The Experience and Nearness of God

Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel stressed the human encounter with God.

While rationalism and its abstract concepts held the attention of most early modern Jewish thinkers, several twentieth-century thinkers were more concerned with the religious and spiritual experience of the individual. The thinking of two such theologians, Martin Buber (1878-1965) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), serves as the basis for much of the current work in liberal theology. 

Martin Buber is best known for his religious philosophy of dialogue. In I and Thou, Buber describes two kinds of relationships, the “I-It”, and the “I-Thou”. The I-It relationship is one based on detachment from others and involves a utilitarian approach, in which one uses another as an object.

In contrast, in an I-Thou relationship, each person fully and equally turns toward the other with openness and ethical engagement. This kind of relationship is characterized by dialogue and by “total presentness.” In an I-Thou relationship, each participant is concerned for the other person. The honor of the other–and not just her usefulness–is of paramount importance.

The ethical response of the I-Thou relationship is central to Buber’s understanding of God. For Buber, God is the “Eternal Thou.” God is the only Thou which can never become an It. In other words, while relationships with other people will inevitably have utilitarian elements, in a genuine relationship with God, God cannot be used as a means towards an end.

In addition, our relationship with God serves as the foundation for our I-Thou relationships with all others, and every I-Thou relationship–be it with a person or thing–involves a meeting with God. God, in a sense, is the unifying context, the meeting place, for all meaningful human experience. According to Buber, one encounters God through one’s encounters with other human beings and the world. “Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet God.”

When one encounters the world in this way, revelation occurs. “God speaks to man in the things and beings he sends him in life. Man answers through his dealings with these things and beings.” The Bible itself contains models of this human experience of God. Moses perceives natural events as indications of God’s power and God’s presence in the human realm. Similarly, the power and show of natural forces at Sinai led the Israelites to accept the revelation of God’s Torah.

Buber’s understanding of the religious experience of the biblical writers also applied to his understanding of the works of the Hasidic masters. In many of the teachings Buber collected in Tales of the Hasidim, God is portrayed as immanent–an immediate and felt presence. God can be found in every encounter, in each experience, and in every aspect of the world. Because of his focus on experiential existence, Buber is considered an existentialist thinker.

Multiple Paths to God

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a descendant of famous Hasidic masters such as Dov Baer of Mezhrich and Levi Isaac of Berdichev, also relied heavily on Hasidic sources for examples of the ultimate religious experience. Like Buber, Heschel emphasized the presence of God in nature and in the human encounter. In Heschel’s writing on Jewish theology, he describes the experience of deep awareness and wonder at the “sublime mystery” of nature and other beautiful aspects of the world as a source of “radical amazement.” This kind of awe and amazement is an essential element of faith.

In his well-known book God In Search of Man (1956), Heschel describes multiple paths to religious truth: through nature, through revelation, and through mitzvot, or commandments. In a religious life, all three aspects work together and produce the foundation of a relationship with God. God, for Heschel, is the basis of any being, of anything. God is the premise of our existence, not something that we search for outside of ourselves and possibly find with enough inquiry.

Heschel’s philosophy of faith includes three basic elements: 1) a sense of indebtedness, 2) a desire to praise, and 3) the performance of mitzvot. Praise is a central element in the human relationship with God, as it is a response to the experience of God. If one is moved to praise God because of the power of one’s experiences in life, one is likely, Heschel thought, to have a deeper faith in God and a greater desire to serve God. Human beings serve God by responding to God’s call to add to the holiness of the world. This is achieved through prayer, study, and ethical deeds.

In his writings, Heschel emphasized the God of the Bible. Though many biblical characters try to avoid, reject, and rebel against God, God does not abandon Israel. Heschel understands the God of the Bible as one who is known from the experience of self, and of the world. This is a God who, “comes to people to command and console, to judge and forgive, to direct and give hope.”

Heschel’s God is anthropopathic, that is, God has human-like feelings, and is concerned with goodness. In his early work, The Prophets, Heschel focuses on understanding the God described in the books of the prophets. By examining the lives of the prophets Amos and Jeremiah, in particular, Heschel demonstrates that God is not insensitive, distant, or unconcerned about the human experience, but rather God is a God of pathos, of emotions, sensitive to the suffering of human beings.

While the biblical message gives ethics a prominent place, Heschel, unlike other modern thinkers, did not believe that ethics is the primary substance of revelation. Heschel is essentially a traditionalist, or a neo-traditionalist, and argued for a return to traditional observances. Unlike other liberal thinkers he does not argue that human beings can (even partially) determine the specific kinds of acts that religion should demand, but rather that God’s revelation determines the content of religious practice.

Heschel believed that through religious practice, one encounters God. Because the mitzvot have God’s authority behind them, by performing them we can sense God’s nearness. In the sacred act itself is the meeting place of the human being with God. Consequently, Heschel spoke not of the necessity of a “leap of faith” but rather of a “leap of action.”

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