Survival, mere continuation of being, is a condition man has in common with animals. Characteristic of humanity is concern for what to do with survival. “To be or not to be” is not the question. Of course, we all are anxious to be. How to be and how not to be is the question. The true problem is how to survive, what sort of future to strive for. It is the power and vision of time to come that determine time present. What is important is attaining certainty of being worthy of survival.
Survival is not an impersonal process, it requires above all a subject that survives, a self worthy of survival. Historic continuity is a mental, not only a physical, condition and cannot be conceived apart from a self that is both involved in continuity as well as making it possible. Since the self of our community is becoming increasingly stagnant, dormant, it is more urgent to be concerned about revival than about survival.
It is more productive to be preoccupied with enhancing the present than to nurture fears about the future.
According to a medieval custom, called ikkuv ha-keriah, any individual who had just grievance against another one and failed to gain attention of the authorities had the right to interrupt the Sabbath morning in the synagogue, to prevent and to delay the reading of the Torah, until the case was heard publicly and justice rendered.
I often feel as if the hour had come for a moratorium on testimonial dinners and building programs, for an ikkuv ha-keriah, for a suspension of some our activities and campaigns in order to gain time for reflection and self-examination, to stand still and to reflect!
I do not believe that repression is America’s major problem, as some writers maintain. America’s problem number one is the self-profanation of man, the perversion of the eighteenth century conception of the pursuit of happiness, the loss of reverence, the liquidation of enthusiasm for the attainment of transcendent goals.
Our conception of happiness is based on an oversimplification of man. Happiness is not a synonym for self-satisfaction, complacency, or smugness. Self-satisfaction breeds futility and despair. All that is creative in man stems from a seed of endless discontent. New insight begins when satisfaction comes to an end, when all that has been seen, said, or done looks like a distortion.
The aim is the maintenance and fanning of a discontent with our aspirations and achievements, the maintenance and fanning of a craving that knows no satisfaction. Man’s true fulfillment depends upon communion with that which transcends him.
The cure of the soul begins with a sense of embarrassment, embarrassment at our pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit; embarrassment at the profanation of life. A world that is full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival.
Man is too great to be fed upon uninspiring pedestrian ideals. We have adjusted ideals to our stature, instead of attempting to rise to the level of ideals. The ceiling of aspiration is too low: a car, color television, and life insurance. Modern man has royal power and plebeian ideals.
To the ear of a Jew who is attuned to the voice of the prophets, some of the celebrated theories of our age sound like intellectual slang. Over against all pedestrian conceptions, the Bible speaks of life in the language of grandeur, with a vision of sublime goals that surpasses the glamour of all empires, the summit of all theories.
Judaism is spiritual effrontery. The tragedy is that there is disease and starvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas. Social dynamics is no substitute for moral responsibility.
The most urgent task is to destroy the myth that accumulation of wealth and the achievement of comfort are the chief vocations of man. How can adjustment to society be an inspiration to our youth if that society persists in squandering the material resources of the world on luxuries in a world where more than a billion people go to bed hungry every night? How can we speak of reverence for man and of the belief that all men are created equal without repenting the way we promote the vulgarization of existence?
Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Existence and Celebration”, in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 30-31. Originally delivered as “Existence and Celebration” in Montreal to General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (New York: Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, 1965).