1. Wonder, Intuition, and the Path to God
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ONE W onder , I ntuition , and the P ath to G od Abraham Joshua Heschel begins his discussion of wonder in God in Search of Man by declaring that “among the many things that religious traditionholdsinstoreforusisalegacyofwonder.”1 Thisopeningsentence ends with something of a surprise: one might have expected Heschel to invoke a legacy of “fidelity,” “commitment,” or “piety.” But wonder? Can a sense of wonder be passed from generation to generation? Can one, in fact, inherit a “legacy of wonder”? This perhaps counter-­intuitive sentence can serve as an interpretive key to one of Heschel’s primary projects as a religious writer: he seeks to subvert the views of those, like Martin Buber, who insist on an inherent tension between spontaneous religious expression and received tradition. In one of his most famous early lectures, Buber paints a stark contrast between “religion” and “religiosity.”2 Religiosity, Buber writes, is “man’s sense of wonder and adoration . . . an ever anew [sic] articulation and formulation of his feeling that, transcending his conditioned being yetburstingfromitsverycore,thereissomethingthatisunconditioned.” Religion, in contrast, is “the sum total of the customs and teachings articulatedandformulatedbythereligiosityofacertainepochinapeople ’s life.”3 Although Buber recognizes that religion and religiosity can in theory go hand in hand, his profound skepticism about the former, and its potentially deadening effects on the latter, are evident through­ out. ThusPaulMendes-­Flohr,Buber’sforemostcontemporarycommentator, canwritethat,forthelatter,“Religionisantitheticaltoreligiosity.”4 Religion , Buber tells us, is governed by “rigidly determined . . . prescriptions and dogmas,” and in thwarting authentic religiosity, it all too readily 28 Wonder, Intuition, and the Path to God 29 becomes “uncreative and untrue.”5 In a rather dramatic formulation, Buberwrites:“Religiosityinducessons,whowanttofindtheirownGod, to rebel against their fathers; religion induces fathers to reject their sons, who will not let their fathers’ God be forced upon them. Religion means preservation; religiosity, renewal.”6 Now, Heschel is well aware that religion can serve to undermine and even destroy authentic religious devotion and practice. He does, after all, polemicize against the stultifying state of the Ameri­can synagogue, at one point even asking whether “the temple [has] become the graveyard where prayer is buried.”7 Moreover, he evinces an ongoing fascination with the Hasidic master R. Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, who was nothing if not suspicious of the role of habit and imitation in religion as it is all too of­ten practiced.8 But Heschel insists whole-­ heartedly that far from constituting an inevitable consequence of religion, the suppression of religiosity is, instead, the result of the dilution and falsification thereof. In fact, much of Heschel’s work is an attempt to revitalize what he regards as the fruitful polarity of qeva and kavvanah, or fixed practice and inner devotion. As he puts it in consecutive chapter titles in Man’s Quest for God, “Spontaneity is the goal . . . Continuity is the way.”9 If for Buber, modern man needs to break free fromtheshacklesofinheritedtradition,forHeschel,instarkcontrast,he needstobesavedfromthe“callousness”inducedbymodernity—andhis salvation may be found precisely in inherited tradition, and the commitment to wonder and responsiveness it transmits. According to Heschel, in other words, religious tradition holds out a legacy of wonder that can elicit and awaken our own. It is on this possibility, as we shall see, that he thinks the very future of humanity depends. * * * According to Heschel, all human beings have a natural proclivity to wonder, a sense of “unmitigated innate surprise.”10 A sense of wonder, of amazement and appreciation, is constitutive of who we are as human beings . Wonder, for Heschel, is not merely an emotion or an experience. It is more like an existential posture, a fundamental orientation to the world. All religious awareness and insight are rooted in wonder. 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 30 Abraham Joshua Heschel to his spirit: taking things for granted.”11 Indeed, “The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted.”12 And yet routinization is like spiritual poison: “This is the tragedy of every man: ‘to dim all wonder by indifference.’ Life is routine, and routine is resistance to the wonder.”13 One of the crucial tasks of religion, Heschel therefore insists, is to struggle against the anesthetizing effects ofourover-­familiarizationwithlifeandreality,andtoinstillinusasense of “perpetual surprise,”14 a willingness to encounter the world again and again as if for the first time.15 The fact that the sense...