Any opportunity to revisit the wisdom of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory is an opportunity to be relished.
Dr. Heschel made a deep impact upon my life in my most formative years, as an undergraduate student. On two occasions, I got to hear him, first in a three lecture series at a Catholic university and once at a university student convention. Even after several decades I can still remember much of what he said and the way that he said it.
I was certain that I could not have enough of his fantastic wisdom so impressively and authentically imparted. I rushed out to purchase his books and they became my constant companions.
Every Shabbat on campus, largely observed all alone, I would read Heschel’s magnificent essay in book form with woodcut illustrations, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. This was my entrance each week on campus to Heschel’s concept of the Sabbath as a Sanctuary in Time.
In later years, I could boast of personal contact with Dr. Heschel and ownership of numerous autographed editions of his dozens of life changing books.
The Prophets, God in Search of Man, Insecurity of Freedom and Man Is Not Alone are a few of my favorites, but there are so many other pearls. Professor Fritz Rothschild published a wonderful compilation of Heschel’s writings still available, that I highly recommend, Between God and Man.
Heschel’s daughter Susannah Heschel published her own edited work of his writings, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings.
Your original question explaining, “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge” is to be seen in the context of Heschel’s concept of radical amazement. The quote comes from his book, Man Is Not Alone.
Dr. Heschel could not abide complacency. A human must live in a state of amazement at the magnificence of God and God’s creation. In Heschel’s day doubt became the popular byword of theologians. Heschel wished to turn theological inquiry from doubt to wonder.
In Man Is Not Alone Heschel teaches us how to approach the task at hand, he writes, “The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental clichés. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.”
“Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties — with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt our minds to the world.”
It should be obvious that Heschel within four years of arriving in America from Europe became a master of the English language and devoted himself to the creation of an experience through words. This is seen in his work, The Earth is the Lord’s.
Let me add that in Jewish tradition our daily prayers found in the Siddur—Jewish prayer book reflect Heschel’s wonder and radical amazement by offering a series of berakhot (blessings) acknowledging God’s beneficence in our lives each morning for the natural activities of humankind such as awakening, sight, stepping on solid ground or wearing clothing. These acts are all too often taken for granted.
The Jew is called upon to not take anything for granted. We must live our lives in wonder and radical amazement. This is indeed a tall order.
Let us end with a further quotation of Heschel on wonder. "Wonder goes beyond knowledge. We do not doubt that we doubt, but we are amazed at our ability to doubt, amazed at our ability to wonder. … We are amazed at seeing anything at all, amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all.”
The intellectual emphasis on traditional theology for a long time has been on attempting to form a union between faith and reason (Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed is maybe the most famous representative among Jewish thinkers). The attempt is to try to overcome the notion of faith and reason being opposites that cannot be reconciled.
Later, Rene Descartes introduced to Western philosophy methodological skepticism (also known as “Cartesian Doubt”) as a form of philosophical inquiry. It means in essence to doubt the truths of all one’s beliefs in order to eventually be able to discern for certain which beliefs were true. It became a methodological approach that characterized the continental rational schools of philosophy and had enormous influence on Western philosophical thinking. In its extremes it advocates the doubt of all things that cannot be proven by logic. He even went so far as to create a proof for the existence of God based on pure rational thought with little or no room left for faith.
A.J. Heschel’s “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge” from his book “Man Is Not Alone” rejects this (over)-emphasis on rational thought and logic to the exclusion of awe. It is intimately connected to Heschel’s concept of “radical amazement”. Radical amazement is the ability of humans to remain, regain or reclaim a sense of awe in the presence of the divine: A deep form of appreciation for the wonders of life despite technological and scientific progress. It is the capability of understanding the texture, brush technique and historical background of a Rembrandt oil painting as well as the pure joy and wonder when stepping back to experience the painting.
As Heschel writes : “Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man's attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. To find an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder. He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. Looking at the world he would say, "This is the Lord's doing, it is marvelous in our eyes" (Psalms 118:23).”
AJ Heschel was, without doubt, one of the greatest Jewish theological poets. He took theology and made it beautiful. He decorated the home of halacha and ritual and tradition and gave it dimensions that only a poet could. That is why he has such enduring power and why his ideas are always fresh, radiant, and meaningful. It is also why much of his thought transcends religious ideology as well as Jewish demoninationalism.
When he says that 'wonder, rather than doubt, is the root of all knowledge' he is paraphrasing the Biblical phrase, "Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.' But he is not talking about fear as in fear and trembling. I believe he is speaking about the 'awe' of God, of the universe, of the utter miracles that pervade the world and life itself. To doubt is to often fall into cynicism since doubt engenders doubt. Wonder engenders wonder and when one wonders and marvels, one is bound to search and keep looking for the sense of wonder and amazment that is both glorious and fulfilling. And, when we search, we learn, and when we learn, we search even more.
This, I believe, is what he meant. May your search foster wonder and may your wonder lead you to knowledge.
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