Is God really in search of Man?

It seems true. There’s no king without a kingdom. If a king is exiled to a faraway, uninhabitable land with no subjects to pay him attention or heed, he is no longer king. A king, to be truly king, requires people who accept his royalty and conduct themselves as his obedient subjects. Without a kingdom, he is that proverbial tree that falls in the forest that no one will hear.

But let’s talk about God. If He lacks adherents, is He like that mortal king without a kingdom? In other words, does God need followers to be God? The iconic Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (generally identified simply as “Heschel”), particularly in Chapter 13 of his very challenging work – “God in Search of Man” – intrinsically argues something greater, if simply by the very title of his book. That is, God is in perennial search of His kingdom. Heschel essentially maintains that the theocratic world is not merely about mankind searching for its opposite in a Higher Being, but that God Himself also seems to require His opposite.

But there is more. By dictating all the ritualistic paraphernalia and apparatus of a Tabernacle at which God may be (appropriately) worshipped, God demands that mankind worship Him at that “special place.” Or, as Heschel more or less presents it, God “searches out” mankind to go to that place – mankind being His singular creation capable of exhibiting meaningful obeisance in the formulaic manner and venue that He dictated.

Still, Heschel’s thesis that “God [is] in search of man” is based on a limited, and somewhat complicated, argument. He, first, quotes the words of the Book of Job  –“Thou does hunt me like lion.” (10:16).  Those curious words convey man’s sense of being stalked by God.  Maybe Job actually existed and maybe those were indeed his words. Or, more likely, they are the poetic musings of Moses whom, we’re told, composed them. Either way, they are the words of man, not God. Perhaps an historical statement of Job’s turmoil in life. Or, more likely, a purely poetic description of the philosophical nature of God’s encounter with man; and how, somewhat bizarrely, God chose to prove to Satan God’s confidence in mankind showing fealty to Him.  At bottom, though, the contents of the Book of Job, it seems, aren’t the words or even the thinking of God Himself!

Heschel goes further, quoting from the Yom Kippur liturgy: “From the very first Thou didst single out man and consider him worthy to stand in Thy presence.” And Heschel presents it as “the mysterious paradox of Biblical faith: God is pursuing man.”  As he succinctly puts it, “It is as if God were unwilling to be alone, and He had chosen man to serve Him” (Heschel, p. 136). Still, again, the words of Job are the words of man – either the words of Moses or some unidentified poet or philosopher who composed them.  It is not God who “acknowledges” being in need of and accordingly pursuing man.

Nonetheless, isn’t it the height of anthropomorphic theorizing to suggest that God is lonely or lacks sufficient purpose in His Existence without encounters with mankind? And therefore, that God affirmatively needs to engage, even pursue, man?

In addition to the words of Job, Heschel relies on God’s provocative question – or is it statement? –  “Where art thou”, uttered by Him when Adam and Eve sought to hide from His presence in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:9).  But there might be many reasons why God would call out to those who had just committed “Original Sin.”  Indeed, doesn’t Heschel take great liberty here?  He argues that the peculiar, and stunning, phrase – “Where art thou?” – attributed to God in Genesis, actually meant that God was “searching out” mankind (then only Adam and Eve). Rather than, as seems more likely, simply “calling them out” for what they had done.  Heschel would surely acknowledge that God was fully aware of “where” they were: hiding from Him would have been impossible.  Why then, does Heschel conclude that the question supports the theory that God searches for man when that mankind (i.e., its two inhabitants) were more likely seeking in vain to evade being confronted for their sin of having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge?

It seems almost as if Heschel, citing God’s question (“Where art thou?”), had a working hypothesis and was employing a challenging philosophical explanation to justify his thesis, i.e., that God was in search of – or rather, in need of – mankind.  Was God, for Heschel, the lonely, exiled king troubled by the spectacle of having no subjects to listen to Him?

This discussion may (incorrectly) appear to disrespect the revered Heschel. It is not meant to. His thesis is indeed viable, and certainly valuable. God, at least in some figurative way, does seem to search for man.  And in that search He asks – actually demands – that man submit to Him, albeit not in the same manner as might an unacknowledging king.  And lest it go unsaid, if we accept the notion that we lack the capacity to truly know God’s Essence, we are hardly capable of speaking about God’s conduct with the same insight that we speak of man’s.

So, here is where, I believe, Heschel best shows what he truly means by his provocative title:

Faith comes out of awe, out of an awareness that we are exposed to His presence, out of anxiety to answer the challenge of God, out of an awareness of our being called upon.  Religion consists of God’s question and man’s answer.  The way to faith is the way of faith.  The way to God is a way of God.  Unless God asks the question, all our inquiries are in vain. (emphasis in original)

God, it seems, does indeed search for man – by challenging us with His commandments. Despite the suggestion implicit in Heschel’s evocative title, God, in my unpresuming judgment, doesn’t seek by his “search” to complete or even complement His own Existence.  Rather, God appears to recognize that without finding and telling man what He wants, mankind is left hopelessly in the abyss. Ergo, God’s “search” for man.

Heschel, at bottom, better encapsulates the nature of God’s “search” through his own discerning words, and not necessarily those contained in the Scripture that he quotes.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.