men.

The people of Israel groaned in distress. Out of Egypt, the land of plentiful food, they were driven into the wilderness. Their souls were dried away; there was nothing at all: no flesh to eat, no water to drink. All they had was a promise: to be led to the land of milk and honey. They were almost ready to stone Moses. "Wherefore hast thou brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?" they cried. But, after they had worshipped the golden calf-when God had decided to detach Himself from His people, not to dwell any more in their midst, but to entrust an angel with the task of leading them out of the wilderness to the Promised Land-Moses exclaimed: "If Thou Thyself dost not go with us, take us not out of the wilderness (Exodus 33:15). This, perhaps, is the secret of our history: to choose to remain in the wilderness rather than to be abandoned by Him.

Israel's experience of God has not evolved from search. Israel did not discover God. Israel was discovered by God. Judaism is God's quest for man. The Bible is a record of God's approach to His people. More statements are found in the Bible about God's love for Israel than about Israel's love for God.

We have not chosen God; He has chosen us. There is no concept of a chosen God but there is the idea of a chosen people. The idea of a chosen people does not suggest the preference for a people based upon discrimination among a number of peoples. We do not say that we are a superior people. The "chosen people" means a people approached and chosen by God. The significance of this term is genuine in relation to God rather than in relation to other peoples. t signifies not a quality inherent in the people but a relationship between the people and God.

Harassed, pursued with enmity and wrong, our fathers continued to feel joy in being Jews. "Happy are we. How good is our destiny, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage." What is the source of that feeling?

The quest for immortality is common to all men. To most of them, the vexing question points to the future. Jews think not only of the end but also of the beginning. As parts of Israel we are endowed with a very rare, a very precious consciousness, the consciousness that we do not live in a void. We never suffer from harrowing anxiety and fear of roaming about in the emptiness of time. We own the past and are, hence, not afraid of what is to be. We remember where we came from. We were summoned and cannot forget it, as we wind the clock of eternal history. We remember the beginning and believe in an end. We live between two historic poles: Sinai and the Kingdom of God.


Upon thy walls, O Jerusalem,

I have set watchmen,

All the day and all the night

They shall never be silent.

Ye that stir the Lord to remember,

Take no rest,

And give Him no rest

Till He establishes Jerusalem,

And makes it praise in the earth.

Isaiah 62:6-7


Comment by Y.H

In the ReGENESIS book, for which this is an appendix, there is the following footnote: 
"However Heschel, like almost every Jewish thinker or Jews in general, identifies (unwittingly) “The Jewish People” with “The Nation of Israel” and does not consider the possibility of (non-Jewish) tribes in the Assembly of Israel, But this is a question likely to become an existential question for us in the contemporary State of Israel.


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