Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath — August 14, 2014

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Seemingly a woodcut of a tree with many branches growing out of knotted ground.

There are at least two ways to read this book, one of which I can get behind and the other of which I can’t. The one I can get behind is the practical and aesthetic advice on living a modern life when the Sabbath gift is available to us. We slouch through our ordinary workaday lives, not honoring the time available to us. Then the Sabbath comes. We should honor this gift of time. We should dress with respect in its presence [1]. To ignore the Sabbath is to ignore a gift.

Up to here I’m fine. More than fine, in fact. When I have kids, I intend to honor the Sabbath with them. What can be more of a gesture of respect to them than to tell them that on this day, my attention turns away from the grubby nonsense of daily living, and I focus entirely on those I love? On this day, I welcome the gift of time. Heschel’s book is largely poetry devoted to expanding on this principle, and devoted to making the reader feel its importance in his bones. In this, [book: The Sabbath] is a most eloquent success.

But Heschel was also a rabbi, so there’s a theological basis to all of this; I cannot follow him there. Time is a gift from God, says Heschel. Here I will grant that I may just not know how to read theological texts. A few years back I read a lot of theological texts and biographies of religious figures (see the list of books I’ve read over the last few years, and scroll back to 2006 or so), and every time they unavoidably made this final jump that I just couldn’t take with them: Jesus Christ is the Son of God, say. Heschel’s jump that I can’t take is that the Bible is special. It’s not just any other book. It’s not just the scribblings of some ancient tribe. This leads Heschel into the same sort of translation-mongering that you find among Christians who believe they’ve found The One True Meaning of the Bible, or among conservative legal scholars who believe that the words of the Constitution beget One True Meaning that the Framers intended.

If you don’t buy into the idea that the Bible is in any way special, then the translation-mongering is just odd. Why fuss over whether there are connections between the Hebrew for “wedding” and the Sabbath? If the document that you’re translating isn’t all that special, then this is perhaps interesting but not in any way important; discerning what the Bible intended to teach us about the Sabbath has no more importance than discerning what my grandfather, say, had to teach us about it.

If you’re Jewish, you’ll find Heschel’s idea that Judaism is a religion that honors time as well as space (with the Sabbath being God’s greatest gift of time) interesting. If you’re not, you may find it less so. To the extent that a religion of time influences your daily life as a non-Jew, you will still get value from Heschel.

So leave many of Heschel’s reasons aside. There is enough in [book: The Sabbath] without the theology. You can believe the conclusion without believing all of the reasons. And there’s reason enough in the practical value of the Sabbath. There’s reason enough in teaching us to appreciate the gift of time we have in front of us. For myself, I find it unimportant to ask who or what gave us that gift . The gift is here, and it is ours, and it is more important than ever to honor it.

[1] – I’m reminded here of Machiavelli’s letter to Vettori:

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

Heschel would say that we should behave humbly, respectfully, and with grace in the presence of the Sabbath, just as Machiavelli behaved in the presence of his ancestors.