CULTURE MARCH 26, 2010
by Judith Shulevitz
Random House, 288 pp., $26
After reading Judith Shulevitz’s searching book, I wanted to tell her the best Sabbath story I know. During his first week at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a rabbinical student entered an elevator, and after him walked Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, the august Chancellor of the Seminary. Doors closed, the elevator creaked upward, scholar and student both stared at their shoes. At the ninth floor, Finkelstein broke the awkward silence: “Only four more days till shabbos,” he said.
For observant Jews, the Sabbath is itself an elevator, delivering them up and out of the everyday to what Shulevitz calls, “a different order of time.” But the phrase “Sabbath elevator,” known to all observant Jews (and to anyone who has visited the King David Hotel), refers to an elevator ingeniously programmed to stop at every floor without anyone having to push a button, since doing so is forbidden on the Sabbath. These days technology, in the form of chips and timers, has conscripted many of the conveniences of modernity to circumvent some of the prohibitions of the Sabbath and thereby ease the observance of it. But not all marriages between modernity and piety are as happy as this one, and the tension between them lies at the heart of Shulevitz’s enormously interesting book.
Like a yeasty challah, The Sabbath World braids together three discrete strands. First, it offers a series of carefully sifted essays that contemplate the Sabbath from various angles: as holy day, as pedagogy, as a source of “civic consciousness,” and as a conduit to the word of God. Second, it contains hunks of history—not of the Sabbath itself, but of a series of high-stakes conflicts surrounding its observance and significance. Third, both essays and history are leavened by Shulevitz’s candid and exacting confession—a not-quite-spiritual autobiography—of her own ongoing struggle with the Sabbath. And the whole is sprinkled with arguments for observing a communal Sabbath that make for a rather tentative secular sabbatarianism.
Shulevitz’s history of conflicts around the Sabbath is fascinating and adroitly told. In the aftermath of the Babylonian exile, Jewish leaders used a communal Sabbath to “strengthen the bonds of a nation,” but for good measure they ordered the gates of the city to be locked. For Shulevitz, this hints at “the potential for claustrophobic self-sequestration” that dogs her own efforts at observance. Some six centuries later, the rabbis in the Talmud were at pains to spell out thirty-nine categories of labor to be eschewed (they were extrapolated from the thirty-nine types of labor involved in the building of the sanctuary in the desert). The Gospel of Mark finds Jesus flouting the Sabbath so as to usher in another order of time altogether, and the Apostle Paul was frankly menaced by Sabbath-observing “Judaizers” among Jesus’s followers. Perhaps the strangest episode of conflict features a group of Transylvanian Christians whose strict observance of a Saturday Sabbath endured for centuries. (One envies the pleasure Shulevitz must have had writing the sentence, “[o]ver the next few centuries, Transylvanian Sabbatarianism dwindled but did not disappear.”) Indeed, their disappearance was seen to by the Nazis, who locked them in a brick factory along with the Jews; and it appears that during their last days on earth the doomed Jews and Sabbatarians found time to despise one another.
During the nineteenth century, culture wars were fought not over gay marriage or evolution, but over the Sabbath. The advent of new technologies and institutions—trains, post offices, museums, newspapers—became a referendum on whether and to what extent the community should observe the Sabbath. Legal sanctions for Sabbath observance waxed and waned, taking a myriad of forms. In fact, sabbatarians sometimes made strange bedfellows. In the United States, they included progressives intent on protecting laborers and xenophobes who thought immigrants corrupted by the lax “Continental Sabbath” could be reformed by blue laws. Anti-sabbatarians mocked the Sunday schools, trying to pry the cold dead hand of Puritanism from their time off. Throughout the century, reformers strove to re-define and to update the Sabbath as a day of education, of personal and social improvement, and of a return to nature. The “Romantic Sabbath” of Wordsworth and Rousseau used the Sabbath as a metaphor for blithe aimlessness; the “Hygienic Sabbath” urged (somewhat paradoxically) a strenuous cultivation of the self; and the “scientific Sunday,” coined by G. Stanley Hall in 1908, was to be a day of “walks and talks and nature lessons.”
Imperiled by this Sabbath-day individualism was what D. H. Lawrence nostalgically called “the Sunday world” of voluntary rest and communal recreation. Here in the United States, a gallimaufry of blue laws reflected the sorry fact that “one person’s recreation is another person’s work. If museums, libraries, and baseball stadiums are to stay open, then security guards and librarians have to work, and baseball players have to play.” States tried, sometimes laughably, to make distinctions among human endeavors, allowing “works of necessity and charity,” but the irrationality of blue laws left them exposed to attack. In 1961, in McGowan et al. v. Maryland, Justice Felix Frankfurter insisted that there was a “reasonable line of demarcation,” between restful and workaday activities, but where Sabbath is concerned, rationality is in the eye of the beholder. While most states still have some blue laws on the books, the pressure to protect workers waned as the work-week shrank. At the same time, the pressure to keep stores open grew once the retail lobby surmised, correctly, that working women needed Sunday shopping.
Shulevitz, a gifted essayist, is the kind of writer who wears her erudition lightly, referring as easily to Talmudic rabbis as she does to Freud, Kafka, and Kierkegaard. And did I mention the army of sociologists she cites for their opinions on time, labor, and society? This is also a book that cannily advertises its tendentiousness, its personal complications: “This book is about my ambivalence toward the Sabbath, which I diagnose as partly the secular American’s ambivalence toward the Sabbath and partly an ambivalence peculiarly all my own. It is my theory that these ambivalences can be traced in some way to the Christian ambivalence toward the Sabbath, which can be traced in some way to a deeper ambivalence toward the idea of living a life in thrall to law and tradition, which can be traced in some way to an even deeper ambivalence toward ritual, which can be traced in some way to the most profound possible qualms about holiness. . . All these in some ways should tip you off that this book is more associative than analytical and more anecdotal than historical (though there is analysis and history in it).”
Autobiography is neither anecdote nor history, and Shulevitz tells her own story in fits and starts. This is no wonder, since it is a story of both attraction and repulsion. For her, the attraction of the Sabbath is hard to pin down. Sometimes it is the anxiety management afforded by ritual; sometimes, the “scandal of the holy”; sometimes, a liberation from the 24/7 ubiquity of work and social contact. (For those who want to boast about their Sabbath observance, there is a t-shirt that reads, “24/6.”) But for all her talk about the “social morality of time,” Shulevitz falls back on the pull of Jewish tradition, a steamy cholent of Jewish law, “ancestors,” and God. One gives Shulevitz credit for her candor, but the moral of her story, at least for Jewish readers, is an admonition: if we free and modern Jews do not find some way to keep the Sabbath, we have already given it away. Surely we should be less lackadaisical about what we have inherited, more resistant to the momentum of our importantly logisticized lives. Do we really want the Sabbath to disappear? As Ahad Ha’am famously observed, the Jews did not keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept the Jews.
Esther Schor won the 2006 National Jewish Book Award for Emma Lazarus. She is the author of Justice in Babel, a study of the Esperanto movement (forthcoming, Metropolitan/Henry Holt).