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.

Annexing Theology

Peter Dula, in his book Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology (2011), looks at the Jewish philosopher, Stanley Cavell, and his elusive relationship to Christianity. If Christian theology is not simply either rejected or adopted, but annexed, is it still Christian theology? Perhaps not if Christianity is viewed as a set of propositions. But what if we view Christianity as essentially a spiritual path, a set of practices, or a “form of life” (Wittgenstein)?

When Kierkegaard (or rather one of his pseudonyms) defined sin as anxiety, the old word,”sin”, took on a new life. Non-Christian thinkers can sometimes do the same. In fact, they may be better positioned to tease out meanings that Christian theologians are blind to, while, nevertheless, often construing other concepts in an alien way. This is a regular occurrence in Stanley Cavell’s writings. Anyone familiar with Cavell’s thought knows how “the ordinary” and the fully human find resonances in the Incarnation. Cavell can even speak of “knowing our individuality, or accepting the individuality of another, as we are of becoming Christ to each one another.” Which brings me to a multifaceted question that Dula tries to answer: Can theology be annexed in this way?

One way to read the great controversies culminating in Nicaea/Constantinople and Chalcedon is as the story of discovering that God’s hiddeness and revelation in Christ are to be said, and an argument, not yet ended, over how they must be said …

The struggle of the early church with Platonism and gnosticism was the struggle to articulate that God is revealed  in the suffering and death of a particular, historical figure. God’s work is bound up with particularity and contingency, not distilled out of it. By radically devaluing the bodily, gnosticism made the humanity of Jesus, as well as ours, expendable. The humanity of Jesus is at best the accidental shell of eternal truths or God’s concession to human epistemological inadequacy, at worst a barrier to such truths….

But perhaps we do need Cavell to remind us that the mystery of Christ isn’t just something that arises with this particular person. It arises with all people. I don’t mean to elide important distinctions here, but I do mean to rid us  of the notion that understanding and knowing ourselves and others is a straightforward process with a foreseeable end, while knowing the Son of God is something special. The latter is true but is it, or how is it, true in a way different from knowing another? And might not the insistence on the difference be a cover for an unwillingness to know both Jesus and others, denying the difficulty of knowing each other and creating new difficulties in knowing Jesus?…

Something like this seems to be suggested throughout John’s Gospel, perhaps most clearly in the fourteenth chapter. “Lord,” says Thomas, “we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus responds, “If you know me, you will know my Father. ” Philip joins in, asking “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Jesus’ response is even sharper, “Have I been with you all this time Philip and you still don’t know me? Whosoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The problem here is not knowing the Father through Jesus, as if the Father were behind Jesus. The problem is knowing this particular person … call it an apophatic Christology. And it leads to an apophatic anthropology. There is nothing uniquely strange about the difficulty of knowing Jesus. It is the substance of our lives with others, with our friends, spouses, children, parents, neighbors, enemies, …

In saying this, he is not saying that the disciples have failed to acquire a piece of information (i.e., the information that the Father is in him and he in the Father). A claim is being made about the nature of knowing. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” And a sort of similarity between knowing God and knowing others is posited.