Progressive Revival

On Saturday afternoon, after
putting my children down for a nap, I took the opportunity to reread selections
from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath
.  First published in 1951,
this poetic gem has been read by countless spiritual seekers–Jewish and
non-Jewish–throughout the world.

As I flipped through the
pages of the book, I was struck again by Heschel’s remarkable ability to cull
from the vast storehouse of classical Jewish teachings and to present these
gleanings to a diverse modern readership with elegance and force. 

In Heschel’s mind, the
greatest challenge facing the modern Western world is the loss of a sense for
the sacred.  He argues that in our
attempts to master our physical surroundings through technological advancement,
we have become desensitized to the grandeur and beauty of life, both in the
natural world and in the faces of other people.  In our rush to industrialize we have become so focused on
gaining economic and political power that we have forgotten our ultimate
purpose: to serve as co-creators with the Divine in the establishment of a just
and compassionate world. 

For Heschel, a refugee from
Eastern Europe, the Holocaust is the most dramatic example of the shadow side
of modernity.  After all, it was in
Germany–arguably the great center of modern culture–that the most effective and
devastating killing machines in human history were created.  But Heschel is also critical of popular
American culture with its seemingly insatiable consumerist cravings, symbolized
in his mind by the excesses of affluent suburban life in cities across the

In The Sabbath,
Heschel attempts to offer a corrective to the imbalance he experienced in
Europe and the United States.  In
so doing, he explores two basic, and intersecting, dimensions of human
existence: space and time.  Heschel
argues that modern Western life is dominated by an obsession with space–with
building, mastering, and conquering things of space.  But life turns dim, says Heschel, “when the control of
space, the acquisition of things in space, becomes our sole concern” (p.
ix).  He calls on us to reconsider
our priorities and relax our attachment to “thinghood,” shifting our attention
to the “thingless and insubstantial” reality of time.          

It is in this context that
Heschel introduces the importance of the Sabbath to modern life.  For Shabbat
offers us the opportunity to retreat temporarily
from our work-a-day routine, from the world of space consciousness, and to
enjoy the manifold gifts of creation provided for us by the Master of the
Universe.  Heschel describes the
Sabbath as a “palace in time,” whose architecture is built through a
combination of intentional abstentions (refraining from business dealings,
long-distance travel, etc.) and acts of prayer, study, joyous meals, and
interaction with loved ones. 

Most importantly, perhaps,
Heschel explains that Shabbat
only offers us an opportunity for weekly spiritual communion, but it also has
the potential to help shape the way we live the other six days of the

Will our time with friends
and family make us more sensitive to the needs of other human beings?  Will our time celebrating the grandeur
and beauty of nature make us more sensitive to the needs of the earth?  Will we be able to hold in our hearts
and minds the realization that God is the supreme author of life and that we
are called upon by the Divine to serve as co-creators of a just and
compassionate world?  In brief, can
we carry with us something of the Sabbath consciousness through the rest of the

More than fifty years after Abraham Joshua Heschel
published The Sabbath
, and thousands of
years after this great religious institution was first recorded in the Hebrew
Bible, Shabbat
remains both a spiritual
oasis and a bold challenge to all of us who seek to live both productive and
reflective lives.

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