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Cornell's Secular Sabbath

January 15th, 2024 | 3 min read

By David M. Johnson

One may say we came face-to-face with evil. Two months ago, a Cornell student named Patrick Dai claimed he would bring an “assault rifle to campus and shoot all you pig jews.” His vile anti-Semitic threats were so serious that New York Governor Kathy Hochul and the FBI came to campus. Dai will now, in turn, come face-to-face with the law.

In the midst of mounting tensions on campus, President Pollack announced that Friday, November 3rd, would be a “Community Restorative Day,” a day set aside to “nurture the kind of caring, mutually supportive community that we all value.”

Although some criticized the administration for what seemed to be a passive solution to an active problem, it wasn't a bad idea. Ceasing from labor in the midst of injustice is symbolic and significant. It is also not unprecedented.

Thousands of years ago, as Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, their oppression was interrupted with a gift from God called the Sabbath Day. It was a day to be “consecrated”—that is, set aside—on which no work was to be done except that which was absolutely essential. The message from the Cornell administration resounds with biblical echoes: “No classes will be held, and faculty and staff will be excused from work, except for employees who provide essential services.”

Although Cornell’s day of rest was intended, in some sense, to be secular rather than religious, as befits a pluralistic campus community, we do well to remember that the Sabbath Day was also for the good of all persons (and even all animals). As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in his masterpiece, The Sabbath, a day of rest is really a form of resistance against all that militates against true human happiness. “The Sabbath is more than an armistice, more than an interlude; it is a profound conscious harmony of man and the world, a sympathy for all things and a participation in the spirit that unites what is below and what is above. All that is divine in the world is brought into union with God. This is Sabbath, and the true happiness of the universe.”

November 3rd was our Community Restorative Day. Turning again to Heschel, such a day was “not an occasion for diversion or frivolity; not a day to shoot fireworks or to turn somersaults, but an opportunity to mend our tattered lives; to collect rather than to dissipate time.”

So, how did we receive the day?

My morning started slowly. Walking to a regularly scheduled public reading of scripture, I was struck by the silence of the scene. The customary hum of campus produced by walking students, bicycling professors, and university vehicles was supplanted by pristine quietude. The sun shone brightly, forgetful of Wednesday’s snow. I shared lunch with three friends whom I had not talked with since last year, and I explored nature trails near campus, soaking in the waning whiffs of autumn.

Others, it seems, had a similar experience. One classmate remarked that “giving students the day off was conducive to conversations with classmates I otherwise wouldn't have had about tensions and brokenness on campus.” Another observed that the next day was their “most productive Saturday in a long time.” One student joked that because they “really feel restored,” they “might start ditching Friday classes from now on.”

This last student’s desire for more frequent rest is very common. One online post, which garnered over 600 upvotes, suggested the one-off community restorative day becomes “a monthly thing.” Others suggested weekly.

Those hopeful for more regular rest might find good news in old news: Each and every weekend brings another community restorative day. The Sabbath Day invites us to share in the tradition of the Israelites, to mend our tattered campus, and to come face-to-face with true happiness. Restoration is not realized through a single soothing musical note surrounded by commotion but instead through a regular rhythm of rest that resists the cacophony around us.

In any case, President Pollack succeeded in reminding us of the natural relationship between rest and restoration. And perhaps it is appropriate that, just when our campus desperately desired to hear the dignity of all human persons affirmed, especially the dignity of the numerous Jewish students, staff, and scholars in our community, the administration borrowed a page from the playbook of Moses.

David M. Johnson

David M. Johnson is an undergraduate student at Cornell University studying engineering physics. He is the senior editor of Claritas, an on-campus journal of Christian thought, and he spends his free time reading, running, and rock climbing.