The Art of Surpassing Civilization: Heschel and the Sabbath

A pious man once took a stroll in his vineyard on the Sabbath. He saw a breach in the fence, and then determined to mend it when the Sabbath would be over. At the expiration of the Sabbath he decided: since the thought of repairing the fence occurred to me on the Sabbath I shall never repair it. –Abraham Joshua Heschel

I grew up in a Christian tradition where such a story would be offered as Exhibit A of something called “Jewish legalism”. The interpretation was partly due to the debates Jesus had with the Pharisees of his time as recorded in the New Testament, but the particular coloring given to these exchanges was probably more influenced by Luther’s quarrel with the medieval Roman Catholic church than anything else. In it’s most extreme forms, Jesus comes across as calling the Jews to a “personal relationship” with himself, and Paul is made out to be the first Protestant Reformer. Paul, incidentally, continued to call himself a Pharisee (Acts 23.6) long after his conversion.


Since modern Judaism is a descendant of the Pharisaic tradition (with some major shifts, of course), it is probably important for both Christian theological identity and interfaith dialogue to have an accurate picture of Jesus, Paul, and their Second Temple Jewish context. Various alternatives have been suggested in recent memory beginning with E.P. Sander’s book Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). But another route we can take is to leave the discussions about the first century to the biblical scholars and focus on contemporary Jewish thinkers for how they might inform our theology. The context in which someone is speaking has as much bearing on the truth as the actual words spoken. Here are some selections from the same chapter in Heschel’s book The Sabbath:

The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?

In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity.  (Heschel, pp. 27-32)

Now go back and read the initial quote. The pious man who refuses to repair a fence has been transformed from a legalist to a revolutionary.