Educational Materials

Study Guide

The Sabbath

One of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s most enduring works is a short volume published in 1951 called The Sabbath. In that book, Heschel reflects on the importance of Sabbath-keeping as a way of reconnecting with God, family, and community; of honoring God’s gift of rest and renewal; of reorientation and stepping out of the rush of ordinary time; and of practicing important rituals and traditions that reinforce religious and cultural identities. Sabbath-keeping is especially important in the Hasidic tradition from which Heschel descended, an acknowledgement of God’s gift of creation and the wonder of it. In The Sabbath, Heschel writes of Judaism itself as “a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time.” Rather than focusing on holy spaces, Heschel suggests that, by insisting on the demarcation between ordinary time and sacred time, Jewish ritual “may be characterized as . . . [an] architecture of time.” Christianity may have its magnificent churches and Islam its grand mosques, but for Jews, Heschel asserts that “[t]he Sabbaths are our great cathedrals”—the times when we pause, pray, worship, and reorient ourselves to God, one another, and creation.

Questions to Consider

  1. Heschel wrote his dissertation on the prophets as Nazism was gaining influence in Germany. In what ways might his interpretation of the prophets reflect Heschel’s own circumstances as a Jew in Germany in the early 1930s?
  2. In the film, Shai Held suggests that Heschel went back to the prophets at times when the need to assert human dignity and justice was greatest. That is, in the 1930s in Germany and again in the 1960s in America. (Heschel published The Prophets in 1962.) For Heschel, the Hebrew prophets were foremost advocates for social justice. Do you agree with this interpretation of the prophets? Do they have special relevance in times when human dignity and the ideal of justice are threatened?

          How might some German scholars’ dismissal of the Hebrew Bible in the 1920s and ‘30s, largely due to anti-Semitism have                      influenced the German church’s ability to counter Nazism?

  1. What, according to Heschel, are the primary characteristics of a prophet? Are the Hebrew prophets men and women with a special knowledge of the future or a special knowledge of or identification with God?
  2. Susannah Heschel suggests that it was their shared appreciation for the Hebrew prophets that cemented the friendship of Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. and which drove much of their own activism. Do you see a connection here between Heschel’s interpretation of the prophets’ message and the work of both men in civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, and on behalf of marginalized groups (in Heschel’s case, Jews under Soviet oppression)?
  3. Arnold Eisen suggests that Heschel’s work on the prophets is a “call to action,” a challenge to modern-day readers to address injustice and inequity and to challenge oppressive authority as the Hebrew prophets did. Is this how you read the prophets, as exemplars of a way of living and of action that contemporary readers are to follow?
  4. Heschel interprets the Hebrew prophets as men who are imbued with the divine pathos; that is, they feel what God feels for humankind and experience God’s own joy or disappointment at human behavior. Can you imagine feeling what God feels? Do you envision God as having feelings or emotions, or of being affected by human actions in any way? Does this seem plausible to you?
  5. At a birthday celebration for Heschel shortly before his own death, Martin Luther King, Jr. called Heschel a “true prophet.” In fact, both men have been described as prophets by others within and beyond their own lifetimes. Do you consider Heschel a prophet? Do you think he saw himself as one, or simply someone who helped amplify the voices of the classical prophets?
  6. Like the ancient Hebrew prophets, Heschel also critiqued the religious institutions of his time, seeing much of contemporary Judaism as being wrapped in platitudes and inauthentic rituals. Is there a place for the prophet in critiquing contemporary religious practices, in whatever tradition? Is this a helpful role, in your opinion, or a destructive one? Can the prophet ever be a popular figure?

    What price do prophets pay for challenging the status quo, in ancient times or today? Did Heschel pay a price for some of his stances, especially regarding civil rights and the Vietnam War?

  1. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann praises Heschel for going beyond the established historical approach to the prophets. What do you think Heschel adds to the centuries-old discussion and understanding of the Hebrew prophets? What role does poetry and metaphor play in Heschel’s conception of the prophet?

 

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