Abraham Joshua Heschel was a seminal rabbinic figure in twentieth century religious studies and also a serious civil rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Like King, Heschel personally encountered many outrageous events and experiences as a civil rights activist in the America south during the 1950s and 1960s. As well, Heschel had also faced tragic experiences in Nazi Germany until he escaped.
I call attention to this part of the good rabbi’s personal narrative because in these current posts we are talking about insight, especially the insight that comes from asking questions about events and experiences that are new to us or exceptional. We ask the questions, especially why, because we want to know in a special way. “What’s that all about?” we wonder. In other words, we want insight.
Over many decades Heschel encountered the kinds of events and experiences that no doubt deeply challenged and at times changed his thinking and doing, as they would anyone seeking insight. I have wondered if the deeply challenging personal experiences of his life were not in the back of his mind when he wrote in The Prophets:
“Insight first requires much intellectual dismantling and dislocation.” For he then adds that the process “begins with a mental interim, with the cultivation of a feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible. It is in being involved with a phenomenon, being intimately engaged to it, courting it, as it were, that after much perplexity and embarrassment we come upon insight – upon a way of seeing the phenomenon from within. Insight is accompanied by a sense of surprise. What has been closed is suddenly disclosed. It entails genuine perception, seeing anew” (xxv).
For his part, the theologian Walter Brueggemann, in The Creative Word, speaks of a “great brooding” process (71-73). It is a process of discovery, of seeing anew. In this process we are
“in touch with a mystery that cannot be too closely shepherded, as in the Torah, or protested against, as in the prophets. There is here a not-knowing, a waiting to know, a patience about what is yet to be discerned, and a respect for not knowing that must be honored and not crowded. This way does not seek conclusions for immediate resolutions. It works at a different pace because it understands that its secrets cannot be forced” (71).
Wisdom and insight, he continues, are found in the kind of engagement with events and experiences in the world that entail
“fascination, imagination, patience, attentiveness to detail, and finally, observation of the regularities which seem to govern. Wisdom is found in the experience of the specific, concrete experiences which individuals discern for themselves. . . . That is where wisdom shall be found – in the stuff of life, the world, our experience. . . . It holds for the patient, diligent observer what needs to be known” (72-73).
Intellectual dismantling and dislocation. Great brooding. Discerning what is not evident. A sense of surprise at seeing anew. Such is both the cost and the yield to the people seeking what the wisdom literature calls “understanding words of insight” (Proverbs 1:2).
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Image by Sadiq Alam (permission via Creative Commons)