We’re working on a show about Abraham Joshua Heschel, a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s, an ally of his in the civil rights movement, an anti-Vietnam activist, a profound religious thinker of the 20th Century. In our interview with our guest, the chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary (where Heschel taught during his life), our guest shared some unnervingly beautiful writing of the late Rabbi Heschel that I myself would like to share.
It’s funny that, despite working on a nationally broadcast public radio program about religion, I probably feel less religious than I have in years. I don’t know what “religious” really means, and I sometimes feel a huge welling of disdain for the so-called religiosity of this country I’m now living in.
At the same time, the beat of my soul is not something that I can turn off, much like I can’t turn off the beat of my heart. I don’t know how to do anything but doubt…while simultaneously feeling flooded with joy and awe. I keep this part of me locked away, even from myself. I don’t know how to talk about it. I whisper secrets of its existence to myself. I pray five times a day. I fast during Ramadan. I donate to charity. I do all that, and yet I really can’t imagine describing myself as “religious.”
There’s no place I’d rather be working, for many, many reasons: my co-workers; our positive culture of success; the impact of our show in people’s lives; and, fringe benefit, because I hear new insights week after week in every program we produce, things that drench my own life with the mess of spilled wine on a tablecloth. Some are more profound than others, as is this reading of Heschel’s words at the end of this latest interview.
It recalls to me the moment I always think about when I think of a moment of comprehension and awe in my life: coming home at 5:45 a.m. on May 1, 2001, after spending all night working on the soundtrack of my graduating film project with a dear friend of mine. I stepped out of my car, parked in front of my (parents’) house, and just stood there in the light of dawn, and felt something I called “the breath of life” (later finding out that there is an Islamic word, barakah, which also translates to “the breath of life,” but I didn’t know that then, and I don’t know why I described that moment the way I did in the first place).
Words can’t explain that moment, though I tried to do just that when I wrote about it to the young woman I was in love with at the time. I told her that I wished she could have seen it. I experienced a sense of overwhelming understanding and grace and perfection in that moment. Who knows—maybe it was sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and artistic accomplishment.
Back to May, 2008, seven years later. Before I started editing it, four of us were listening to the raw interview in my bosses’ office, and I hoped my co-workers wouldn’t look into my eyes as I heard this, because I was on the verge of tears and trying not to shake. (Yes, this is “work.” I get paid to do this.) This was the climax of a very powerful hour of interview that had already passed. Then, our guest reads to our host:
Perhaps I could read from the end of Chapter 9 in Man Is Not Alone when Heschel is describing what I think has to be a personal religious experience. He says before this paragraph that in general we resist the knowledge that’s coming at us. We stay inside what he calls a cage and live on a “dainty diet” because we’re apprehensive about what is waiting for us outside. But then, at a certain moment…something happens to us, and let me read you his description of what happens to us:
A moment comes like a thunderbolt, in which a flash of the undisclosed rends our dark apathy asunder. It is full of overpowering brilliance, like a point in which all moments in life are focused, or a thought which outweighs all thoughts ever conceived of. There is so much light in our cage, in our world, it is as if we were suspended amidst the stars.
Apathy turns to splendor unawares. The ineffable has shuddered itself into the soul. It has entered our consciousness like a ray of light passing into a lake. Refraction of that penetrating ray brings about a turning in our mind: we are penetrated by God’s insight. We cannot think anymore as if God were there and we are here. God is both there and here. God is not a being, but Being in and beyond all beings.
A tremor seizes our limbs.
Our nerves are struck, quiver like strings.
Our whole being bursts into shudders, but then a cry wrested from our very core fills the world around us as if a mountain were suddenly about to place itself in front of us.
It is one word: “God.”
Not an emotion, a stir within us, but a power, a marvel beyond us, tearing the world apart. The word that means more than Universe, more than Eternity.
We cannot comprehend it. We only know it means infinitely more than we are able to echo.
Staggered, embarrassed, we stammer and say, “God,” who is more than all there is, who speaks through the ineffable, whose question is more than our mind can answer; “God,” to whom our life can be the spelling of an answer.