Review: The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel (1951) is a classic of modern Jewish spirituality that has a lot to say as a dialogue partner for Christians wishing to explore what Sabbath observation might mean for them.
At the heart of Heschel’s view of the Sabbath is a dichotomy in human life between space and time. Whereas humans in their empire building focus all of their energy on conquering the spatial dimensions by building monuments, sanctifying spaces, and rushing to and fro in search of material prosperity, the Sabbath Day is a palace or a cathedral in time. It is a sacred area within the flow of time which humans did not and cannot build, merely experience or reject. The joyful observance of the Sabbath is itself a repudiation of the space-obsession of human civilization with all its frenetic and, ultimately, futile energy. It is a taste of the Kingdom of God in its very temporality in a way that no sacred space can ever be.
In a way, Heschel makes the Sabbath observation the central tenet of Judaism, at least the central spiritual discipline. It more than anything else brings human beings into close contact with eternity and with the eternal God. According to Heschel, observing the Sabbath is the chief way human beings declare their allegiance and subservience to the Creator God rather than to mammon: to refrain not only from working but even from thinking about work for one full day every week implies a clear priority of heavenly things over the search for earthly gain. This setting of priorities is never so clear in the way we operate within space. One can build a physical monument dedicated to God and still be wrapped up in earthly ways of thinking and acting. It is only by entering into the cathedral within time, the Sabbath, that our spatial priorities can be straightened out.
As a Christian, I found my reaction to Heschel’s book complex (not complicated, but many-faceted). More than anything else, I felt a conviction that Sabbath observation, or at least something akin to it, is a spiritual discipline that is perfectly compatible with Christian practice and from want of which many Christians suffer. The Sabbath has a tortured place in Christian thought, with some Christians taking its observance (on either Saturday or Sunday – I consider them to be same kind of thing, even though I know many Christians do not) with deadly seriousness: to violate the Sabbath is a sin and it brings a curse. On the other hand, some Christians react to the idea of Sabbath observance with revulsion, equating its observance with legalism and a rejection of the gospel.
I consider both of these perspectives to be excessive. Jesus’ perspective is liberating: man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for man. God gave us the Sabbath for our benefit. We need not feel that we must work all day every day in order (1) to be considered hard workers in God’s eyes or (2) to properly earn our living (God does not expect us to work 24/7 to earn our food). God has, in the Sabbath, given us license to rest (he has provided for our rest), and when we observe the Sabbath we act in faith, trusting God to provide for our needs and trusting that he has our best interests in mind when he tells us to get some rest.
But it is also important for the Christian to realize that God has not simply given us license to rest, but a command to rest, and this command is not contradicted by Jesus’ saying that the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. The reason this is important is that a license is the right to opt to rest, but with a license one still retains the right to opt not to rest. If we are merely permitted to rest but can continue to refrain from resting if we want to, we might even interpret such refraining as virtuous, the righteous sacrifice of a hard working person. But God’s attitude towards our rest is not this open. He doesn’t simply permit us to rest; he instructs us to rest, and thereby he removes the possibility of seeing not resting as a righteous sacrifice. Neither because we rest nor because we do not rest are we more virtuous or righteous. God tells us, “Get some rest, and don’t argue with me.”
The important thing for Christians to remember is that Jesus’ perspective on the Sabbath (a perspective that I feel was continually affirmed in Heschel’s book) is that God’s command to us to observe the Sabbath is personal, not mechanical. It is the instruction of a loving Father who knows what is best for his children when they do not. It should not be an onerous obligation, because if you observe it only because of obligation you aren’t really benefiting from it (you’ll be chafing at it, longing for the moment when you can go back to work; see Amos 8:5). Rather, it is something to be celebrated because it liberates us from our ceaseless efforts at earning, both God’s good will and God’s providence. The Sabbath tells us, “You don’t have to earn God’s good will by working, nor do you have to worry about what you’re going to eat – God’s got you covered.” So instead of working and working to make sure we have enough, the Sabbath invites us to rest in God’s grace. And this is true whether we observe it on Sunday or on Saturday.
I often found the place of the Sabbath in Heschel’s understanding of Jewish spirituality to have a great deal in common with the place of Jesus in my own Christian spirituality. For Heschel, to observe the Sabbath is tantamount to saying God is lord and mammon is not. The way I do that is by declaring that Jesus is lord (and Caesar/mammon is not). Ultimately, I don’t feel that my finding rest from work in Jesus or my repudiating the world’s system by declaring “Jesus is Lord” undermines or detracts from the importance of the Sabbath. What the Sabbath does within time is simply a recurring temporal echo of the eternal work of Christ. The Sabbath is a taste of the kingdom of God over which Jesus is Lord, therefore it is a foretaste of the lordship of Christ. When I cease from my work for a day of rest, I do so in the confidence that Jesus is Lord, not “the almighty dollar”.
In short, I recommend Heschel’s The Sabbath as vital reading for Christians wrestling with what place Sabbath observation should have in their spiritual life. In particular, his understanding of the Sabbath as the prioritizing of time over space in human intellectual and spiritual life is fascinating and interplays well with many elements of the Christian confession. Rather than seeing the Sabbath as extraneous to Christian spiritual life, in dialogue with Heschel I have come to see how the Sabbath can be a central and life-giving expression of my faith in Jesus as Lord of all creation.
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