Space, Time, And The Sabbath
The Sabbath: Its Meaning For Modern Man.
by Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Farrar, Straus and Young. 118 pp. $2.75.
This slight volume raises some of the most fundamental problems of Jewish faith. Professor Heschel’s theme is the Sabbath in Jewish tradition, and this theme he develops against the background of a penetrating inquiry into the central categories of Biblical faith. Basic to the. analysis is a crucial distinction between space and time as they enter into the structure of faith and existence. Time Heschel finds to be the “heart of existence,” space its externalization. The Bible, therefore, “sees the world in the dimension of time,” and the God of Israel is the “God of events,” of history. Pagan religions are religions of space; it is in space, in nature, that they find holiness. In the teaching of Judaism, however, “the idea of holiness [is] shifted from space to time, from the realm of nature to the realm of history, from things to events. The physical world [becomes] divested of any inherent sanctity.” “Time is the presence of God in the world of space. . . . It is the dimension of time wherein man meets God.”
In this fundamental insight, Professor Heschel certainly hews close to the spirit of Hebraic religion and is thoroughly in line with the best of recent scholarship and religious thought. The objection that has been raised in some quarters that his “dichotomy” of space and time flies in the face of modern physics, which insists on a “space-time continuum,” is based on sheer ignorance of the meaning of science and scientific concepts. For science does not pretend to reveal the “real reality” of the natural order, much less its significance in the total scheme of being. All it ever claims to do is to provide concepts that will prove useful in describing, predicting, and controlling phenomena. The limitations of science are perhaps better appreciated today than ever before, precisely because of the great advances in scientific thinking. Whatever science may or may not be able to do, it is today quite obvious that it cannot reveal to us the order of reality and significance in the universe of being. That is the task of philosophy, and, more profoundly, of theology. Heschel is therefore on solid ground in his approach as he is in his conclusions. That time is the “substance” of existence, and history the texture of reality for man, is widely recognized as the unique affirmation of the Biblical world-view. The transformation of the ancient Hebraic nature festivals into commemorations and reenactments of crucial events in Israel’s redemptive history, a process initiated in Biblical times and completed by the rabbis, is clear evidence of the time-centeredness of Jewish faith. So too is the prophetic vision of the nature and vocation of Israel: “the idea of a Jewish people beyond state and territory, a divine instrument in man’s overcoming of ‘nature’ through a supernatural process in the course of ‘history’” (Baron). The God of Israel is preeminently the Lord of history; Judaism is a “religion of time,” stressing the ultimate reality of time in the divine process of creation and redemption.
In the framework of this Biblical understanding of space and time, Heschel sets forth his interpretation of the Sabbath. Judaism, unlike Oriental spirituality, aims at the sanctification of time rather than escape from it. “Jewish ritual,” Heschel says, “may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.” The body of the book is an explication of this as it relates to the Sabbath.
The method Heschel employs in developing his theme is a creative combination of theological analysis and rabbinic Haggadah. His pages become a distillation of millennia of tradition, almost every line recalling some ancient tale or insight of enduring significance. But he does not let his stories run away with him. “Religious thought,” he notes in commenting on the personification of the Sabbath, “cannot afford to associate too closely with the powers of fantasy.” His treatment is imaginative, at times poetical, but at all essential points close to the realities of existence, as he understands existence from his Biblical perspective.
Jewish ritual is “architecture of time.” The Sabbath is preeminently a “palace in time”: to him who truly participates in it, it is a “reminder” of the two worlds, or rather of the two ages—this age and the age-to-come. The Sabbath carries the Jew beyond space, beyond civilization; like his faith, of which it is the consummate symbol, it is not a way out of the world but “a way of being within and above the world.” It is a day of meuiiha, of “rest” in the sense of harmony and peace, peace between man and man, peace within man, peace with all things, peace with God. It is therefore a remembrance of Paradise and a preligurement of the fulfillment in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The eschatological significance of the Sabbath. surely one of its deepest dimensions, receives appropriate emphasis. “Our world is a world of space moving through time, from the Beginning 10 the End of Days. . . . All week there is only hope of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, man is touched by a moment of actual redemption. . . . The longing for the Sabbath all the days of the week. . . is a form of longing for the eternal Sabbath all the days of our lives.” The Sabbath is a harbinger of the age-to-come. In this sense. it is indeed, as Heschel points out. the transmutation of time into eternity.
The eternity that inheres in the Sabbath emerges again when it is al-firmed as an “eternal covenant” between Cod and Israel. The Sabbath is at once a “memorial of Creation” and a “remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt” in which Israel as covenant-people came into being. But it is more than memorial or remembrance; it is also reenactment. Such is the Biblical rabbinic conception of time appropriated in contemporancity. “The day of exodus from Egypt. . . the day of giving the Torah,” I leschel writes, “can never become past: that day is this day, every day. . . .” The holy days of the Jewish liturgical year are the appointed days of contemporaneous appropriation of Israel’s redemptive history, and the Sabbath is the prototype and synthesis of them all.
For above all things the Sabbath is holy. Its holiness, according to rabbinic teaching, is derived immediately from the holiness of Cod. preceding the holiness of Israel, and therefore all the more the holiness of the land of Israel. Its observance is sanctification, hallowing. “This is the task of man,” I leschel concludes, “to conquer space and to sanctify time.” The sanctification, the redemption, of time is the meaning par excellence of the Sabbath, as it is in a measure the meaning of all observance and in deed of all human action oriented to God.
Here a problem arises which is not explicitly dealt with in this volume, although Dr. Heschel’s views may with some confidence be surmised. The problem relates to the nature of the “sanctification” which the observance of the Sabbath and of the other mitzvot is supposed to bring. Three views on this question have commonly been held. At one extreme is the “realistic” position, according to which ritual reflects the structure of the cosmos and works its effects on the cosmic order. This conception, so familiar to the Oriental mind and not unknown in Jewish and Christian tradition, seems to imply a ritualistic thaumaturgy utterly alien to the spirit of Biblical faith. At the other extreme is the “psychological” approach, which sees in ritual nothing but a device for stimulating so-called “religious” values and emotions. This approach is obviously subjectivistic in the worst sense of the term and entirely voids observance of its religious substance. As against both of these positions, there is a third view, well conveyed in Johanan ben Zakkai’s saying: “Death does not defile and water does not cleanse; it is an ordinance of the King of Kings.” In other words, contact with corpse and water causes no objective change, nor yet on the other hand, is it all merely a matter of psychological auto-suggestion. Observance is required, according to Johanan ben Zakkai, because it is an ordinance of God. Obedience to the divine will, accepted and appropriated as such—obedience in joy and spontaneity, to be sure, but obedience nevertheless—is what constitutes the religious-existential meaning of ritual observance in this view, and it is a view, I think, that is very close to the authentic tradition of Jewish faith.
One could wish that Heschel had discussed this problem explicitly at some point in his book. He has not done so, and so we must fall back on conjecture. There are some phases and passages in the book that suggest the “realistic” view, but I do not think they are decisive. Heschel’s whole approach seems to me to make much better sense in terms of a conception which sees the “sanctification” of observance as rooted primarily in man’s response to what is accepted and affirmed as the command of God. It is not thaumaturgy that the Jew engages in when he observes the Sabbath, nor is it an “inspirational” exercise; what he is doing is of a piece with the whole fabric of his religious existence as Jew: he is responding to the call of God in love and obedience.
Heschel’s exposition of the Sabbath seems to me both profound and true. But does it have any meaning for “modern man,” as the subtitle suggests? It all depends on who this “modern man” is. If he is the man whose thinking still reflects the secularist and humanist clichés of half a century ago, then I am afraid this book will mean nothing or less than nothing to him. But if the man who reads this book is truly of our age, if he is indeed of the post-modern generation which is seeking for the substance of life on a level far deeper than the superficialities of yesterday’s “modern thought,” then I am confident that he will find in these pages significant insights into the meaning of existence and into the meaning of the faith that for the Jew defines the ultimate meaning of life.