The journalist and culture critic Judith Shulevitz opens her book about the Sabbath, part spiritual memoir, part history lesson, part critique of our contemporary overly busy lives, with an obvious observation: “…we all look for a Sabbath, whether or not that’s what we call it.” She rightly points out that our lives, through the industrial revolution, technology and the 24/7 nature of our compulsive, overworked universe could use some restructuring.
Readers who approach this elegantly written book most likely already have their idea of what the Sabbath is and agree that we all need some kind of rest from the hectic pace of our lives. At the same time the Sabbath, in its traditional context and as developed and carried out by the Jewish people today, is something radically different from regular old rest. It has a particular theological and doctrinal meaning, as well as hyper-detailed rules of ritual practice. In this way Sabbath is a strange term, at once dramatically particular in its traditional proscriptive sense, and universally understood and looked fondly upon in its vernacular.
Shulevitz’s book, if nothing else, makes this important point and argues that it is something worth thinking more about, and in a variety of ways. Why else write a book about the Sabbath, when so many are already out there, and some brilliantly conceived, the most famous being Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath (which everyone should read)? For Shulevitz, a personal account of Sabbath that intertwines some interesting history of Sabbath’s effect on our Western and finally American society is worth writing about. For Shulevitz it is also worth arguing that a little downtime benefits everyone.
While the bulk of her book delves into history and observations about our busyness, Shulevitz frames it all in the context of her own personal encounter with the Sabbath and Judaism and where she, as a modern woman drawn to her faith, fits. Raised in a Jewish household in the particularly non-Jewish world of San Juan, Puerto Rico, she later dates an Orthodox boy in college and experiences the traditional Sabbath life, and then as an adult studies the Talmud in her synagogue in Brooklyn.
Within the genre of Jewish memoir are found strands of Jewish return stories: the observant Jew who leaves orthodoxy to find him/herself more spiritually attuned; the secular or very reformed Jew who returns to orthodoxy and a renewed commitment to her faith (sometimes this happens after one has for a while followed a different faith, like Buddhism, an example of which was notably played out by Rodger Kamantz’s The Jew in the Lotus); the Jew who re-identifies with his Jewish identity, but in a less religious sense; and finally the maintenance of ambivalence. Shulevitz falls into the last category, and while perhaps that makes for a less satisfying narrative, it certainly feels authentic to what many educated people, drawn to their faith, must experience.
Since the book covers the idea of a traditional Sabbath only briefly, readers interested in this area should turn to Heschel’s classic book, which serves as a poetic but sophisticated account of the way in which Judaism, through the Sabbath, is a religion that sanctifies and celebrates time over space. Heschel asserts it to be a radical departure from other religions, both philosophically and practically. “The Sabbaths,” he says, “are our great Cathedrals.”
Shulevitz puts most of her good effort into tracing the history of how other communities have encountered the idea of Sabbath and adopted it for their own use. She begins with an extended reflection on how Jesus probably observed Sabbath, but also interpreted it in a way that influenced Paul’s reinterpretation of Jewish law, changing the role of Sabbath and circumcision for Christians forever. She then traces how the ideas of the Sabbath continued to reappear throughout Christian history.
The most interesting account describes how the Reformation and the printing press lead to a reading and reinterpretation of the Bible, which sends some new Christian groups back to earlier Jewish practices, including the Sabbath. Martin Luther was appalled at these practices most influentially practiced by Anabaptists, dubbing such heretics “Sabbatarians.” But it was this return on the part of such groups that led to the relearning of Hebrew, from local Jews of course, and eventually a renewed interest in Jewish customs and laws. Through a study of Hebrew and the lens of Jewish monotheism, radical interpretations of Christian Scripture emerged, questioning, for example, the Trinity.
Shulevitz follows the importance of Sabbath from the Sabbatarians to the American pilgrims, and finally to the development of the blue laws in Boston, which restrict work. She demonstrates the connection between the Sabbath, the blue laws and Supreme Court decisions as recently as 1961 that draw a connection between an official, religiously rooted, if now secular, day of rest and good civic behavior.
This aspect of The Sabbath World should interest Jews and non-Jews alike. Jewish readers will be fascinated to see the role their ritual practice has played throughout history. Christians and secularists who always imagined that the Jewish minority never had much of a religious effect on the structure of their lives will be forced to think again.