“The Sabbath Principle”
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Exodus 20: 1-11
Rabbi Michael Lerner got me to thinking about the idea of Sabbath a while ago. He put it in context for me in a new way.
One of my lifelong quandaries has been to try to intellectually and emotionally understand the Holocaust. One of the most unsettling realities of the Holocaust for me is that it happened in a society that elevated values I hold dear – education, reason, science, literature, the life of the intellect, culture.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr used to say that one of the great puzzles of our time is that the Holocaust took place in the nation of the Western world that had more brains per square head than any other.[i] Clearly education and knowledge and intellect are not enough to save us from our capacity for evil.
reading Rabbi Lerner’s analysis of the circumstances that led to the
He said that in the era preceding the Holocaust the traditional institutions
Rabbi Lerner said that people longed for “a community of meaning and purpose…that would root human beings in webs of love and mutual concern and embed them in a framework of shared stories about the past and the future.”
According to Rabbi Lerner, the great failing of the European Left was its inability to speak to people’s legitimate concern for a sense of meaning. Instead, he says, the Left offered only a language of rights and economic entitlements that addressed important economic consequences of modernization but neglected people’s “feelings of dislocation, confusion, alienation, spiritual and moral hunger and lovelessness…”
He wrote “It was in this context that a Fascist ideology [emerged] that glorified irrationality and feeling, valued national and ethnic particularity, rejected intellectualism and all forms of universal moral or religious ideals, thrived on patriarchy, and rejected modernism for an idealized and romanticized picture of a past that had never been.”
“Yet Fascism,” he said, had no intention of transforming the basic economic realities that were at the heart of much of the [people’s] alienation…so it needed [an] other to blame for its failure.” The target became Jews, gay men, gypsies, Poles, Jehovah Witnesses, Communists, the differently abled.
Rabbi Lerner’s message is that liberals can be right about issues of economic justice, civil liberties, voting rights, the right to organize, limits to the abuse of power, ecology, livable wages and all the other concerns we care about, but we will ultimately fail unless we can figure out how to speak to human beings’ deep sense of longing for meaning, community, connection to a higher power, and hope.
It is within the context of this discussion about the Holocaust that Rabbi Lerner raises the topic of the biblical idea of Sabbath.[iii] I think Rabbi Lerner is absolutely right. This is the context that will help us to really understand the meaning and truth of Sabbath. The significance and meaning of the principle of Sabbath is not just about piety or self-preservation or personal balance in life or health. It is not merely a private practice. The idea of Sabbath contains within it a profound truth about the nature of justice and the meaning of life that goes to the heart of all our social and political assumptions. The idea of Sabbath is a big deal.
I’d like us to think this Sunday and next about Sabbath, not as a legalism or even so much a discipline, but as a statement about who we are and who God is and the way the world is meant to be politically and socially and religiously.
The other thing I want to say about the idea of Sabbath is that it appears to be a unique biblical invention. In my early years of studying the Bible, there were those who made lots of claims for the uniqueness of concepts and ideas found in the Bible that later turned out not to be unique at all. I was taught decades ago that the Bible invented monotheism, but scholarship has shown this is not true…the Bible learned monotheism from other religions. Most of the 10 commandments are very similar to other codes of law that existed in other cultures that preceded the writing of the Bible. Biblical creation accounts draw heavily form the creation accounts of other cultures.
But, so far, no scholars have been able to convincingly discover any other religions or cultures that had anything equivalent to the principle of the Sabbath before it was introduced by the Israelites in the Bible.[iv] Sabbath may be one of the most distinctive ideas in the Bible.
Here is what the Bible teaches about the Sabbath. In Exodus the longest of the 10 commandments says that we should do all our work in six days but on the seventh we should not do any work, nor should we allow anyone else to work – not our children, not those who serve us, not the resident aliens, not even our livestock and animals. (Exodus 20: 8-11) Everybody gets a day off.
The version in Deuteronomy is even more specific. It says: “But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female [servant], or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female [servant] may rest as well as you.” (Deuteronomy 5: 14) Even your donkey gets a day off.
fact, the biblical idea of the Sabbath is even larger than everyone getting a
idea of Sabbath is even written into
The principle of Sabbath is a theological and anthropological and even an ontological statement. It is a statement that we are not finally defined by our work. We are not defined finally by our output or our productivity or our utility. Every person – children, aliens, servants – has a value and integrity independent of their utility. Even animals have a value independent of their productivity and usefulness. Even the soil has a value and integrity independent of our use of it. Even intimate objects deserve to exist just for their own sake. The universe is not finally defined by its functionality or development or productivity. It has inherent value and a right to be in and of itself.
Existence is about more than work. God is about more than our need for God.
Rabbi Lerner talks about the practical function of observing Sabbath. For the observant Jew Sabbath begins 18 minutes before sundown on Friday night. The evening is spent in singing and worship, eating food that has been prepared in advance so that no one has to cook, drinking wine and celebrating with family and friends, and, Rabbi Lerner says, in Orthodox circles that on a Friday night it was considered an obligation for couples to have sex. This is part of the reason, he says, Orthodox Sabbath worship was often so joyous and enthusiastic.[vi]
Sabbath is not just a negative. It is not just a time when people don’t work. It is a day devoted to pleasure. “The traditional restrictions on Sabbath,” the rabbi writes, “(no cooking, cleaning, gardening, turning electricity on or off, riding in cars or subways, traveling long distances, writing, smoking, talking on the phone, spending money, paying bills, tearing…) flow from one single theoretical idea: human being should not be acting on the world to make their impact on it…[but] for 24 hours [should devote themselves] to just pure receptivity to what there is, joy, celebration, awe, wonder, and radical amazement.”[vii]
You and I are more than our work. Work may be what we need to do to survive. Work may even fulfill us or be an extension of our selves. But we are not defined by our work. Our value is not dependent upon our work. Our dignity is not determined by our work. And at least 15 percent of our lives ought to be devoted to enjoyment and pleasure and sheer being and not worrying about productivity…or we will forget who we really are.
And we ought to insist that everyone else have at least 15 percent of their lives free from work – including the animals and the earth itself. Because otherwise we will begin to suppose that meaning in life comes from our work, and it is not true. We will begin to think that the meaning of the animal kingdom and the earth and the universe and even God is what they can do for us.
for you and me and the universe comes from existence, from sheer being, from
solitude and community, from joy and pleasure. Work at its best is the
expression of a meaning that already exists. As soon as we are dependent upon
our work for meaning we become slaves. This is taught in the biblical
discussions of Sabbath. Deuteronomy says: “Remember that you were a slave in
This is the truth of Sabbath – we are created for joy and love. Others are created for joy and love. The earth is created for joy and love. This is a political truth as well as a theological truth. As soon as we forget what we are created for, we lose our sense and locus of meaning. Political rights and economic justice are inadequate without a sense of meaning and community. There is no justice in the world without Sabbath. There is no freedom without Sabbath.
We live in a diverse culture. We are a society without consensus around the practice of Sabbath, and I am not advocating mandating a Sabbath. Those days are past.
I am saying that the principle of Sabbath transcends any religion, and justice will never truly exist unless and until the principle of Sabbath is honored in our society and world. The great danger for those among us who are liberals is that we will suppose equal rights and a livable wage, as critically important as these things are, will by themselves bring justice. There is really no justice without meaning, and meaning comes from Sabbath.
So the question is this – do we have a space and a place in our lives that is just for jot, just for love…not for the work we need to finish, not for the chores needing to be done around the house, not for worrying about the bills that need to be paid…a time just to be…a time to be without making demands on others…a time for joy…a time for love. We all need Sabbath. We all need to give others a Sabbath. Or we forget who we are.
[i] Quoted by Franklin Littell, “Reinhold Niebuhr and the Jewish People,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies at http://hgs.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/6/1/45
[ii] Michael Lerner, Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (HarperPerennial, 1994), 187-199.
[iii] Chapter 14 “Sabbath,” 343-356.
[iv] Gerald F. Hasel, “Sabbath,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5 (Doubleday, 1992) 849-51
[vi] Lerner, 348-51.
[vii] Lerner, 352