Rabbi Heschel on Worship as a Kinship of Praise

One thing I admire (among many) in the teachings of Rabbi Heschel is how he challenges believers not to live in the past, but not to forget it either—to strive for a new future.  He says:

Only he who is an heir is qualified to be a pioneer [and] in the realm of spirit only he who is a pioneer is able to be an heir. 

The Jewish Exodus, from The Haggadah / Arthur Szyk, housed in the University of San Francisco Gleeson & Zief Libraries. Photo by Shawn Calhoun on Flickr.

He calls his people to be pioneers and know the past not to slavishly imitate it but to recreate it.  “We should be pioneers as were our fathers three thousand years ago.”  A true pioneer creates anew. 

To have faith does not mean…to dwell in the shadow of old ideas conceived by prophets and sages, to live off an inherited estate of doctrines and dogmas….Authentic faith is more than an echo of a tradition.  It is a creative situation, an event.

There are those who are always looking to the past to cling to dogmas of old.  Heschel is not one of these, nor does he urge us to be subject to religious nostalgia which can so easily become idolatry.  A living faith resists such idolatry. 

Heschel goes on: Faith requires bold initiative rather than continuity.  Faith is forever contingent on the courage of the believer.  For this, the tradition of the past is helpful but never merely repeatable. 

A brief outline of the beliefs and role of Reform Judaism in the modern world. Uploaded to YouTube by Spirit Science LIVE.

The endeavor to integrate the abiding teachings and aspirations of the past into our own thinking will enable us to be creative and expand, not to imitate or to repeat.

Heschel calls for a living tradition, a living community, and he relates this to worship or ritual. 

A Jew never worships as an isolated individual but as a part of the Community of Israel.  Yet it is within the heart of every individual that prayer takes place.

Rabbi Lawrence Troster’s concept of “Green Torah Wisdom,” outlined in this talk, combines environmental and social responsibility with core elements of Jewish tradition, bringing a deeper consciousness to our everyday lives. Uploaded to YouTube by ELI Talks

He is underscoring the tension between the individual and the group—how deeply they need one another, we need one another.

Worship is very much an ancestral thing for the Jew as for the Africans, for the people are “a movement in the symphony of ages.”  And “every act of worship is an act of participating in an eternal service, in the service of all souls of all ages,” says Heschel.

Nor do humans alone praise.  Rather, “our kinship with nature is a kinship of praise. All beings praise God.  We live in a community of praise.”

Susana Allen sings the cosmic prayer for peace. Uploaded to YouTube by Mylene Bat EliYah. An English translation is HERE.

It is the task of the human to lead the silent worship of the rest of creation.  We are its cantors. 

The cosmos is a congregation in need of a Cantor….It is man who is the Cantor of the universe, and in whose life the secret of cosmic prayer is disclosed.  When we sing we sing for all things…..The universe is a score of eternal music, and we are the cry, we are the voice.

*Heschel citations are from his book, God in Search of Man.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells, pp. 93f.

Banner Image: Rabbi Michael Lerner and Cat Zavis on their wedding, 2015. From Tikkun Magazine.

Do you agree that faith does not mean living off an estate of dogmas and doctrines but ginning up the courage to be creative and expand?  Do you agree that the universe is a “kinship of praise?”

One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.“Reading One River, Many Wells is like entering the rich silence of a masterfully directed retreat. As you read this text, you reflect, you pray, you embrace Divinity. Truly no words can fully express my respect and awe for this magnificent contribution to contemporary spirituality.” –Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

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3 thoughts on “Rabbi Heschel on Worship as a Kinship of Praise”

  1. Avatar

    A theme that I’m sure resonates with a lot if ys Matt. On the one hand we honour the past and feed off its wisdom yet on the other hand we know as the universe expands so do we. Its never static but always creating new forms. I like this post very much as it challenges us to dance between traditions and new forms, there isn,t an either or. Great post .Mort

  2. Avatar

    Working as hard as I can at being honest with myself is my best form of prayer, which is really contemplative prayer, because honesty grounds me and gives my surrendered foundation a launching pad to vibrate goodness to everything.

    1. Rev. Dr. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Rev. Dr. Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Gary, honesty is a good thing and the world would be a far better place if our leaders would work on this most important character trait. Thanks for t he reminder!

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