Thursday, April 01, 2010

Keeping the Sabbath

The past few decades have seen remarkable change in the daily activity of an average citizen due to technological advances. The ways in which we communicate, perform our jobs and enjoy our leisure time are very different than when our parents were our age. The full effects of the creep of technology into so many aspects of our lives are just beginning to become evident but one thing is clear -- we need breaks from constant contact with distant people in order to connect with the people around us. The Jewish solution to this contemporary problem is the ancient but prescient Shabbos.

The search for reasons underlying the Torah's commandments is a time-honored Jewish activity that has yielded a large literature, and this recent ascription of a new reason for Shabbos is not just religiously acceptable but praiseworthy. In this respect, Judith Shulevitz's recent book The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time has a place within tradition. Indeed, the explanations for the commandments regarding Shabbos contained in R. Abraham Chill's compilation, The Mitzvot: The Commandments and Their Rationale (pp. 36-42, 135-137), are greatly enhanced by Shulevitz's study of other historical meanings and contemporary explanations. Yet, despite this traditional purpose, there is a sense in which this new book is the exact opposite of what an Orthodox Jew would write.

Shulevitz's book contains three separate threads, isolated in different subchapters but continued throughout the book. One portion of the book is autobiographical, telling the author's very personal religious history. Her story is compellingly narrated, enhanced by the author's ample literary talent. The second part is a philosophical, psychological, sociological, economic and political study of the benefits of observing Shabbos, which go well beyond alleviating the burden of contemporary technology. Shulevitz's insight and eloquence are in full evidence as she explores the many positive effects of Sabbath observance on both a personal and communal level.

The third portion is a series of historical studies of what the Sabbath has meant to different communities and thinkers -- Jewish, Christian, ancient and modern. Much of this is textual work -- usually with interpretations too radical for my Orthodox temperament -- but there is much more. This is a rich study of the many historical Sabbaths, even if the nature of the scholarly exercise does not allow Shulevitz to use her full narrative talents.

These historical lessons are quite interesting. There is a lot we Orthodox Jews can learn from different people from a variety of cultures. The importance of the Sabbath and how it impacts people's lives -- even though it is observed differently by, for example, Puritans and Kabbalists -- yields many lessons of value.

But the goal of all this hard work is very personal, and this is where Shulevitz departs from what an Orthodox writer would do. She spends all this time and talent studying what the Sabbath has meant to so many different people in order to understand what it can mean to her. This is all an investigation of how she should observe it and what she can find in it. Something about the Sabbath appeals to her and she went on a spiritual journey to find her personal Sabbath.

I can appreciate all of this and celebrate her turn to tradition to find meaning. Yet I cannot ignore that Shabbos is in the same list of ten commandments that forbids adultery and murder. We observe Shabbos not because of its many benefits but because God commanded us to. We do it because we must; everything else is secondary.

Yet, ironically, it is this devaluing of benefits that allows us to fully enjoy them. This sense of commandedness is what forces us to leave work early in the winter, to insist that teenage children stay home for Friday night dinner, to refrain from working no matter what the consequences. The absoluteness of Shabbos is what protects it from our temporary stresses that risk creeping into that sacred domain. Without that sense of commandedness, we can't build walls that are impenetrable which generate the full psychological and sociological benefits of the Shabbos. And, I suspect, a parent who chooses Shabbos as a personal lifestyle is unlikely to pass that choice on to her children, who after all will be making their own lifestyle choices. A personal Shabbos is a half Shabbos, which is better than nothing but not the full experience and not something that can be successfuly passed on to the next generation.

It is, contrary to Shulevitz's claim (pp. 194-197), possible to observe a traditional Shabbos in today's world. I do it, as do many I know. We do it because we have no choice, we have been commanded to do it, and we are therefore able to enjoy its full benefits even in, or especially in, this hyper-connected world.

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