God In Search Of Man
Heschel’s 1955 book God in Search of Man, and the earlier companion volume Man Is Not Alone (1951), exemplify a theme that runs throughout much of Heschel’s life and work: That God needs human beings as partners in establishing justice and restoring wholeness to the world. This radical understanding of the relationship between human beings and the divine is revealed in the biblical covenant between God and Israel. God chooses to need human beings, and in so doing, God takes a risk on being disappointed, frustrated, and even betrayed by humankind.
In Heschel’s thinking, God experiences “divine pathos;” that is, God is emotionally affected by the actions of humankind, for good and for ill. At the same time, human beings can help make God more present in and to the world by their actions on behalf of justice, compassion, love, and mercy—the very qualities God represents. This process of restoration is humankind’s sacred duty. It is how human beings fulfill their part of the covenant with the divine. This “partnership” is the true origin of religion and the theological foundation for Heschel’s own involvement in movements for civil and human rights, for peacemaking, and in support of the marginalized. God and people must work together to repair the world.
Questions to Consider
- Rabbi Shai Held asserts that the sentence “God is in need of man” appears often in Heschel’s Does it trouble you to think that God might “need” people, even if God has voluntarily chosen to experience that sort of vulnerability? How does this change the way you think about God (if it does)? How does it change the way you think about your relationship to God?
- Rabbi James Rudin says that Heschel wants us to accept the surprising idea that “God needs us as much as we need ” Following Heschel, Rudin also asserts that this places a unique responsibility upon individual human beings. If, as Heschel argues, God seeks us out to be “partners” in restoring the world, what sort of responsibility does that place upon us? What does or could it mean to be a “partner” with God? Is that an unfamiliar idea to you?
- “Divine pathos” is a central part of Heschel’s depiction of the relationship between God and human According to Heschel, God is not some remote, indifferent being, but a divine creator deeply concerned with and affected by what God’s creatures do. Does it surprise you to think about God being affected by your actions? If you were to accept Heschel’s argument, would that impact or influence what you do, or the decisions and actions you take?
- Heschel insists that God has chosen a kind of self-limitation in order to engage as a partner with humankind, and that we can follow that model by choosing to transcend our own self- interests. In what way is God’s concern for and chosen vulnerability towards humankind a model for human beings to follow?
- Scholar Benjamin Sax applies a contemporary interpretation of the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam to Heschel’s theology, particularly in regard to the idea of covenant or partnership between God and What is Tikkun Olam, and how might it relate to Heschel’s interpretation of the covenantal partnership between human beings and God? (It should be noted that Heschel himself did not use the term Tikkun Olam, or not in terms of its contemporary meaning.)
- One of the more surprising elements of Heschel’s theology may be the idea that human beings have the ability to help God become “complete” or fully manifest in the world. Several scholars reference this in the How do you understand this idea? Do you agree with it, or does it border on the sacrilegious? Can human beings help God become complete?
- Theologian Shai Held says that Heschel most often writes “something is asked of us” and this awareness was the beginning of religion. How do you understand this assertion, and how does it relate to Heschel’s belief in the fundamental mystery of creation?
- Heschel attributes the decline of religion in the West in the mid-twentieth century to the loss of a sense of wonder or awe, which in turn points us towards God. In God in Search of Man, Heschel writes that “religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” In fact, Heschel goes so far as to declare that the future of humanity itself may depend upon our ability to experience wonder. What does Heschel mean by “wonder,” and why is it so important that we be able to experience it?
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