Accepting Mystery through Reason

In the seemingly divided world of Jewish theology, thinkers are often labeled as either mystics or rationalists. But in reality, the line of separation between these two approaches is very blurred. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his theological challenges of Biblical criticism, recognizes the power of reason yet warns of the danger in ignoring spiritual mysteries. Heschel claims that one may accept fulfilling, unexplainable wonders by following the path of natural logic. With his approach to revelation, Abraham Joshua Heschel exhibits a balance between reason and mystery, encouraging a trained rational method that leads to a spiritual reception of the mystical unknown.

Heschel identifies the common trends of resistance against the acceptance of revelation and discredits the logic behind them. With this technique, Heschel reveals the possibility for arriving at a spiritual belief in revelation that begins with reason. In his book God in Search of Man, Heschel writes that many people oppose the idea of revelation either because they believe that man is too great or that man is too small. These convictions seem to be formed through logical, scientific thinking. The concept that man is so self-sufficient that he has no need for God was inspired, in Heschel’s opinion, by a generalization fallacy—“From the fact that technology could solve some problems it was deduced that technology could solve all problems.” (169) Heschel continues to disprove this idea, identifying the obvious flaws in technology and social science and ultimately claiming that, with this evidence, it is rationally clear that man cannot succeed alone. With such an assertion, Heschel verifies that he is, in fact, a man rooted in reason, and he is not preaching an irrational suspense of man’s instinct for logical conclusions.

In reference to the opposite claim against revelation, Heschel explains that people often discover their insignificance in the universe and doubt their worthiness for God addressing them. Heschel recognizes the argument behind this notion—if man makes so many mistakes and cannot even understand the simplest of ideas, then how could we ever interact with God as revelation is described in the Torah? Still, Abraham Joshua Heschel rationally disputes this doubt. He shows that the human ability to do good and evil is so powerful that God cannot ignore us. Heschel writes, “If the Creator is at all concerned with His creation, then man—who has the power to devise both culture and crime, but who is able to be a proxy for divine justice—is important enough to be the recipient of spiritual light.” (171) Again, Heschel follows a logical path to arrive at his spiritual claim about the significant relationship between God and man, which suggests the rational necessity for revelation.

Heschel furthers his overarching assertion that revelation is not averse to reason by expanding upon the idea of God’s distance from man. It may seem to some that God is so far away from our world that it is impossible for Him to connect with us on the personal level of revelation. Heschel compares this relationship to that of plant and sun—“If the stream of energy that is stored up in the sun and the soil can be channeled into a blade of grass, why should it be a priori excluded that the spirit of God reached into the minds of men?” (172) He even likens the mystery of the unexplainable communication between body and spirit to the revelation of God to man. With such evidence, Heschel is transitioning the rational wonders of nature and Earth into a reason-based proof of the possibility for a spiritual connection to a distant but present God.  Heschel reminds the reader that, similar to how the sun sustains grass, the human being is just as intimately and abstractly connected with his Creator. Here, Heschel proves that revelation does not oppose reason, as the logical concepts in the rational world can be adapted to represent the divine relationship with man. Heschel finally arrives to his claim that it is actually irrational to resist revelation—“It is impossible to remain certain of the impossibility of revelation.” (176) Through his proofs, he demonstrates that reason will ultimately lead one to the abstract idea of revelation.

While Heschel values the logical process, he qualifies the application of this reason when approaching the Bible. Heschel shows how fine-tuned logic can eventually guide one to a meaningful, spiritual quest. Heschel argues that there is a certain, appropriate “mode of looking at the world” when reading the Bible. (24) He critiques those who approach the Torah and only seek Greek philosophy. While reason and logic are applicable to the Bible, this rationale must be rooted in Judaism. He writes about this, “The categories within which philosophical reflection about religion has been operating are derived from Athens, rather than from Jerusalem.” (25) He criticizes those who regard the Bible as unauthoritative, and he strongly states that the Bible cannot be ignored for Greek philosophy. In this claim, Heschel expands upon the role of logic in Biblical criticism. While he believes that reason can lead one to spiritual fulfillment, he identifies a certain mode of reason, a Jewish reason, which can fulfill this goal. This idea introduces Heschel’s requirement to train one’s reason in order to succeed in accepting the mysteries and wonders of the abstract world.

Heschel furthers his explanation about the journey from reason to the acceptance of the mystery of revelation, as he undermines any literal reading of the Bible. Heschel clarifies that the language of the Torah and the prophets is only metaphorical, like that of poem, since divine moments cannot possibly be expressed in words. He characterizes the divine word as mysterious and indescribable, stating that any words reporting revelation are an understatement, only distancing us from understanding it. Heschel draws a line between the reason that is used in science and the reason that is applicable to Biblical criticism. In science, words have one clear meaning. But in the Torah, each word has an exponential plurality of meaning. He writes, “The cardinal sin in thinking about ultimate issues is literal-mindedness.” (179) While reason is necessary in arriving at the possibility of revelation, one must work to transcend basic logic and appreciate meaning, wonder and mystery in the abstract realm. This guidance of reason into a more mystical mode of understanding embodies Heschel’s theological balance between rationality and spirituality.

Heschel writes, “reason may be perverse,” advising that we need to direct our rational thinking in a specific fashion in order to move closer to spiritual understanding. (170) If we do not do so, reason may stray us from truth and the mystery of the Divine.  For example, Heschel recognizes that it is a student’s common instinct to relate the words of the Bible to his human context. This reasonable instinct may, in reality, misconstrue the indescribable meanings of the text. Heschel cautions one from imagining revelation as a psychic or physical process, as revelation is unequal to any human experience. He asserts that the event of revelation is ineffable, and that the Bible’s account of revelation is only like a Midrash of the actual inexpressible occurrence. (185) The application of untrained reason to Biblical criticism wrecks the mystery of revelation, which Heschel believes is the driving force behind a man’s spiritual journey. At this point, Heschel has fully transitioned into the mystic realm of wonder and awe of the unknown. Still, his abstract thought is rooted in rational claims, confirming Heschel’s transcendence over the boundaries between reason and mystery.

Abraham Joshua Heschel recognizes the powers of both the rational and mystical experiences. In his approach to Biblical criticism, it is evident that Heschel fuses these two methods into an ideal technique to gain spiritual understanding.  While Heschel appreciates the validity of reason when applied correctly, he ultimately believes that revelation is mysterious beyond reason’s capabilities. He feels that this unknown reality cannot be ignored in a meaningful life. Heschel plainly states, “The goal is to train the reason for the appreciation of that which lies beyond reason.” (189) Heschel is not an extremist—he is not asking us to flush away our rational instincts. Rather, he encourages that we shape our reason in a way that allows us to accept the mysteries that reason cannot grasp. Heschel balances his recognition of logic with his overarching goal for elevating the spirit to a place where logic does not exist. Through an analysis of his reflections of Biblical criticism, Heschel illustrates his belonging in both the rational and mystic spheres of Jewish thought.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for God, Torah and Israel in Modern Jewish Thought with Rabbi William Plevan at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Works Cited

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man; a Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1955. Print.


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

2 responses to “Accepting Mystery through Reason

  1. Pingback: Flailing Materialism and Practical Christianity | The Areopagus

    • Interesting article– thanks for the share! It seems that the assumably opposite worlds of materialism and intangibility are much more intertwined than we give credit to.

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