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49: ETERNITY UTTERS A DAY: ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL AND RABBI

May 24, 2014

#49:  ETERNITY UTTERS A DAY:  ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL AND RABBI NACHMAN.  “The highest goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information but to face sacred moments.”  “We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is a moment that lends significance to things.”  Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath is a book which faces down our frantic and acquisitive society not with anger or condemnation but with wisdom, healing and solution.  In its hundred pages’ consideration and description of the Jewish tradition of the Holy Day, Heschel achieves a Blakean passion, breaking past error and petrification to the life-giving essential, with a more-than-Blakean clarity.  It is so moving a book that it’s almost possible not to notice that it is also a very great work of literary art; its aphoristic style is balanced with a brevity and plainness, a blending of the high and the humane, that is entirely apt to its subject.  This is a book you should buy and keep, as it is a book you should buy and give.

      In a similarly beautiful work, it is moving, almost shocking, to see the publication date of Heschel’s The Earth Is The Lord's: The Inner World of the Jew in East Europe—1950, scant historical seconds after the wartime extermination of six million Jews—and to try to understand how it could have been written at such a distance from rage and bitterness.  Perhaps the word “inner” in the title is the clue:  Heschel evokes the spiritual sustenance, the manna, of the Ashkenazic tradition, its sustaining piety and love of learning, the bounding energy of the Hasidim, the penetrative gaze of the Kabbalistic texts.  “My task was not to explain, but to see, to discern and to depict.”  This brief (100 page) essay, with its almost bewilderingly beautiful prose, is a work as precious and benign as anything published in the twentieth century.  Big words, I know.  Prove me wrong.

       ---This blending of the high and humane—the notion that the highest level of creation transcends but includes the lower—is richly present in two short works by Rabbi Nachman, one of the eighteenth-century Breslover Chasidim:  Restore My Soul, translated by Avraham Greenbaum, and Outpourings of the Soul, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Breslover Research Institute).  These two little books, excerpts collected from larger works, seem to me to spring from the very deepest wells of spirituality and to throw the doors of their inspiration open very wide indeed.  The first is one of the most convincing statements, out of all I have read of the world’s religious literature, of the completely inalienable quality of God’s love:  its text is “If I make my bed in hell, You are there.”  The second is on the accessibility of the emotion of prayer and the avoidance of despair:  “The main lesson is, ‘from the maw of the depths I cried out.’”  In both is a depth of feeling utterly beyond any Puritanism or anti-emotionalism; there is no fibbing, no dodging, no bashfulness about the devouring pains of life, no bland and pastel uplift of the sort that poisons so much religious or inspirational writing.  Here is one of the high figures of European spirituality, utterly accessible, utterly simple, two works that are great in themselves and a perfect introduction to Nachman’s life work.

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