The Original Feast Day

A Day Apartby By Christopher D. RingwaldOxford Univ. Press. 336p $27

In the Los Angeles area, a community of observant Jews wants to bring picnic baskets to the beach on Saturdays. Surprisingly, this has put them at odds with both the Sierra Club and the staff of the California Coastal Commission. According to Talmud, a Jew may not schlep anything outside his home on the Sabbath. A wall, like the wall that encircled Jerusalem, however, creates a private enclosure, or eruv, within which schlepping is not a problem. With this in mind, the Pacific Jewish Center has proposed to string several miles of fishing tackle from Santa Monica to Venice Beach as part of an eruv that includes much of the West Side. The Sierra Club and the staff of the CCC are opposed to the project, fearing for the safety of birds that nest in the area. The commission itself has yet to rule. Who knew that keeping the Third Commandment would get so complicated?

Christopher Ringwald, who directs the Faith and Society Project at the Sage Colleges, Albany, N.Y., has written a very unusual book about the Sabbath practices of Jews and Muslims and how these traditions might enrich the spiritual lives of Christians like himself. The Sabbath, according to Ringwald, “is the dessert most people leave on the table.” Not wanting to miss out on the gelato, Ringwald examines the Sabbath-keeping of three families: a Jewish family, the Kligermans; a Muslim family, the Haqqies; and his own Roman Catholic family.

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Ringwald is guided in this endeavor by what he himself calls the “participant-observer” method. He might very well have called it an example of “comparative spirituality,” by which I mean that he seeks to learn as much as he can about the Sabbaths of his Jewish and Muslim neighbors as a first step in reflecting on the meaning of his own Sabbath practice. Reflecting on the meaning of Sunday, for example, in light of a Saturday spent with the Kligermans, enables him to observe, “I saw the gift of my own religion that had been there all along.”

Ringwald gives structure to A Day Apart by means of a chronological account of the history of Sabbath-keeping, starting with the giving of the Commandments and continuing with Jewish, then Christian and finally Muslim developments. Adorning this structure, however, are anecdotes about Sabbaths with the Kligermans, the Haqqies and the Ringwalds as well as his own musings and meditations. This book is an example of a spirituality deeply grounded in and aware of the religious needs of the laity. Jews and Muslims do not have monastic forms of spiritual practice. Instead, they have their Sabbaths. For Ringwald, this fact signals an opportunity to reflect on a lay-oriented Christian spirituality centered on the weekly rhythms of family life. Sometimes Ringwald serves up banalities. More often, however, he offers the reader gems like the following: “I now see the unfolding opposites of the day. We do less and are more, we stop earning and grabbing and have more, we cease from making and make more, we let creation be and in our repose we see it to be more than ever we knew.”

Ringwald’s fascination with Jewish Sabbath regulations is revealing. His Jewish friends walk to temple through the rain without benefit of an umbrella because to open one would constitute pitching a tent, an activity expressly forbidden on the Sabbath. Some Jews take a dim view of baseball on the Sabbath as well. In playing the game, at least one rabbi has argued, the ground is compacted in a way that could be construed as an agricultural activity. Ringwald’s generally nonjudgmental account of all this seems strained, given the lesser importance Paul assigns the Mosaic Law. Do we have to find everything about the religious practices of others admirable? I take Ringwald’s refusal to come to Pauline conclusions about Jewish Sabbath preoccupations not so much a reflection of political correctness as Catholic nostalgia for preconciliar devotions, in which spirituality was something that the laity could do on their own—at home and separate from the liturgies of the clergy.

To be fair, Ringwald also recounts the famous story of Hillel. When still a boy, Hillel spent a Sabbath night perched on a roof listening in as rabbis debated the Torah. He was found the next morning half-frozen. According to the story, the rabbis built a fire, clearly contrary to Sabbath regulations, in order to save the boy’s life.

 

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