The Shabbat Dilemma

A new book explores how the Sabbath fits into the modern world.

Dali shabbat (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Dali shabbat (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
JUDITH SHULEVITZ’S NEW BOOK on Shabbat, “The Sabbath World,” is not only about time, but is also timely.
In the modern world, where our lives seem to be ruled by the clock, Shulevitz, an American journalist, writes that “we are all looking for a Sabbath,” a refuge in time. While modern conveniences like cell phones, hand-held computers, and the Internet seem to make our lives simpler, they have in many ways made our lives more complex and hectic. A culture that assumes every individual can be reached at any moment, for all its obvious benefits, also has its drawbacks. There is less private space and private time, and no respite from outside pressures.
“So long as man marked his life only by the cycles of nature, he remained a prisoner of nature. If he was to go his own way and fill his world with human novelties, he would have to make his own measures of time,” wrote historian Daniel Boorstin. With human dominance of nature, however, comes a certain break from innocence, a self-imposed expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The rabbis call the Sabbath “a taste of the world to come.” But, as Shulevitz explains, it is more like “an aftertaste of infancy,” or as I would call it, a combination of the two: a bridge between the wholeness we experienced in the mother’s womb or the innocence symbolized by the Garden of Eden to which we long to return, and what we look forward to experiencing in a more perfect world as symbolized by the World to Come. We, living in this world, inhabit this bridge once a week when we enter into our Shabbat experience.
But there, I think, lies the problem. The world we actually live in runs on both public time devoted to obligations to others (community, work, family and friends) and synchronized with standardized clock time, and idiosyncratic, irregular, inwardly focused, psychologically based private time. As individuals living within greater society, it is difficult enough to negotiate these two “time zones.” One might see bringing religious time into the picture as an antidote to this dilemma. And it may very well be so. But it may also confuse matters more and make us feel torn apart even further.
As Shulevitz writes: “Religious time does not strive to satisfy individual needs. It makes its own inexorable demands, flowing from prayer service to prayer service, from festival to festival...
Think of sacred holidays as wells; they tunnel down through temporal strata and allow the past to bubble into the present through the liquid medium of myth. Keeping the Sabbath means sliding the cover off that hole on a weekly basis.” But, as Shulevitz also points out, it is easy to understand why we in modern times might feel sick peering into that hole.
The Sabbath inevitably raises many ambivalences for the modern individual, and this book is about Shulevitz’s own ambivalences towards this ritual observance that goes as far back as the Ten Commandments. She claims that our discomfort with the Sabbath reflects our general discomfort with ritual and rules and anything that threatens to disrupt our highly individualized and overly scheduled lifestyles. Yet, at the same time, we long to find something deeper and more meaningful in our existence. “But, just at the moment that I am about to enter this world, I hear my father’s voice. It tells me that I am freer than any Jew who came before me. I’m not restricted to Jewish schools and workplaces. I don’t have to obey oppressive Jewish rules. Why twist freedom into a curse?” she writes.
“THE SABBATH WORLD” IS A scholarly, well-researched exploration of the Sabbath from various disciplines and approaches: historical, sociological, theological, psychological and emotional.
Shulevitz discusses the Sabbath as a day to devote to family and community, and for society to protect each individual’s right to rest from work every seven days. She flirts with the idea of joining an ultra-Orthodox community to “escape [herself]... and disappear into a long Sabbath afternoon... to relinquish the overwhelming burden of being me and take up the lesser burden of being a member of a holy community.” She devotes two chapters to Christianity’s varying approaches to the Sabbath – ranging from the notion that Jesus liberated believers from law, physicality and the time-bound and, therefore, from the Sabbath, to the idea that “the Fourth Commandment is moral, rooted in the nature of things, part of the law that God embedded in the universe at Creation.” The book is not exhaustive, as she herself points out, but it is very full and rich.
An important point Shulevitz makes early on in the book is that what we traditionally call “Sabbath observance” today is actually a rabbinic interpretation of what Shabbat should be like and not an attempt to recreate a biblical Sabbath or to leave up to the individual to interpret what it means to take a respite from our busy week of making a mark on the world. The rabbis fashioned the Sabbath around refraining from performing the 39 activities associated with the Temple. Shulevitz recognizes the incongruity of this interpretation with our modern conceptions of rest. “The old-time Sabbath does not fit comfortably into our lives. It scowls at our dewy dreams of total relaxation and freedom from obligation. The goal of the Sabbath may be rest, but it isn’t personal liberty or unfettered leisure. The Sabbath seemed designed to make life as inconvenient as possible.”
This may be true. And it may be a chance for us to challenge ourselves spiritually. When fashioning her own Sabbath, Shulevitz writes of making compromises and feeling ambivalent; but she does not make any real attempt to reinterpret the day and its practices to make it more meaningful for herself and to break the dissonance she feels between this ancient praxis and her modern life. She describes her Sabbath as not living up to an ideal Sabbath, for example, when her son’s soccer practice overrides a morning spent in synagogue as a family. But rather than simply feel guilty about this, Shulevitz could have made an attempt to fit her “compromises” into a more wholesome theology of what a modern-day Shabbat may look like. Dissonance can lead to the most creative reinterpretations of Jewish practice that help keep Jewish life vibrant and relevant.
Shulevitz astutely points out that the rabbinic move to define “work” by the 39 Temple activities was actually an attempt to erect the Sabbath in place of the destroyed Temple, to replace sacred space with sacred time. Yet she does not take this a necessary step further.
Shulevitz assumes that we today are still living in the same reality of these rabbis, when sanctifying time was the central way humans connected to the divine. She explores at much length the dissonance between our individualistic culture and previous societies that were much more community-oriented. This explains the severe punishment (stoning) meted on the biblical man who collected branches on the Sabbath. He broke the communal pact that no one would work on Shabbat, thus ruining the Sabbath for everyone. A Sabbath of no work for anyone can only happen if everyone agrees not to work. Once one person works, competition enters the scene. That is why the Sabbath cannot completely work on a societal level today. Even among ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel there is an assumption that certain services, which require work on Shabbat, will always be available, like water, electricity and medical care.
The jump that Shulevitz does not make, however, is to recognize that we too in our day and age are entering into a new paradigm of human-centeredness the way that in the rabbinic period they moved into a paradigm of time-centeredness. This explains the ambivalence she feels when trying to keep a traditional Shabbat, when trying to do what she calls escaping herself. Shulevitz realizes she cannot escape herself into a world that is “one long Shabbat afternoon,” and she posits that she is not the only one with these feelings of ambivalence. But she feels guilty about it, and that is how she leaves her readers – hanging with her guilt.
“I feel guilty about not building better fences around the day, but apparently not guilty enough. Partly, it is because each step up in observance paralyzes me with indecision...
But also I think it’s because my religious commitments remain too abstract to overcome the inconvenience of making them.
Probably the only way to trick myself into being shomer Shabbat (Shabbat observant) would be to restrict myself to circles where such behavior is the norm, not subject to constant question.”
The answer Shulevitz offers is an apology for her shortcomings, for her inability to totally surrender to this religious ritual. Her assumption is that if she could “escape herself” and totally immerse herself in the Sabbath experience in its most traditional form, her life would be richer for it. But alas, she cannot escape herself, and so she is in a bind. “This, in the end, is a work of apologetics,” she warns us already in the introduction. “Even though I am still trying to get over the feeling that I have to apologize for that fact.”
What I would like to suggest is that she need not apologize for her form of Sabbath observance. While she chalks up her decision to let her son skip synagogue and play soccer on Shabbat to indecision and not wanting to be inconvenienced, even an ambivalent selfaware decision is a decision. She is not merely copping out. Rather, she is recognizing the complexity of the situation, giving her son the freedom to decide which experience he values more at this stage of his life. Perhaps allowing him to make this choice will prevent him from having negative feelings toward Shabbat. It is not as if her son has no Shabbat experience whatsoever because he misses Shabbat morning prayers; there is Friday night family dinner with all of its rituals, and the havdala service marking the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the new week.
Compromise is not surrender.
Shulevitz is not ultra-Orthodox, and leaves unclear her present affiliation. She has chosen to live in a society that values individuality and freedom of choice and should – when it is at its best – honor the varied ways in which individuals choose to sanctify their lives.
Feminism, humanism, gay rights, civil rights – these are all products of a society that values individualism and pluralism. Of course, we give something up when we move away from a more totalitarian society in the way of group-think and group-experience. But rather than bemoan this fact as perhaps the end of authentic religious experiences for those who do not buy into a fundamentalist way of life, I would rather reclaim and reinterpret our Jewish rituals to fit our present reality.
And so, just as the rabbis superimposed the Sabbath on the Temple, we today must find a way to superimpose our current human-centered paradigm onto Shabbat. In fact, we ambivalent Sabbath observers are all part of that process that is still very much in process.
And Shulevitz’s insightful and well-researched book is surely part of that process.
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David’s latest book ‘Giving Chanah Voice: A Feminist Rabbi Reclaims the Women’s Mitzvot of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening’ is being published this October by Ben Yehudah Press.