Light in the Iron Cage (Heschel and Gnostic Religion)


(last Thursday night at corner of West End Avenue & W.86th St)

In Man is Not Alone (1955) Abraham Joshua Heschel described the moment of revelation as one in which overwhelming light fills up “the iron cage” in which we live. An undergraduate student with whom I’m working this semester suggested that this was Manichean. I think that gnostic might be more precise. Writing in the immediate wake of the Holocaust, Heschel compared the world to a palace on fire. To whom does this burning world belong? To whom do I belong? For Heschel, the answer comes in a blinding flash of mystical knowledge in which the human creature understands itself to be the special object of God’s concern. This to me seems but one short step from the type of gnosis that described by Harold Bloom as “the American Religion.” This type of crisis consciousness that animated Heschel at midcentury is, I think, no longer contemporary; at least not in the liberal west, where the polarities today between light and dark are much less at odds, and where they tend to deconstruct, although not always. I am sympathetic to the pessimism born from trauma that, in good faith, I cannot claim or to pretend to claim as my own in as complete a form as that suffered by Heschel. About the tension between catastrophic versus more quotidian forms of loss and suffering, Laura Levitt has written in her brilliant American Loss after the Holocaust.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Light in the Iron Cage (Heschel and Gnostic Religion)

  1. Gail says:

    That undergraduate was trying on the language of Manicheanism, which I have suggested for her thesis. Isn’t Mani’s acute dualism a form of gnosticism, though? Surely the blinding mystical light inside Weber’s iron cage of modernity does posit a kind of Manichean coexistence of opposites.

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