St. Cyril of Jerusalem Discussion

Friday, March 21, 2008

Benjamin G. Robinson


Heschel: The Sabbath

Abraham Heschel has accomplished something unique in his book The Sabbath. He has described the Jewish conception of the Sabbath while simultaneously inviting the reader to participate in the Sabbath. As a whole, Heschel is articulating the story into which we, as Gentiles, a non-covenant people have been invited.1 It is only within this story, the story of God’s covenant with Israel, that Jesus is intelligible. Heschel work is therefore indispensable in that it locates the Sabbath as central to the life of the Jew. In so doing, Heschel indirectly invites us into this people’s story by revealing the personal form of the day itself. In this move he opens up the route to view the Sabbath as an analog of Jesus. We contend it is in the person of Jesus that all of what the Sabbath means finds consummation. Jesus is the interpretive lens by which we appropriate Heschel’s work. The purpose of this essay will be to parse this out primarily as it relates to the person of Christ but also its implications for Christian worship.

The Sabbath, according to Heschel, is something of a divine encounter. It is a day in which we are reoriented towards the eternal, in which we share in the eternal.2 In so being it is simultaneously the apex of God’s presence in the world and Israel’s response to the covenant. It is a thoroughly covenantal encounter. God calls forth Abram, ex nihilo, and establishes Godself as the ground of this people’s existence. This initiating act calls forth a response from the people that is to be adequated to the divine call. On the Sabbath this drama is reenacted, reestablished, and lived in. Perhaps most instructive in this regard is Heschel’s insistence that the Sabbath must be inhabited. It is an atmosphere, a witness to a way of life.3 This is Israel’s meeting with the divine and all of life is oriented around this day of consummation.4 It is a day that witnesses to the God of events, and becomes an event itself. It is a Messianic event. Heschel says, “But when the Sabbath is entering the world, man is touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth.”5 This day of actual redemption is recapitulated in the very person of Jesus. But it is as the recapitulation of Israel’s Sabbath, and as Israel’s Savior that he is the Sabbath and Savior of the Gentile as well.

We find it appropriate, therefore, to listen to a voice of Israel in learning what the Sabbath means to Israel, which fills out what it means for Jesus to be the Sabbath. But this identification of Jesus with the Sabbath is not meant to conflate Jesus with the day, nor is it an attempt to concretize the loose personification of the day as a bride.6 What it means for us to say that Jesus is the Sabbath is that Heschel’s predicates of the Sabbath find their greatest expression and fulfillment in the person of Jesus. These predicates become a framework for understanding both Jesus and the day. We can already begin to see how we can posit Jesus as the Sabbath, but we must press this further. If the Sabbath is the “presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man”7 then certainly there is no greater fulfillment of this day than the incarnation of Godself in the person of Jesus. It is to these predicates we must now turn.

Speaking of the Sabbath as rest is to say much more than that the day is merely a time for relaxation and recuperation. Heschel resists the move of Philo to see the logic of this day in the necessity for some cessation from work. Philo lodges the Sabbath in the human need of rest from work, but by doing so relegates the significance of the day as secondary. The Sabbath exists for the other days of the week, and even further reinforces humanity’s attempt to conquer space.8 In contrast, Heschel sees the Sabbath as the “climax of living.”9 The weekdays exist for the Sabbath, not the other way around. In this day man can approach the likeness of the divine, for the likeness of God is to be found in time “which is eternity in disguise”.10

Heschel summarizes what it means to rest on the Sabbath with the term menuha. The ancient rabbis saw that the biblical account claims that God finished his work on the seventh day. This would lead us to believe there was an act of creation on the seventh day. The ancient rabbis said that menuha was created on this final day.11 Menuha attempts to articulate the harmony and peace of the Sabbath. Heschel explains, “It is the state wherein main lies still, wherein the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest. It is the state in which there is no strife and no fighting, no fear and no distrust.”12 According to Heschel, this term came to be associated with eternal life itself.13 This gives us a clear sense in which Jesus can be understood as our Sabbath. He is the Shepherd who leads us to menuha and participation in his life is participation in menuha. Jesus calls to those who are weary and burdened to find rest in him.14 It is in him that the peace and harmony of God exist and are made available to us. To participate in the Body of Christ, through the Eucharist and worship life of the Church, is to participate in the Sabbath of God; to be touched by the menuha of God.

As menuha the Sabbath is rest and peace. Six days of the week we are driven by sanctuaries of space. We attempt to conquer the world, to in some sense wield our existence over the existence of other realities in space. This has been cause for great conflict within humanity and between humanity and nature. But, “the seventh day is the armistice of man’s cruel struggle for existence, a truce in all conflicts, personal and social, peace between man and man, man and nature, peace within man.”15 Heschel will go even further than considering the Sabbath a mere armistice and instead articulate it as “a profound conscious harmony of man and the world, a sympathy for all things and a participation in the spirit that unites what is below and what is above.”16 There is a real union at work on the Sabbath. There is a divinization of humanity occurring that is real and actual. This is not a “by and by in the sky” harmony but a substantial union between the divine and human in such a way as to produce utter peace. Yet this union depends to some extent on the participation of both the human and divine. The Sabbath yearns for the participation of humanity. As Heschel says, “The Sabbath is not sufficient unto itself. Its spiritual reality calls for companionship of man. There is great longing in the world. The six days stand in need of space; the seventh day stands in need of man.”17 The Sabbath is the activity of the covenant, in which God calls and Israel responds. It is day in which the covenant is reenacted in perpetuity. There is the emptying of Godself and the self-emptying response of Israel back. The Sabbath is the movement of Israel’s covenant with God, and as such is the focal point of Jewish life.

The Sabbath must therefore also be the focal point of Christian life as well. If the Sabbath is in some sense the covenant in perpetuity, then we must enter this day. For our entry into the life of Jesus happens within the covenant of Israel. It is Israel’s covenant, Israel’s Sabbath into which Israel’s Savior brings us. In our union with this person we are united with all that the Sabbath is. Perhaps this is why both Heschel and Jesus find the marriage metaphor so potent. Israel was to welcome the Sabbath as a bride.18 They belong to the seventh day. Similarly, we belong to Jesus. We do so in a way that can be likened to a marriage. We, the Church, are the bride of Christ. We welcome Christ as a bridegroom. We rejoice in his arrival and we find ourselves “in love with eternity”.19 In light of this we can understand Heschel’s assertion that the Sabbath introduces us to another world. We are welcoming someone who brings us into a reality, a world, different from our own.20 A world characterized by all that the Sabbath communicates.

Heschel says, “The Sabbath is an example of the world to come.”21 It is participation in eternity. Its essence invades our world and demands a modality of life consistent with itself. In this sense the Sabbath is a profoundly political reality. It speaks to the very way in which we order ourselves in relation to others and to God. In this sense as well it is an anti-political reality, not in the complete disavowal of politics, but in the avowal of a completely different definition of polity. The Sabbath is participation in the kingdom of God. Heschel contrasts this with the way in which humanity constitutes itself in nations and states. According to Heschel “it was the vision of the Messianic day in which the hope of restoring the unity of all men was won.”22 As Christians we make the claim that the Israel of God, the Savior of Israel, has already come. We live in the perpetuity of this Messianic day. Thus, to enter into the Sabbath, to commune with Christ, requires a modality of life that leads to the cross. There is a very real temptation for Christians to abandon this modality for one that is more secure. Yet this is the temptation that the Sabbath draws us away from. For Christians Christ is our Sabbath but he also leads us to the Sabbath: to the sanctity of a day.

Christians have too often supposed that the importance of the Sabbath is minimal. Too often we have adopted Philo’s explanation as sufficient. The point must be made again that to identity Christ as the Sabbath is not to do so in a univocal way. Rather, we have proceeded in such a way as to draw a substantial connection yet a cautious one as well. It remains to be said that Jesus, as our Sabbath, leads us to Sabbath worship. Jesus leads us to the Eucharistic table. Heschel describes the Jewish life as a pilgrimage towards the Sabbath.23 All of life is oriented around this day and all the days of the week lead to the seventh day. The people of Israel long for the seventh day.24 In the same way Christians must long for both the person of Christ and the day of the Sabbath. We still long for a day. Our longing is an eschatological longing that is fed each week by Sabbath worship and will find its consummation in eternity. We believe that in the sanctity of a day we meet the eternal. We find solace from the world but also strength to be in it. On our Sabbath we feed on the Scriptures, and we feed on the Body and Blood of Christ. We taste eternity.25

In his book Heschel has undertaken the task of articulating the meaning of the Sabbath in what we would call the Old Testament. We have attempted to take this articulation and lodge the New Testament witness in it. It is only as Israel’s Sabbath that we participate in the Sabbath. Heschel’s understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures pertaining to the Sabbath draws our attention to the person of Christ who is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. At the same time, our attention is drawn to a day of Christian worship. In articulating the Sabbath Heschel unknowingly sketches a Christology. But since Jesus is only intelligible within the covenantal story of Israel we are not all that surprised by this. In posing the question of humanity’s relation to the Sabbath Heschel poses the question of humanity’s relation to Jesus. Whatever limitations there may be in appropriating Heschel’s work, his book on the Sabbath can be described as nothing less than redemptive.

1 We are working within the understanding that Jew and Gentile are not racial categorizations but covenantal distinctions.

2 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 10.

3 Ibid. cf. 19,21,27,52,53,66.

4 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 89.

5 Ibid. 68.

6 Ibid. 59.

7 Ibid. 60.

8 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 14.

9 Ibid. 14.

10 Ibid. 14.

11 Ibid. 22,23.

12 Ibid. 23.

13 Ibid. 23.

14 Matthew 11:28.

15 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 29.

16 Ibid. 30,31.

17 Ibid. 52.

18 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 48.

19 Ibid. 48.

20 Ibid. 66.

21 Ibid. 73.

22 Ibid. 79.

23 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 89.

24 Ibid. 90.

25 Ibid. 74.