Monday, February 24, 2014

Into the Sacred Enclosure

Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time. In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space. To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective.

Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.

Nothing is more useful than power, nothing more frightful. We have often suffered from degradation by poverty, now we are threatened with degradation through power. There is happiness in the love of labor, there is misery in the love of gain. Many hearts and pitchers are broken at the fountain of profit. Selling himself into slavery to things, man becomes a utensil that is broken at the fountain.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Reflection – Well, we had Orthodox week two weeks ago, and Protestant week last week, so since I’m on an ecumenical/interfaith roll here, I thought this week could be Jewish week at TTP. I have long cherished the writings of Rabbi Heschel, and in particular this luminous little book on the Jewish Sabbath and its theological meaning. So I want to stay this week in this book, which is short on word count but long on meaning and depth.

First published in 1951, this book has lost none of its relevance. Technological mastery and the loss of time, the crowding in of ‘space’ and its exigencies, its demands, into the realm of sacred time, has only accelerated in the ensuing decades.

We are ‘busy’ people. Busy, busy, busy. There is a frenetic pace to life in 2014 that has only been augmented by technology. Every moment we do not spend working, we spend plugged into the devices our labors have purchased for us. Economic life—life measured by outputs, productivity, metrics—is increasingly the only life people know.

And the economic model, the model of the market, which has its proper place and its own limited goodness, can be imported into places where it has no business, where it can do no good. We import economic models into relationships, even the most intimate and sacred relationships of marriage and family. There has been a certain amount of internet chatter lately about ‘marrying up’ vs. ‘marrying down’ – as if marriage is really a business merger where the balance of power lies solely in who wields the greater share of economic power.

The economic model can extend into the whole of life, everything person and every thing evaluated by the value he/she/it brings me and the cost he/she/it exacts from me. Life is about power, and mastery, and extracting maximum value from minimum cost—and we have no idea whatsoever what the real and devastating cost we pay by extending the values of the market into the realm of human love and friendship.

There has to be something carved out of life that is not governed by the ceaseless and heartless demands of economic reality, the essentially impersonal profit-driven world of the market. Now I repeat – the market is not evil, and profits are not evil. Goods and services must be exchanged somehow, and if they are not exchanged at a profit, there can be no sustainable business model or viable way of life.
But this very business of business and profit and the market is precisely for the sake of what is not the market. People work hard to provide a living for themselves, and, precisely, for their families. And it is the home, the family, the sacred enclosure of the domestic, that is meant to be the place where the market ends and communion begins.

And so, as Heschel will develop, there is this beautiful reality of the Sabbath—in Judaism, of course the seventh day, with its magnificent domestic rituals and rest—but for us non-Jews something we need to touch and grasp hold of, something that perhaps we can enter on a Sunday, or at any rate somehow. A time, a sacred time spent in a sacred space that is not governed by the slavery of the profit motive. And this is what we will be looking at this week.


  1. Well it seems like forever ago that I first read Heschel. Then I read everything- like an infant duckling milk. There is something about his words that brings me back to something very basic.
    This particular passage reminds me a little bit of Taoism and a passage I committed to memory also long ago: the highest goal is to be like water. Water is essential to all living things. Nothing is weaker than water- yet for overcoming what is hard and strong nothing surpasseses it.
    I suppose it reminds me of Heschel because both passages- the Taoist verse in my memory and that one you quoted about are really not about power and water. I think they are really about the nature of our humanity- how truly being a human person makes us weak and strong simultaneously. Weak so as to allow the current of God flow thru us, in us, around is, underneath and and on top and in between our awareness. This is the only true power and really the only thing that will heal each of us and all of us together.
    Thank you for reminding me.
    Bless you

    1. Yes, precisely. I am so glad to be going back to Heschel and reading that book again... every bit of it is packed with beauty and depth.


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