Spiritual sources for thinking about sabbatical: Judaism

Posted Jul 02, 2014 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs

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By Robert C. Saler


Robert C. SalerWe’re continuing our series of posts thinking about the spiritual sources by which congregations might think theologically about Sabbath and sabbatical.

As mentioned earlier, one of the key realizations that comes with such a task is that Christians have often had a less robust appreciation of the theological importance of the Sabbath than have our Jewish sisters and brothers. This means that Christian congregations can learn quite a bit from looking to the Jewish tradition for literature about the centrality of Sabbath to faithful living.

In the modern period, the classic account of a spirituality of Sabbath from a Jewish perspective is that of Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his 1951 book, The Sabbath, Heschel argues that observance of the Sabbath is not simply a way of renewing oneself in order to make getting back to work—“work” understood to be the main event of life—easier; rather, Sabbath time itself is the apex of time. As Heschel repeatedly states, Sabbath “sanctifies” the rest of time. It is not a break from human endeavor; rather, it is an enjoyment of God and God’s goodness that points towards the center of meaning behind all of our days and labor. As he puts it, “Judaism tries to foster the vision of life as a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the longing for the Sabbath all days of the week which is a form of longing for the eternal Sabbath all the days of our lives” (90-1).

As I’ve reflected on Heschel’s words in light of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs, I’ve come to realize that he illuminates something very important about the theological ethos of the programs. On the one hand, the Lilly Endowment and Christian Theological Seminary do understand a benefit of the programs to be the revitalization and reinvigoration of pastors and congregations for future shared ministry. On the other hand, there is also a sense that the time of reconnecting to sources of spiritual vitality (whatever those might be for a given pastor and congregation) is itself an image for ministry—and indeed an image of what the gospel has to offer to the world.

The literature of the Clergy Renewal Programs speaks of taking the time to “drink again from God’s life-giving waters,” and this is the sort of image that fits well into Heschel’s sense that to live deeply into Sabbath has implications for how the other six days of our life might go. Similarly, if pastors and congregations embrace the opportunities present in renewal periods, then this might add substantial spiritual depth to the ministry that they pursue once pastor and congregation have come back together after the three to four month period of the pastor’s leave is over.

As Heschel himself saw, the contemporary Western world too often finds itself in a technologically-enhanced state of continuous acceleration—“everything all of the time,” as the rock band Radiohead so memorably put it. To model, via deep engagement in Sabbath/renewal practices, a sense that the apex of life is delight and enjoyment of God may in fact be one of the most compelling witnesses that Jewish and Christian communities have to speak to a weary world.

Robert C. Saler is Research Fellow and Director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister of Word and sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) seek to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. To request permission to repost this content, please contact clergyrenewal@cts.edu.

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