The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed. Frightful is the agony of man: no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of this world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophets’ words.

The prophets had disdain for those to whom God was comfort and security; to them God was a challenge, an incessant demand. He is compassion, but not a compromise; justice, but not inclemency. Tranquility is unknown to the soul of a prophet. The miseries of the world give him no rest. While others are callous, and even callous to their callousness and unaware of their insensitivity, the prophets remain examples of supreme impatience with evil, distracted by neither might nor applause, by neither success nor beauty. Their intense sensitivity to right and wrong is due to their intense sensitivity to God’s concern for right and wrong. They feel fiercely because they hear deeply.

The weakness of many systems of moral philosophy is in their isolationism. The isolation of morality is an assumption that the good is unrelated to the morally neutral values. However, there is an interrelatedness between the moral and all other acts of man, whether in the realm of theory or in the realm of the technical application, and the moral person must not be thought of as if he were a professional magician, moral in some situations and immoral in others.

Yoram Raanan, Balaam, 2005, acrylic over lithograph

Consequently the moral problem cannot be solved as a moral problem. It must be dealt with as part of the total issue of man. The supreme problem is all of life, not good and evil. We cannot deal with morality unless we deal with all of man, the nature of existence, of doing, and meaning.

The prophets tried to overcome the isolationism of religion. It is the prophets who teach us that the problem of living does not arise with the question of how to take care of the rascals, of how to prevent delinquency or hideous crimes. The problem of living begins with the realization of how we all blunder in dealing with our fellow men. The silent atrocities, the secret scandals, which no law can prevent, are the true seat of moral infection. The problem of living begins, in fact, in relation to our own selves, in the handling of our emotional functions, in the way we deal with envy, greed, and pride.

Source: Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Religion in a Free Society,” in The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959), 11–12.