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C onclusion In what ways does our investigation advance our understanding of the unity and direction of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s overall project? How have we uncovered the animating core of his ostensibly diverse and even contradictory claims? We can begin to answer this by noting a dimension of his thought that is too of­ten overlooked: Heschel sought to present traditional Judaism (as he understood it) as an antidote to the manifold ills of modernity. A refugee much of whose world had been destroyed in the genocidal fires of Nazi Europe, Heschel never tired of pointing to the moral and spiritual obtuseness of modern man, and of insisting that the barbarisms of modernity could be brought to an end only by a process of radical moral and spiritual reawakening.1 As we have seen, Heschel sought not merely to argue for such an awakening, but more fundamentally to educe it, to remind his readers that buried deep within them was the possibility of a wholly different orientation to the world, one rooted in wonder and amazement rather than callousness and indifference. Modernity, according to Heschel, is characterized above all by an ethos of self-­ assertion. The tragedy of modern times is that “we do not know any more how to justify any value except in terms of expediency.”2 Our sense of “appreciation” has been all but obliterated by an obsession with “manipulation”: instead of seeing the world around us consisting of “things to be acknowledged, understood, valued or admired,” we imagine it comprised merely of “things to be handled, forces to be managed, objects to be put to use.”3 This results in a horrific distortion of the world, and in an elimination of any transcendent horizon to our 229 230 Abraham Joshua Heschel lives. Nature is an object to be used, and so, eventually, is man. One consequence of this is a profound indifference to the dignity of the other and, ultimately, a creeping sense of doubt about our own. The culture of expediency does not rest until it consumes all of us; “the complete manipulation of the world results in the complete instrumentalization of the self.” In Heschel’s mind both the malaise and the depravity of the modern world result from this relentless insistence on treating the world as “a thing I own” rather than “a mystery I face.”4 The ethos of expediency and self-­ assertion cannot but breed a process of isolation and self-­ enclosure. Nothing outside me makes a claim upon me; manipulation, Heschel writes, “is the cause of alienation: objects and I apart, things stand dead, and I am alone.”5 This culture of self-­ assertionandself-­enclosure,ofindifferenceandinsensitivity,is,Heschel contends, a particularly perverse and pernicious form of idolatry. Its consequences have been unprecedented bloodshed and unspeakable suffering , cruelty, and barbarism. One of Heschel’s fundamental projects is thus to shake humanity loose from this delusional self-­perception: we are not sovereigns of the universe, and the world is not mere material for endless consumption. Coupled with all this self-­ assertion that Heschel deplores is an insidious nihilism, a sense that we do not ultimately matter, that human beings are in the end nothing more than particularly intelligent and destructive beasts. Heschel’s project is to show us that we are, in fact, significant, but not in the ways in which modernity has trained us to think: we are important not because we have a bottomless capacity for self-­ assertion (which, tragically, we do), but rather because we have an all-­ too-­ rarely realized capacity for self-­ transcendence. We matter not because of how much we can acquire, but because of how deeply we are able to give. Our dignity lies not in our raw power, but in our capacity for commitment, for responsiveness and reciprocity, for gratitude and indebtedness. At some level, human beings are cognizant of all this; the pressing question is how to reawaken our now disastrously dormant awareness. For Heschel, what I have called the existential posture of wonder is the starting point of all spirituality—and, crucially, of ethics as well. It is criti­cal to understand why: according to Heschel, wonder is not—or, at Conclusion 231 the very least, is not primarily—about being amazed by this fact or that, by this event or that, but rather about being awake to the “unexpectedness of being as such”;6 wonder is, as Heschel repeatedly points out, the very antithesis of “taking things for granted.” A...


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