When I tell the story of what brought me to rabbinical school, my story comes out differently every time, but I always mention a crucial moment — reading Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in a coffee shop in San Francisco after I graduated from college.
From a young age, I had experienced what Heschel describes in God in Search of Man as awe and radical amazement. In peak moments in my life — staring up at the hundred of light bulbs in Congregation Sherith Israel or taking in a beautiful sunset on a beach along the Sonoma coast — I had become overcome by the splendor of what I experienced. These moments had a lasting effect on me, although, as Heschel describes, they are ineffable (they defy description).
Growing up, I generally didn’t share these experiences with other people and although I knew intuitively that Judaism could offer me access points to spirituality, I didn’t understand how a connection to the divine functioned in Judaism. I rarely talked about God or spirituality in Jewish contexts, and although I felt a deep connection to Judaism, I knew little about how Judaism actually worked.
Reading Heschel’s description of awe and radical amazement in God In Search of Man offered me a vocabulary with which to explain some of the most important moments of my life. It also placed this experience of awe at the center of Judaism; as I understand Heschel, he believes Judaism is at least in part a system for bringing to the fore this experience of awe, guiding the times when one is not connected to awe and moving from awe to community, discipline and ethical action.
In college, I had often felt frustrated by the philosophy and cultural criticism that I had read. Although I thought thinkers like Derrida and Foucault were brilliant, the project of analysis and deconstruction that these thinkers — and my academic courses more generally — were engaged in left me unsatisfied. Despite how these analyses often seemed correct to me, their aim seemed to be to rip the world and what we understood to shreds, without describing exactly what was intended to be left standing.
I remember one afternoon in college I sat in the office of my favorite philosophy professor who told me that everyone eventually has to make a decision; they have to decide whether there was something greater in the world or whether there was not. In Heschel I had found a way to recognize that I believe that there was something greater in the world without surrendering critical thought and analysis. (Heschel doesn’t provide easy, clear answers, but he provides some solid footing upon which to stand.)
Now, about six years after reading God in Search of Man, I continue to be impressed by the extent to which Heschel is true to traditional Judaism. Growing up in a milieu of liberal Judaism with a surrounding culture that was generally hostile to organized religion, I had thought that when people made general statements about religion, they tended to highlight certain streams that were present in religious discourse, but they ignored contradicting opinions and they tended to not actually describe what historically was considered to be most important. But as I have learned more about Judaism and Jewish liturgy, I have found that this sense of awe is indeed a central preoccupation of Judaism. Thumbing through the morning prayer section of an Orthodox siddur (or Jewish prayer book), I encounter lines in English such as:
God is One, and there is no unity like His.
Unfathomable, His oneness is infinite
Lord of the universe
who reigned before the birth of any thing —
And when all things shall cease to be
He alone will reign in awe
But beyond Judaism, reading Heschel also clued me onto the extent to which this discussion of awe is present throughout cultures. Just yesterday, when I listened to Lorde on Marc Maron’s podcast, the two of them described the “beauty and trembling” they feel when they walk into grand European cathedrals. (As is so characteristic of the era in which we live, they also described how mainstream organized religion was unwelcoming and stale.)
One of my favorite explorations of awe lies in the motif of the sublime in landscape painting of the nineteenth century. Painters like Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt (see above) saw a distinction between the picturesque (what is aesthetically pleasant), the beautiful (which Kant and Burke related to love and saw as being characterized as promoting satisfaction and delight) and the sublime, which provokes an experience of awe or terror.
Although I think one should be very careful about making universal statements about religion or culture, it seems that Judaism offers a specific way of tapping into this widely encountered experience of awe, and perhaps more importantly, Judaism offers a specific way of directing that experience into an ethical and deeply celebratory life.