The Earth is the Lord's PrefaceTHE STORY ABOUT THE LIFE OF THE JEWS IN EASTERN EUROPE WHICH HAS COME TO AN END IN OUR DAYS IS WHAT I HAVE tried to tell in this essay. I have not talked about their books, their art or institutions, but about their daily life, about their habits and customs, about their attitudes toward the basic things in life, about the scale of values which directed their aspirations.It is a story about an entire era in Jewish history, in which the attempt is made to portray the character of a people as reflected in its wayof living throughout generations, in its loyalties and motivations, in its unique and enduring features. Viewed from a wide historical perspective, issues that loomed important in recent years were considered only in proportion to the total picture of the Ashkenazic period which extended over eight hundred years.1My task was, not to explain, but to see, to discern and to depict. An investigation of the social, economic, and political factors which were effective during the period, and their impact upon the spirit of the people was not within the scope of this essay. It was likewise not my intention to dwell upon the various achievements of that period, such as the contributions to science and literature, to art and theology, the rise of the Wissenschaft des Judentums,2 the revival of the Hebrew language, the modern Hebrew and Yiddish literatures, the development of the Yiddish language, Zionism, Jewish socialism, the establishment of new centers, the rebuilding of Israel, the various attempts to modernize Jewish life and to adapt it to changing conditions.
For how do we appraise the historic significance of a period? By what standards do wemeasure culture? It is customary in the modern world to evaluate a period by its progress in general civilization, by the quality of the books, by the number of universities, by the artistic accomplishments, and by the scientific discoveries made therein. As Jews, with an old tradition for appraising and judging events and generations, we evaluate history by different criteria, namely, by how much refinement there is in the life of a people, by how much spiritual substance there is in its everyday existence. In our eyes, culture is the style of the life of a people. We gauge culture by the extent to which a whole people, not only individuals, live in accordance with the dictates of an eternal doctrine or strive for spiritual integrity; the extent to which inwardness, compassion, justice and holiness are to be found in the daily life of the masses.The pattern of life of a people is more significant than the pattern of its art. What counts most is not expression, but existence itself. The key to the source of creativity lies in the will to cling to spirituality, to be close to the inexpressible, and not merely in the ability of expression. What is creative comes from responsive merging with the eternal in reality, not from an ambition to say something. To appraise adequately the East European period in Jewish history, I had to inquire into the life-feeling and life-style of thepeople. This led to the conclusion that in this period our people attained the highest degree of inwardness. I feel justified in saying that it was the golden period in Jewish history, in the history of the Jewish soul.Copyright 1949 by Abraham Joshua Heschel