Surpassing Civilization: Heschel’s “The Sabbath”

Image: My dog-eared copy of The Sabbath.

Is our civilization a way to disaster, as many of us are prone to believe? Is civilization essentially evil, to be rejected and condemned? The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.

– Abraham Joshua Heschel

The paragraph above is from the book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, written by Rabbi Heschel in 1951. Periodically I reread this book, because it always has something new to teach me.

In the midst of all the political turmoil of the present, with climate change looming and so much meanness on social media that every visit there makes me want to cry, this passage comforted me even as it challenged me. The task of the Jew – my task – is to live a life of Torah within the world, to live a life that elevates this world, or at least my part of it.

I often talk about Shabbat in very practical terms, talking about the benefits of connecting with loved ones, or the need for actual rest from work. Those are definitely a part of Shabbat, strengthening our families, our bodies, and our souls, but Shabbat is much, much more.

Done properly (and I would argue that “properly” will be different for every person and every household and for every stage of life) Shabbat affords us a moment to will into being a better world. I aspire to a home of light and love; on a well-kept Shabbat, I make an extra effort to make that happen. Perhaps I cannot pull it off for a full 24 hours, much as I would like, but every moment of it that I can manage will transform me and my household in ways that will not disappear when Shabbat is over.

Even more, this passage reminds me that Judaism is not about a rejection of this life – it advocates engagement in life, living fully and present to all that life brings. Judaism is not about looking down our noses at the rest of the world, nor is it about sitting in judgment on the rest of humanity – it’s about saying, “Hineni!” – “Here I am!” – both to my loved ones and also to those whom it is hard to love.

This is only a tiny scrap of what this little book has to offer – if you haven’t read it, you are missing out. For those who have read it, share your favorite passages in the Comments!

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rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

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