The Meaning of Silence

One of the blessings of teaching is the chance to continue to read good books.  And often, it means the opportunity to re-read some of my favorite books.  In spite of our society’s penchant for the new and novel, I learned some time ago that there are classics that stand the test of time and continue to speak to humans in all walks of life.  Obviously there are classics in music, in architecture and in books.

One of the classics I have had a chance to read again is Quest for God by the great 20th century Jewish rabbi and theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Heschel is one of the theological giants who came to this country as a result of the Nazi craziness of the 20th century.  Heschel was born in Poland in 1907.  He was educated in Berlin, Germany.  When he was lecturing in 1938 in Frankfort, Germany, he was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Poland.  He was encouraged to leave before he would be killed.  So he fled to London and in 1940 arrived in New York City.  He spent five years in Cincinnati teaching at the Hebrew Union College, leading Reformed Jewish Seminary

In 1946, Heschel left for New York where he spent the rest of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University.  He died in 1972.  I read Heschel when I was in college and continued to follow him until he died.  The thing I most liked about him was his spiritual journey was not simply about being a theologian.  He was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, and just as involved in protesting what he felt was an unjust involvement in Vietnam.  He was deeply steeped in the Old Testament Prophets and, like Isaiah and Jeremiah of old, felt like he had to be a prophetic witness for the civil rights of African-Americans and the withdrawal of US troops from Southeast Asia.  Seared in my mind is a picture of Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. marching side-by-side in a civil rights’ march.

Heschel was also a deeply spiritual man.  This is the side of him that comes out in the book, Quest for God.  The range of spiritual issues he addresses is impressive, but one that struck me in my recent reading was his word on silence.  About silence Heschel says, “Twofold is the meaning of silence.  One, the abstinence from speech, the absence of sound.  Two, inner silence, the absence of self-concern, stillness.  One may articulate words in his voice and yet be inwardly silent.  One may abstain from uttering any sound and yet be overbearing.”  Let’s unpack this rather dense quotation.

The first level of silence that Heschel describes is the easier one to understand.  The first level is simply the human gone mute.  This level hears no sound.  There is no speech; silence eradicates all else.  It is clear to me that most folks do not live in this level of silence—almost ever.  Ours is a noisy world.  Much of the noise is fabricated by humans.  If you live in an urban area, there is the constant din of street noise.  Individual people normally have music playing in their ear or constant talking on the phone. 

This is not soulful.  The soul needs some silence.  The soul craves “sound-less bites” in contrast to the cultural use of sound bites.  The constant drumbeat of sounds provides no respite---no space for rest.  There is no opening for something more profound to enter the picture.  This is what Heschel addresses in his second level of silence.

This second level of silence moves from the external sounds to the internal place of silence.  At this level the idea of silence becomes metaphorical---“inner silence,” as Heschel calls it.  At this level of inner silence, we move toward stillness.  I like the way he describes stillness: as absence of self-concern.  It is at this point Heschel becomes more complex.  What does he mean by absence of self-concern?

This is where silence becomes spiritual.  To become spiritual, we move from the ego to the soul.  By definition the ego is self-concerned.  After all, for the ego it is all about me!  Self-concern keeps the ego up front and in control.  The ego speaks---continually speaks.  It may be literal words, or it may figuratively be the ego demanding that it all concerns me.  For Heschel this is the world of sound.  That is why he counsels that we solicit silence.

The spiritual quest and journey necessitate both levels of silence.  Certainly we need those times of literal silence.  We need the occasions where we unplug: turn off the phone, turn off the tv, and take the music device out of our ear.  Quiet and be quiet.  The absence of sound becomes the crucible for the Divine to begin working on our soul.


This Divine working will be transformative.  This work will lessen our self-concern.  This work will lead us into deeper places of stillness.  In that place of stillness we are prepared to hear a Word bigger and better than any words we ever will use.  At that still place in the heart we will know we have come to our center, the primordial meeting place of our soul and the Holy One. 

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