Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Heschel's "The Sabbath"

As part of my preparation for the Shabbat Seminar (starts tomorrow!) I've been re-reading part of A.J. Heschel's The Sabbath. If you've studied with me at all, you probably already know that I think Heschel is one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century - if you're struggling with, or curious about, the intersection of faith and rationality, then you can't do any better than Heschel - he shows a path to true, sincere belief that never requires any abdication of logic or thought.

I don't think I've ever read anything by him which is bad, but I'm particularly overwhelmed by the first chapter of The Sabbath ("Architecture in Time"). I just re-read it, and while I must have literally read these few pages dozens of times in my life, I never fail to be impressed and inspired by them. If you aren't going to make it to the Shabbat Seminar (starts tomorrow! 7:30!), then do yourself a favor and give this first chapter, all 8 pages of it, a slow, careful read.

This time through, what's really striking me is that this opening is, to some degree, a thesis statement. It's Heschel saying, "this is how the world works, as far as I understand it. And, if you want to have a deeper experience in this world - if you want to live a more spiritual life - then here is how you begin."

Heschel was, in some ways, an Orthodox Jew, in that he believed in law and obligation. Things like Shabbat were not options for him; they were, quite literally, commanded. But, that's not how he writes. He never tells us that we have to observe Shabbat, or that we're bad people if we don't. Instead, he offers Shabbat as the most profound way to understand and experience our world, and our God. If you aren't interested in all of that, I think the implication follows, then gey gezunt - go about your way, and don't worry about it.

Maybe that approach is striking me right now because I'm also reading You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right, by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (for what it's worth, I'm not finding it a very well-written book (it's pretty scattered and rambly), but the idea inside is so important that it's worth reading, anyway). Hirschfield, an Orthodox Rabbi and self-described ex-fanatic, is trying to articulate a vision of sincere belief which doesn't rely on judging anyone else's beliefs, or lack thereof. In other words, can I be intensely, sincerely Jewish, in my belief/practice/worldview/whatever, but still be totally open to you and your religious experience, whatever it may be? Can I be devoted to Shabbat, but not judge you if you aren't?

Heschel offers one path for doing exactly that. Shabbat is essential, if you want to follow this particular path. If you find this vision of spirituality compelling. But, if you don't, that's ok. There are other paths to spirituality, and other ways to live that aren't about spirituality, at all. There's nothing wrong with living that way, even if I may think that you're missing out on something extraordinary by doing so.

Think of a comparison to music - you might be deeply involved with Classical Music. You might find the complexity, the nuance, the sublime skill of the musicians to be beautiful and powerful. But, maybe I don't get all of that. Maybe I'm happy with my simple pop-music, and just enjoy Classical. You might think that I'm shortchanging myself by not exploring this deeper world of music, but would we ever think or suggest that, because of that disparity, we can't be friends? Or, we can't find other areas of commonality? Or that we can't even talk about music?

Look, I think that the vision that Heschel offers of Shabbat is a deeply compelling picture of what it means to be spiritual, and just reading it makes me want to read more, and to experience some of what he's talking about. But it's at least equally important for me to realize that if you decide that Shabbat isn't that important/interesting/worthwhile, that's your right, too. Even if I do think that you're missing out...

Want to learn more? Did I mention that The Shabbat Seminar starts tomorrow, January 15th at 7:30 p.m.?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i must have some problems in understanding because I've read this book from Heschel several times but every times it look to me as a compendium of notes and comments, not a whole reasoning about an argument. also some assumptions he makes at the beginning, like the modern era is about conquering the space not the time, is totally wrong. conquering the space, territories is typical of ancient eras; modern times are clearly defined by attempts of saving time, conquering it (e.g. technology becomes to make things faster) .. also about Einstein's relativity theory, he seems to forget about it until the last pages of the book , and he doesn't seems to have it clear .. I find this book very confused; he certainly was a spiritual person, but didn't have the carisma of communicating, I've read many other books more clear and consistent in explaining the Shabbat ..