Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Sabbath by Abraham Heschel

Summary of The Sabbath by Abraham Heschel

Abraham Heschel is one of the most respected Jewish scholars of the 20th century and of an orthodox view friendly to Christian belief. He was an active participant in the Civil Rights movement and wrote a seminal study called The Prophets and a number of works of reflective and broad scholarship. (I will append a summary of Heschel’s life by Richard John Neuhaus at the end).

In this slender and reknowned volume, Heschel sets forth an explanation of the Sabbath tradition among the Jews. In my faulty way I would like to recall here to mind some of the things that I have learned, the questions that it raised and the contingent reflections I have had in relation to it, in hopes of fulfilling the injunction in Philippians 4 prescribing the contemplation of the lovely and true, etc.

One thing that stands out is the cogency of Heschel’s explanation of the Sabbath as a spiritual fitting rhythm of life. He speaks of the rest, the menuha, of the Sabbath not in the negative sense of merely ceasing labor.

“Menuha which we usually render with ‘rest’ means here much more than withdrawal from labor and exertion, more than freedom from toil and strain or activity of any kind. Menuha is not a negative concept but something real and intrinsically positive.” p.. 22-23

Like Aristotle and other ancient Greeks’ conception of leisure, the conception of the Sabbath rest is positive in nature, and is viewed as the purpose and culmination of labor. Work in the mundane realities is to culminate in rest and contemplation from which we may cease from the hustle and bustle and attend in quietness and rest to the Lord. As it is says in Isaiah, “In quietness and rest is your strength…” "Labor without dignity is the cause of misery; rest without the spirit the source of depravity." (p. 18. of The Sabbath.)

It seems to me that perhaps a great enduring strength in the religious culture of the Jewish people lies centrally in the keeping of the Sabbath. In so doing, they fulfill that of which the verse I quoted above speaks. I counterpoise this in my mind with the ambition to control and conquer space in Descartes’ schematic. This brings me to a major point of the book. Heschel finds a distinction between the Jewish religion and other religions in that in others’ religions, grand temples and cathedrals are built as sacred space, but that in the Jewish religion a cathedral in time is built to God, the cathedral of the Sabbath. He notes the distinction between this and for instance Spinoza’s propensity for supposing the geometrico sufficient for explanation of all, an extension of Descartes, and in some sense the paradigm of the modern, and especially of science.

“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments”, Heschel writes. This reminds me of the experiences related of Jacob in the Bible. There is one in particular, perhaps a more obscure one, but one which struck me by its nature as conveying indeed a real historical experience, a sacred moment, which moved Jacob to purify his household. Judaism, and Christianity after it, are distinct in being irreducibly historical in their accounts which are punctuated by pivotal sacred moments, and which also imply sacred moments in the life of every believer. If these sacred moments in the Bible are mythologized in their entirety, as for instance, it seems to me, the philosopher Eric Voegelin does, then they are completely devalued. They are no longer the Faith.

Part of the cogency of Sabbath-keeping seems to me to lie in the nature of the self and our relation to God. We live a fractured and distracted existence. The fractured paintings of Picasso for instance seem to capture some of the fractured-ness of self in the modern world. Resting and ceasing allows us to remember what it is all for, to renew our bearing and orientation to the ultimate and in so doing helps to fulfill the ultimate of our being or existence. The shalom, the peaceful fullness of living, is attained only in this beholding relationship. But it is not all about self and certainly not about “self-help”. I think of the over-extendedness of Descartes who made the leap to supposing mathematics valid for all realms of human inquiry, and the motivated definition of the self that is inherited markedly from him which leaves no place of honor and recognition to the infinite and the to the I and Thou. Contrast this with the Sabbath which recognizes a limitedness to man, but not merely a limitedness but a purpose and a directedness of man’s aspirations, which establishes an end to man’s grasping control and allows for a beholding and a composition of the self to the whole.

This reminds me of Martin Buber in that the Sabbath is such that it is to help us to rise beyond the I-and-It to the wholeness of our being in the I and Thou. When this is learnt through living wisely, then even in the “chrysalis state of the It,” the I and Thou is still intact. In the same way the Sabbath principle of orientating toward the eternity in our hearts, when kept wisely, becomes something that persists through the days of labor.

It seems to me too that the Sabbath is very much related to the Jewish tradition of universality in the doctrine of the Imago Dei which became in modern times the basis of human rights thought. The humaneness seems to me related to the anthropology/ view of the self and of relation to God and man manifested in the practice. Through the quietness and rest and contemplation, the human soul is equipped to help others, the helpless, the homeless, the outcast and the needy. There needs to be sought and grown a wholeness out of which kindness and ministry is deepened.

An image that I found particularly poignant was in a rabbinic tale that Heschel related and drew morales from. Honestly, the tale was largely outlandish and comic-bookish to my ears, but at the end there was the beautiful story of an old man who ran by holding bundles of myrtles to honor the Sabbath. Myrtles are fragrant flowers that are ubiquitous in the traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies. The old man running at twilight to welcome the Sabbath represented Israel. The Sabbath is seen as a bride based on the injunction in the Old Testament to keep the Sabbath, which uses a word which has the association of a wedding in it:

“When the people of Israel stood before the mountain of Sinai, the Lord said to them: ‘Remember that I said to the Sabbath: The Community of Israel is your mate.’ Hence: “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it” Exodus 20:8) The Hebrew word le-kadesh, to sanctify, means in the language of the Talmud, to consecrate a woman, to betroth. Thus the meaning of the word on Sinai was to impress upon Israel the fact that their destiny is to be the groom of the sacred day, the commandment to espouse the seventh day.” P. 51-52.

The image strikes me as beautiful and conveys the positive nature of the Sabbath in the Jewish thought and imagination. Traditionally averse to personification, in this case they personify the Sabbath as a bride. Heschel elaborates on this wonderfully.

In closing, although I still have questions about the relation of Christianity to the Sabbath and the keeping of special days, I am convinced of the cogency of the principle (and of the value of exploring the relation further), so that it is incumbent upon me to give careful thought about how I might order my life in such a way that conforms to this knowledge wholly, and that I might encourage the community of Christ to do likewise, not legalistically but in order to live.

Richard John Neuhaus on Heschel:

Abraham Joshua Heschel
I first met Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1965, when he was fifty-eight and I a kid of twenty-nine. The occasion had to do with defending protestors against the Vietnam war, which led to the formation of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV). We hit it off in a big way, and ours became an intense intellectual and spiritual friendship until his death in December 1972. We both loved to argue, and mainly we argued about the connections and conflicts between the Jewish and Christian ways of being children of Abraham. I thought he was too enamored of what I viewed as an excessively easy pluralism. He thought I was too insistent in my Christian particularism. For hours beyond number we went back and forth, often in his book-crammed office high in the tower of Jewish Theological Seminary, he smoking his cannon-sized cigars and I puffing on my pipe until the air was so thick we had to open the window even in the dead of winter. (He quit the cigars after a minor heart attack a few years before he died.) Of course I learned much more than he did from these exchanges. Heschel was a very learned man, and a great soul.
His books are still in print (e.g., The Earth is the Lord’s, The Sabbath, Man is Not Alone, God in Search of Man) and I warmly recommend them. Since his death twenty-six years ago, something of a Heschel cult has sprung up. In fact, it had already sprung during his lifetime. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, the first volume of the biography by Edward Kaplan and Samuel Dresner appeared, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness (Yale University Press). It has been admirably and admiringly reviewed by Rabbi David Novak, one of Heschel’s star students, in these pages (October 1998). It is also reviewed in Commentary by Jon Levenson of Harvard, a frequent contributor to this journal, under the title "The Contradictions of A. J. Heschel." While Levenson, too, admires Heschel, he has some big problems.
Heschel came from a dynasty of hasidic rabbis in Poland, took his doctorate at the University of Berlin, succeeded Martin Buber as head of the Lehrhaus in Frankfurt, and, after escaping Nazism to America, became the most read and most influential Jewish theologian of his time. He was a devoutly observant Jew who believed there are many ways to the truth. Kaplan and Dresner say it is a wonder that he was able to "reconcile" the different worlds of which he was part. Levenson is not sure that he did. "The question of the authority of halakhah, traditional rabbinic law in all its specificity, is the most obvious point of division between the traditionalist world of Heschel’s origins and Jewish secular modernity. But it is, or should be, a no less troubling point of division between the world he grew up in, and whose basic religious dictates he continued to follow, and the world of religious but non-Orthodox Judaism in which he spent his entire professional life both in Germany and later in the United States." Levenson’s conclusion is that "it was not out of the reconciliation but out of the collision of the several worlds in which he traveled that his most profound reflections on Jewish theology and spirituality were born."
It is for others to figure out the "contradictions" in Heschel’s way of being Jewish. I am interested here in another question about Heschel’s thought that Levenson raises, a question that was at the heart of our friendly but intense disagreement. He notes that at the University of Berlin Heschel immersed himself in the emerging fields of aesthetics, phenomenology, and psychology (a combination in which another Polish thinker of the time was also deeply immersed-Karol Wojtyla, later to be Pope John Paul II). From this he developed his crucial understanding that God is always the Subject and man the object of divine action; the initiative is always with God. In Heschel’s case this was combined with the dominant liberal Protestantism of Berlin that pitted the prophetic against the priestly, and the authentically spiritual against the religiously institutionalized. As Levenson observes, this "very dubious dichotomy . . . was a staple of Protestant biblical studies and was, moreover, often linked to anti-Jewish (and anti-Catholic) polemics."

1 comment:

Stephen said...

For the story of Heschel's role in Vatican II, click below. Heschel was a rare man who combined a deep religious faith with a deep conviction in the need for interreligious undertanding and respect.{42d75369-d582-4380-8395-d25925b85eaf}/WIDE%20HORIZONS.PDF