the real world: sabbath

leave a comment »

(N.B. This is, more or less, a book review, complementing the shorter, more neutered piece I did a few weeks back. I’m currently halfheartedly shopping it around for a suitable home, so please holla if you’ve got any ideas.)

Growing up, my friends and I found the Sabbath to be a day of too much rest.

Because aside from the meals, which were great but predictable, and synagogue, which was dull and predictable, how does a kid fill the roughly 25 hours of prescribed downtime? We could read, sure, but few of us could remain occupied by a book for very long. Couldn’t write, or even do homework. No television or computer or video games. No practicing piano or guitar.  Playtime activities were severely curtailed by the adults’ admonishment not to disturb their shabbes schluf (nap), a tradition as sacred as kiddush or cholent. If the weather wasn’t welcoming – and I grew up in Toronto – and we were forced indoors, then no basement hockey, tag, hide n’ seek (always noisier than you’d expect), wrestling matches, food fights, or ping pong. Board games were an option, but even here it was slim pickings: Scrabble was verboten (word construction might be a form of ketiva, or writing, one of the 39 prohibited activities); Monopoly was frowned upon (closely resembles business transactions); and even chess was questionable (the active selection of the pieces might be a violation of borer, or sorting, another Sabbath no-no). And scorekeeping without a writing utensil is a bitch.

You’d think we’d eventually grow adept at passing time, like a jail inmate or a kind of Sabbath Zen master, but we never did. Sabbath – or shabbes, the term I grew up with and am still most comfortable using – usually meant severe, crushing, unrelenting boredom.

We grew up, and left home. Some of my friends still properly keep shabbes; many, including myself, don’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s out of our lives: shabbes, however transgressed and ignored, is never really shaken. We enjoy aspects of it, and strive to celebrate, rather than commemorate, the day. We eat the meals, occasionally even go to services. I don’t really know why, though. I could probably offer a messy response built around some vague moral-ish notions – ‘family’, ‘tradition’, ‘continuity’, ‘community’ – and it will sound nice, maybe even inspiring. But the truth is that the eviction of God leaves the Sabbath-partial and -curious, especially those who associate the day with copious wall-staring, with a theological doozy:  “What is the deal with the Sabbath?”

Judith Shulevitz, a long time journalist, has supplied the most definitive answer yet to that slippery, multivalent question. The Sabbath World is part “spiritual autobiography” (though you get the idea that Shulevitz isn’t wholly comfortable with the term) and part comprehensive but lay-accessible study. These strands, though, are tightly braided, subjecting the reader to a chaptered smorgasbord of historical tidbits, personal struggle, family lore, exegetical asides, literary analysis, philosophical and mystical nuggets, and even social reform advocacy. It was a good move, I think, to jumble it all up like this; it takes many angles and many voices to get a sense of the Sabbath.

So does she nail it? The more scholarly half of this book is beyond reproach.  Reading about the sabbatarian influences on the early psychoanalysts, like Freud and his disciple Ferenczi, is great fun. Shulevitz’s depiction of the American struggle with the Sabbath Sunday is thorough, entertaining, and refreshingly non-judgmental. (She even offers, tepidly, that the blue laws might not be so bad.) Evidence supporting Sabbath (in)activities – from the author’s Zionist summer camp, where she learnt to appreciate isolation, to scientific studies displaying the moral consequences of being rushed – is, while not convincing outright, nonetheless insightful and interesting. Lots more where this came from: anthropologists wrestling with various conceptions of time; a Karl Marx-Hannah Arendt tag team on labor/work definition; the Christian rejection, evolution, and partial re-embrace of the Sabbath; an astonishing history of Anabaptist Sabbatarians; what Sabbath was like with those crazy Puritans; a terrific account of Sunday schools and their significance; and literary attitudes, from Dickens to Twain to Lawrence, on the holy day.

In fact, this half of the book is so good, so definitive, that it threatens to overwhelm the other. Because while Shulevitz purports to keeping this “book… more associative than analytical,” I found it difficult to disentangle her authorial voice from the authoritative one.

This is always a lurking difficulty with religious writing: presenting your intrinsically subjective experience and interpretation while avoiding an arbitration of spiritual ideas. Pure anthropological works, like Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life, avoid this balancing act by deciphering, not experiencing, the spiritual act. Abraham Joshua Heschel pulled it off with The Sabbath, a book that Shulevitz owes a great deal to, by keeping it lofty, poetic, and impersonal throughout. (Much of it, and indeed much of Heschel’s writing, provokes an I’m-not-quite-sure-what-that-means-but-it-sounds-awfully-nice reaction.) Shulevitz, admittedly, is writing in a different era to a different, wider crowd, and lacks Heschel’s religious wherewithal.

Lord knows the reasoning behind the Sabbath isn’t easy to pin down, and when Shulevitz fully acknowledges the duality of interpretation, she’s at her best. Take melacha, for example. Melacha, often mis-defined and misunderstood as simply ‘work’, is comprised of the 39 chief categories of prohibited activities, each with a myriad of sub-categories, sub-sub-categories, rabbinical addendums and all their nitpicky disagreements. (Studying it properly takes years, and it’s said that even the most pious rarely keep the Sabbath fully, so complicated are the laws.) Shulevitz cites the traditional understanding behind the proscription of the melacha – labor derived from the thirty-nine kinds of work done to build the Tabernacle – before offering a more historically palatable reason – “rough compilation of categories of work performed in everyday life in an agricultural society” – then moving to a more metaphoric explanation of imatio deo: “By stopping work on the Tabernacle, we imitate God when he stopped working on the world.”

But there are instances when that acknowledgement is less forthcoming.  I’m not sure, for example, that the Sabbath is meant to “promote social solidarity”, though it surely does.  I find the death penalty for Sabbath violation a little more troublesome than Shulevitz seems to – “[a] man gathering wood… violates the mutual non-compete clause that lets Sabbath-keepers feel they can afford not to work” – even if she almost certainly doesn’t take it literally, or all that seriously. Other points of minor contention: the role of alcohol on the Sabbath day; the purpose of the Sabbath liturgy; the central importance of Sabbath laws and ritual.

Major qualification: I don’t begrudge anybody, especially not someone as eloquent and erudite as Shulevitz, her own take. Heck, I agreed with, or at least appreciated, all her original thoughts, even the ones I quibble with above – e.g., I love how she regards the laws as “poems to live by.” But overall, she paints a Sabbath that doesn’t mesh with the most prevalent, dare I say definitive, one. I’m sorry if it sounds dramatic, but: Judith Shulevitz is fetishizing the Sabbath.

Let me explain.  Judaism is so big, its legal/mystical/mythological/historical corpus so vast, that most any interpretation can be supported, given sufficient plumbing. (I imagine this is the case with all old time religions.) Strains of feminism, vegetarianism, humanism, ascetism, earth saving-ism, and capitalism can all be found, as can their opposites. We don’t have a pope to arbitrate, so everything’s fair game, and indeed, that’s one the joys of the religion: that, to an exceptional degree, you can have it custom-fitted. But there’s still a prevalent normative strain, especially when it comes to the Sabbath – and that’s the Orthodox. Sabbath observance among everyone else is, invariably, a variation or, more likely, a diet version of what’s become the standard, if perhaps unattainable, practice. (Even Shulevitz is striving for it. Her Saturdays: no cellphones, avoidance of driving, money as an annoying but necessary evil, etc.) You could call it a ruling spiritual minority. And the Orthodox Sabbath, while it welcomes all the fantastic benefits that Shulevitz espouses, like family time and the getting-away-from-it-all, doesn’t find them essential. The reason for the religious Sabbath (as opposed to a secular Sabbath, which Shulevitz makes a fine case for, however unlikely the prospect) isn’t that it’s beneficial; it’s because God said so. The average Sabbath-observer doesn’t have the spiritual vocabulary to explain the Sabbath, and nor would she ever feel the lack. The Sabbath to her is routine, prosaic. Week in, week out; it’s the same deal. It’s – am I being heretical here? – mundane. Language like Shulevitz’s is mostly foreign in the Sabbath-observing world; it exists only in the increasingly inaccessible texts and in the literature it presents to the outside world. The ‘why’ of the Sabbath is rarely explored (and when it is, odds are it’ll be a short exploration: Because God Said So); it’s the devilish ‘how’ that monopolizes the modern sabbatarian mind.

Again, and finally, this isn’t really a criticism as much as a qualification on what’s an informative, enlightening, and mostly beautiful book. Shulevitz isn’t defining the Sabbath, though it might appear that way to the un-Sabbathized. She’s experiencing it – and she sure as heck doesn’t find it boring.

Written by menachemkaiser

19 April at 16:10

Posted in rants

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s