Cultivating the Breath to Build a Dwelling in Time: Rethinking Heschel’s Sabbath with Irigaray and Heidegger. By Julie Kelso.

(Pleased to publish here Julie Kelso’s recent paper with Julie’s permission.  She asks me to point out this is a first shot, really just a draft, and there is more to follow.)

My project concerns two principal questions. The first is this: how do we rest today, by which I mean retreat from the world in our wakeful hours (i.e. I’m not talking about sleep, though I love it!) when our waking lives largely seem to be describable as “harassed unrest,” to use Heidegger’s term from his lecture “Building Dwelling Thinking” for poor human being-in-the-world? [Do you feel this term “harassed unrest” adequately describes the bulk of your waking lives, including your waking times away from work? For Heidegger this is actually some kind of spacial trouble: do you feel yourself at home in the world if you live this way? When do you feel at home in the world?] Or, to put it another way, again drawing from Heidegger, though this time from another lecture from around the same time “The Question Concerning Technology”, do you feel yourself on “stand-by”, merely a resource to be ordered and extracted, a “standing reserve”, what today we can call life reduced entirely to biopolitical life? In other words, what can rest possibly mean if you feel yourself just one of the world’s resources…do you feel your restful times are akin to that of a battery on charge? {My thinking is very much indebted here, and throughout this paper, to Alberto Moreiras’ lovely paper on Harassed Unrest, never published.}

My second question is: why do we retreat from the world? For what purpose? In general, historically we can say that there are two reasons that have been given to us for why we rest. Either, we rest to rejuvenate ourselves so we can return to work refreshed (this is the Aristotelian position; Nicomachean Ethics X, 6)) or we work so we can rest (as we say in Australia, we live for the weekends). Essentially this is the Jewish model of rest about which I will speak today. Given what I’ve just said, though, I will argue in this paper that neither models are at all helpful. And yet, as I hope to explain to you, I am particularly interested in the recent call for a return of the Sabbath, though not for reasons of piety to a god in which I don’t believe.

The idea of a weekly rest day is, of course, in our culture, originally religious. The Sabbath (shabbath) was the day where one had to cease work in order to worship, but also in order to celebrate. We were ordered to rest by the God of the Hebrew Bible, and as the centuries unfolded this rest continued to take place in accordance with the rules of our religious institutions, Jewish and Christian. For Judaists, the Sabbath specifically involves two commandments: to remember (zachor) and to observe (shamor). The Sabbath is both a remembrance of the creation itself and of the escape from slavery in Egypt. But it is also an observance of a law prohibiting work. The type of work prohibited is said to be melachah, work that is creative or that seeks to control the environment, natural or otherwise. It involves the ceasing of any cultivation of the land or any building (derived from the rabbinic interpretation of Ex 31.13). [Interestingly, none of the biblical laws pertaining to the Sabbath include woman/wife among those who must rest from work. For example, Exodus 20:8-11 reads: “Remember to keep holy the day of the Sabbath. Six days you shall labour/serve (ta’abod; second person, masculine singular) and do all of your work. But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. Do not do any work, you, nor your son (ubinka), nor your daughter (ubitteka), your manservant (abdeka), nor your maidservant (waamateka), nor your livestock (ubehemteka), nor the stranger who is within your gates.” See also Deut. 5:13-14; Ex. 23:12, 31:13-17. In all of these laws we see a proprietary model of subjectivity and objectivity—the “your” being second, masculine, singular—consistent with patriarchal social organization. And yet, “your wife” (ishteka) is never included. This will be important for me, not for the obvious feminist reason (a wife’s work doesn’t even register as work) but because I want to take advantage of the fact that women (presumably of childrearing age) are strangely absented from this proprietary model of rest and are thus able to explore their/our own relationship to time, space and restfulness.]

According to the ancient Romans and Greeks the Jewish people were considered lazy because of their practice of the Sabbath, of resting from work one day each week. For example, in his Fourteenth Satire the Roman poet Juvenal (c67-c145 CE) states: “It’s the father that’s to blame, treating every seventh day/ As a day of idleness, separate from the rest of daily life” (105-106). Idleness was clearly considered unacceptable to Juvenal and other non-Jewish people in the ancient world. And today we live with a similar viewpoint dominating our lives: restfulness and leisure are the enemy of economic growth (which is, apparently, limitless) and as such have become severely eroded. What is left of this time of retreat from work, originally the Sabbath, is also now largely determined for us by others not in the interest of life itself, but capital. Non-work time is understood as necessary to ensure the workers return to work able to do their work better than they would without any rest. As such, we have returned to the position of Philo, who defended the Jewish practice of the Sabbath against the charge of idleness by claiming that its “object is rather to give man relaxation from continuous and unending toil and by refreshing their bodies with a regularly calculated system of remissions to send them out renewed to their old activities” (De Specialibus Legibus, II, 60). As the Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel points out, however, this is an Aristotelian understanding of the need for rest (Philo being the representative voice for the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria), contrary to that of the biblical rendering:

To the biblical mind, however, labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life…The Sabbath is not for the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living…Labor is a craft, but perfect rest is an art. It is the result of an accord of body, mind and imagination…The seventh day is a palace in time which we build. It is made of soul, of joy and reticence. (Heschel 2005, 14-15)

In his much-loved book The Sabbath (1951/2005), Heschel famously argues that because Judaism is a religion of time rather than space, one that aims at “the sanctification of time” (Heschel 2005, 8), its teaching concerns how to live according to “holiness in time” (8). He characterizes the rituals of Judaism as the “architecture of time” (8) and the Sabbath as a cathedral (8) or “palace in time” (15).

Heschel wants us to refuse to dispense with what he considers to be the greatest gift from his God: the Sabbath, which he understands as “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” (3).

These are beautiful words and since the publication of his book many Jewish and Christian scholars have continued to argue for the need for the Sabbath today as an antidote to the war on rest and leisure, as a way of countering the dehumanizing effects of late-capitalist demands on our time and energy. However, despite the frequent calls for the politics and economics of the Sabbath to be re-considered, most scholars envisage a return of the Sabbath in terms of piety, of reverence for the father-god of the Judaeo-Christian traditions, and his creation. As Benjamin J. Dueholm argues:

The ethos of the sabbath goes much deeper than an individual commitment to prioritize worship…It will take more than individual piety for us to avoid permanent exile from time’s palace. We will need a sabbath politics and a sabbath advocacy. We will need a commitment to life as its own rationale, its own form of wealth, its own glory. (Dueholm 2014, 25)

These too are beautiful words. However, I want to question the ability of the Sabbath as it has been conceived to achieve what Heschel, Dueholm and others claim as its possibility: the promotion and practice of a reverence for life. I shall argue that because the Sabbath has only been considered from a masculinist perspective, notably as a gift of rejuvenating spirit and rest from a creator father-god who dwells beyond the cosmos he created on his own, the Sabbath can only continue to serve the masculine subject and the promotion of his perceived well-being. I shall suggest that this promotion of his well-being is not in fact accomplishable because of the failure to consider the sancity of time and space from a woman’s perspective.

Luce Irigaray claims that in order to construct a world that honours and cultivates the life and living of two irreducibly sexuated subjects, man and woman, along with a respect for nature and especially the air required for life, we “must reconsider the whole problematic of space and time”(Irigaray 1993 ESD, 7). I suggest that the Sabbath is a valuable spatio-temporal concept in need of such a rethinking. Indeed, I shall argue, with the help Irigaray and (somewhat ironically) Heidegger, that the Sabbath needs to be recast as the sanctification of time and space for the promotion of “the two”, a time and space for man and woman each in their own way to cultivate their self-affection and their love for each other as irreducibly different and un-appropriable.

  1. Heschel’s “Palace in Time”

The rest of this paper is structured according to the three principal problems I have with Heschel:

  1. I have a problem with what Heschel seems to think about the realm of space and our way of relational being within it. “Man”, according to Heschel, is naturally preoccupied with the realm of space, which is also the world of things. In particular, “man” seeks to gain control of space and its things, possibly as a way of attempting to convince himself that time is not a problem for him, not a “slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace, incinerating every moment of our lives”(5). Indeed, technical civilization is how “man” controls and conquers space, and it derives from his “desire…to subdue and manage the forces of nature” (3-4). The world of commerce, of building, of farming, of business, of education, of power, of the arts and crafts, etc., these pertain to the realm of space. For Heschel, this fascination with space and its splendor (“with the grandeur of things of space”) is simply part of being human. Because our minds interpret the world primarily via the senses, we have tended to privilege the “thinginess” (5) of the world, at the expense of the immaterial, which scares us. In fact, we have become almost completely beholden to the task of gaining control of space, at great cost not just to the world but to ourselves:

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…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 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. (Heschel 2005, 3)

So, it is not that we must develop a new relationship with space and the things in it, including nature; we naturally seek to subdue and control them; he tells us this is “certainly one of our tasks”. Of course, this idea is actually biblical (Genesis 1:26) and we can and indeed today should reconsider this idea of space as the realm in which we dominate and subdue anything. We need to resist this language of control and work more towards the language of space as the realm of being-with. And for that, I shall argue, we need a conception of space and time as sanctified dwelling in the world (emplacement).

  1. Relatedly, the second problem I have is Heschel’s insistence that “the danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time.” What does he mean by aspirations in time? He states:

Time is man’s greatest challenge. We all take place in a procession through its realm which never comes to an end but are unable to gain a foothold in it Its reality is apart and away from us. Space is exposed to our will; we may shape and change the things in space as we please. Time, however, is beyond our reach, beyond our power. It is both near and far, intrinsic to all experience and transcending all experience. It belongs exclusively to God. Time, then, is otherness, a mystery that hovers above all categories…We share time, we own space. Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of all other beings; through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings. We pass through time, we occupy space. We easily succumb to the illusion that the world of space is for our sake, for man’s sake. In regard to time, we are immune to such illusion. (Heschel 2005, 99)

For Heschel, the problem is not that we understand space as something we bend and shape according to our will or that this is merely an illusion; the problem is that our conquering of space cannot solve our problem with time, and it is only with respect to time that we are immune to the illusion of control. The only way we can deal with the problem of time is through the combined conquering of space and the sanctification of time: “We must conquer space in order to sanctify time. All week long we are called upon to sanctify life through employing things of space. On the Sabbath it is given us to share in the holiness that is the heart of time” (Heschel 2005, 101). Do we really sanctify life by employing the things of space; are we sanctifying life by owning space and thus being “a rival of all other beings” (Heschel 2005, 99)? Heschel simply finds it unproblematic to think of the Sabbath as a day where we get to retreat from our task of conquering space, so that we can “share in the holiness that is the heart of time.” In fact, there is the suggestion that our dominion over the things of space is celebratory and the real problem is that we don’t know how to also celebrate time: “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time” (Heschel 2005, 10).

The problem as I see it is that Heschel simply accepts that for six days a week we lives of “harassed unrest.” For Heschel, this is natural and unavoidable, and the Sabbath is our way to take respite from the demands of our spatial dwelling amongst things. But is this actually respite? For Heidegger, we need to attempt to move beyond such a perverse or sham mode of dwelling in the world, for the best we can do is long for rest. As Moreiras puts it:

If rest defines a temporal point in our private negotiation with the deprived space of our lives, the interruption of a spatial flux, the desperate reach for the oxygen of the night, then we could say that time is today nothing but the stasis of unrest. In dislocation, in disposition, we are disposed temporally into the avoidance of harassed unrest, and the avoidance of harassed unrest is the final disposition of our lives. We are all, as it were, turtles dreaming of the end of the race, wishing for the night, for final torpor.   The Roman historian Tacitus said of his compatriots once: “they created a wasteland. They called it peace.” We could say of our ourselves: “we dream of resting. We call it a life.”

  1. Returning to Heschel for my final point: Tellingly, there is also a, well, very familiar hierachicalised gendering of space and time happening in Heschel’s book. Again, Heschel argues that Judaism is a religion that shifted away from the idea of sacred space toward the idea of time as holy: “Holiness in space, in nature, was known in other religions. New in the teaching of Judaism was that the idea of holiness was gradually shifted from space to time, from the realm of nature to the realm of history, from things to events. The physical world became divested of any inherent sanctity…The quality of holiness in not in the grain of matter” (Heschel 2005, 79). We learn that matter is maternalised, and we can infer that maternal matter (our original dwelling place) belongs to the thinginess of the world, to matter not spirit: “We usually think that the earth is our mother, that time is money and profit our mate. The seventh day is a reminder that God is our father, that time is life and the spirit our mate” (Heschel 2005, 76). Furthermore, he spends two or three chapters discussing the ancient sages’ notion of the Sabbath as a bride and a queen and informs us that this is not a personification of the Sabbath, but “an exemplification of a divine attribute…it does not represent a substance but the presence of God, his relationship to man” (Heschel 2005, 60). At this point I realized that Heschel all along means man when he says man. In short, my problem is this: Putting aside the question of belief (which is unimportant for my study) I agree with Heschel’s insistence that we need to combat the theft of time and rest that seems almost to be the very nature of our being today. And consider these words: “Gallantly, ceaseless, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people…This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent” (89). Well, indeed, but Heschel’s conception of the Sabbath as “a palace in time which we build” is a masculinist construction of the relationship between work and rest, space and time, immanence and transcendence. And it seems women simply have to follow the guidance of men like Heschel when it concerns the question of how and why we rest our weary bodies and minds, knowing however that we seem to be placed on the side of nature, not spirit. At best, we can just try to imitate men. But, following Irigaray, I refuse to do such a thing. I have a different body, I live in the world differently to a man. Why should I try and imitate something that cannot promote my well-being in the world, as mind-body-spirit?

In An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Irigaray, evoking Heidegger, states that each age has but one issue “to think through” (Irigaray 1993, 5). For Irigaray, this one issue of our time is sexual difference, a project with far reaching implications for other major issues of our time (racial, ecological, economic, political and social). If we think through sexual difference, understood as recognition of two irreducibly distinct sexuated subjects, man and woman, we will effect a change for the better in our world:

Sexual difference would constitute the horizon of worlds more fecund than any known to date – at least in the West – and without reducing fecundity to the reproduction of bodies and flesh. For loving partners this would be a fecundity of birth and regeneration, but also the production of a new age of thought, art, poetry, and language: the creation of a new poetics. (Irigaray 1993, 5)

This is currently impossible for us to imagine, but we must begin trying to think it anyway. Like Heidegger, Irigaray believes that thinking the very problem of dwelling as our distinctly human problem is how we begin to move towards proper dwelling in the world, and thus potentially changing our world. However, Irigaray chastises Heidegger for his “forgetting of air” and his obsession with the mystery of things, but also for his failure to recognise that different body types (of which there is at base two, man and woman) produce and need different houses of language. Part of her work over the last two decades has been about fairly practical approaches to moving us forward into what she believes could be a new epoch: the cultivation of the breath (remembering air) and silence, especially, as a means to becoming spiritual (which in her terms is to become properly human, as a woman, and as a man). Given that breathing is our first autonomous act, Irigaray believes that learning to breathe properly is akin to learning to live autonomously, which means learning to live without the need to appropriate others or things or cultures, which in her terms is nothing more than the continuation of placental living. The breath about which Irigaray speaks is thus not simply that which sustains our existence, operating only at the level of needs, but it is the breath that pertains to the spirit. There is vital breath and spiritual breath and we need them both to survive and flourish.

In order to become spiritual, it is necessary that we be able to transform the vital breath in such a way that it can attend to the promotion of ‘the heart, of thought, of speech and not only in the service of physiological survival’ (Irigaray 2005: 76).

As far as I am concerned, becoming spiritual signifies a transformation of our energy from merely vital energy to a more subtle energy at the service of breathing, loving, listening speaking and thinking (sic). This implies going from merely individual survival to the capacity of sharing with the other, and not only goods but breathing, love, words, thought. We thus find again the link with the other(s) but through a personal becoming, which otherwise runs the risk of being paralysed. When I speak of a spiritual virginity, I allude to the capability of gathering, keeping and transforming an energy of one’s own…(Irigaray 2008a, 104-105)

The term here, “virginity”, is no doubt confusing. Irigaray rethinks virginity as the cultivation of autonomy; wrt to women, it is akin to woman’s gathering together of herself, a feminine in-dwelling, her interiorization and nurturance of herself as a woman. This enables woman to remain faithful to her gender (or genre), understood as an horizon toward which she strives in the continuous process of ‘becoming woman’. In other words, Irigaray (2008: 88) uses the term ‘virginity’ to refer to a woman’s ‘capacity of reaching and keeping her own integrity’. In her work, this must begin with the cultivation of breathing such that vital breath is transformed to spiritual breath. Then we become capable of thinking in a way that promotes our human well-being:

After listening to the other and to the world – and not only the world built by us—we have to return home, to return to ourselves, within ourselves…Thinking is the time of turning back to the self. Thinking is the time of building one’s own home, in order to inhabit one’s self, to dwell within the self…Thinking has to secure the return to home, the dwelling within oneself for reposing, for a becoming of one’s own, for preparing future relations with the other, the world. (Irigaray 2008b, 234-235)

Returning to my two original questions:

How do I retreat from the world?: Through the cultivation of silence and breath so that my thinking, speaking, listening, breathing, loving are changed.

Why do I retreat from the world?: to build a home of my own as a woman, in internal-dwelling that enables me to dwell in the world properly as a woman, such that I can return to the world of others and things, especially natural things, without the need to dominate or appropriate them (people, things, cultures, etc). Most importantly, thinks Irigaray, men and women need to do this (each in their own way given their embodied difference) so that we can start to build a world together.

In other words, we need to rethink the Sabbath so as to promote an ethics of Sexuated Difference.


Dueholm, B.J. 2014. “Sabbath Piety and Sabbath Politics: The War against Rest.” Christian Century November 26: 22-25.

Heschel, A.J. 2005 (1951). The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Irigaray, L. 1993. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Irigaray, L. 2005. Between East and West: From Singularity to Community. Trans. S. Pluháček. New Delhi: New Age Books.

Irigaray, L. 2008a. “A Feminine Figure in Christian Tradition: Conversation between Luce Irigaray, Margaret R. Miles and Laine M. Harrington.” In Conversations, 85-106. London and New York: Continuum.

Irigaray, L. 2008b. “Listening, Thinking, Teaching.” In Luce Irigaray: Teaching. Eds. L. Irigaray with M. Green, 231-240. London: Continuum.



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