Judith Shulevitz on the Radical Idea of the Sabbath

Judith Shulevitz's wonderful new book, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, is part of a small set of books that have helped me situate myself as a Jew and as a person (Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish and David Wolpe's Healer of Shattered Hearts are two others). Judith's book is many things: A brilliant memoir; a fascinating history of the way humans understand time; an authoritative guide for those of us who are perplexed and troubled by the rapid encroachment of technology, that heartless thief of time, and who are looking for ways to restore meaning and balance to our lives (and who isn't?); and an adept translation of some very complicated Jewish ideas into language that non-Orthodox Jews, and seekers of other faiths, can readily understand. This is not a book merely for practitioners of Judaism -- it is for anyone who is looking for transcendence within the confines of the time and the space that we have been granted. Also, as a bonus, "The Sabbath World" is gorgeously-written; Judith is one of those writers who is fighting against the technology-driven movement that, in the words of Hanna Rosin, turns words into widgets.

I spoke with Judith recently about her book, and here is an edited transcript:

Jeffrey Goldberg: Do you keep the laws of Shabbat (the Sabbath)?

Judith Shulevitz: I am torn. That is what the book is about. I want to stay modern.  I love my modern life and my modern world. It's very hard to give a lot of things up. I' am moving very, very slowly toward it, being pushed toward it by my children. My kids go to Jewish day school. My son wants to play soccer but my daughter asks on Shabbat, `Mommy, why do we turn on the lights?'

JG: Let me ask you a Jewish question.

JS: For a change.

JG: Right. Is the Sabbath the greatest invention of Judaism?

JS: Shabbat is up there. The greatest contribution of Judaism is the Torah. The Bible remains the greatest work of literature in history. I might put literature above Shabbat. But as a pure idea, I think Shabbat is the greatest invention.

JG: What about emancipation from slavery? Freeing the slaves is a pretty great idea.

JS: It's all part of it. Within the context of the narrative, why do we have Shabbat? Because the people were slaves and they understood what it was like not to have rest.
JG: Is Judaism the most radically progressive religion on the planet?

JS: It has pockets or radicalism and progressivism that have yet to be explored.

JG: What is radical about Shabbat?

JS: The first idea is that everyone, not just the upper classes, not just the priests and doctors and elites and the king have the right to rest in a regular way one day a week. Look, it was so radically progressive that it even mandated that you had to give your animals the day off. That's a radical idea. In its time the Sabbath was an enormously radical idea, and you know, it's one that in every generation seems to be on the verge of disappearing, which is certainly true today.

JG: Is Twitter killing God's idea?

JS: Exactly.

JG: Twitter is the enemy of God. Discuss.

JS: I don't know if Twitter constitutes work but it certainly doesn't constitute rest.  The second radical idea is implied by the Fourth Commandment is that society has the right to manage its members' time, that we have the right to pass laws of time, which are really controversial in our libertarian, free market, individualistic society. The idea that government can regulate our time is just anathema to us.

JG: Blue laws?

JS: When you say `Blue Laws,' you think about store closings, Sunday closing laws, and those are certainly part of what I'm talking about, but I'm talking about the right to protect social time, the right to protect time when families get together and communities get together, the right to create some fence around social time. That's something we need to think about in our society because we're on the verge of losing that. People used to be on the same schedule and that is no longer true.

JG: That's the beauty of living in Jerusalem, because the enforcement of Shabbat laws helps create a common experience.

JS: It gives you permission to stop. I myself am very obsessive-compulsive. I have a very hard time stopping, and I need social pressure and moral reinforcement to feel okay stopping. There's something to be said for having the world stop around you. How exactly you achieve that in America is very tough. It's very tough to enforce in our society. But it's very important to become more sabbatarian, to become more conscious of protecting workers' time in general,  social time, weekend time, finding a way through incentives on taxation to encourage employers not to employ people at that time.

JG: Let's talk about the rigorous application of the Sabbath idea in traditional Judaism. Why does Judaism take a very simple commandment - don't work, rest - and make it, from my non-Orthodox perspective, such a hyper-involved pain the ass? Sorry to put it that way, but that's what it seems like sometimes.

JS: You're talking about the thirty-nine types of prohibited labor on Shabbat?

JG: Yes, and all the derivative customs. I mean, strict Sabbath-observers pre-rip toilet paper on Friday afternoons so they don't have to engage in ripping during Shabbat.
JS: These rituals are meaningful to the people who practice them, and the more you practice them the more meaningful they become. Things that you do regularly you tend to make meaning out of them. The idea is, the laws are messages from another generation and in the doing we will learn what the message is. Resting is actually a complex symphony of pauses that have to be orchestrated, and that is what the laws of Shabbat do. I don't think that those specific laws of Shabbat that Orthodox Jews observe are going to be, in their particularity, all that meaningful to the rest of the world, and one of the things I try to do in the book is extract the sort of general meaning rather than the specific meaning of each one. And in trying to understand what God might have intended you are actually talking about the nature of God, so when you are following these laws you are meditating on the nature of God. It is not for everyone, though I can see the beauty of it, and when you go into these communities you see people getting great meaning and great comfort out of these laws.

One scholar talks about Shabbat as a tithe in time, a one-seventh tithe rather than a one-tenth tithe. I think it's a smart reading. This gets you to the whole aspect of Shabbat that is about holiness, about sacrificing yourself,  about achieving a higher transcendence. Unless you are deeply religious this is not going to seem meaningful, just punitive and crazy, like most extremely religious practices seem to people outside.

JG: Going back to this idea about technology, is it fair to say that technology is conspiring against the idea of the Sabbath, not even the idea of the rigorous Jewish Sabbath but the more widespread idea of a quiet day for reflection and family?

JS: There's no question that many people think it would be nice to have a no-tech time, a family-togetherness-time, a time when you cannot be connected to the office in some electronic way, but unlike in Israel, where you are given permission in a way not to work one day a week, everything here is geared for round-the-clock work. There are a lot of forces militating against this, not just individualism, but globalism, and just-in-time manufacturing, and the increasing networking of society.

The custom of having laws that protected Sunday were part of the fabric of American society until about fifty years ago. We've been without them for less time than we've had them. We were the most sabbatarian society in the world for many hundreds of years, and the idea may seem to have been eclipsed now but it's naïve to think that this sort of thing will remain dormant forever. The need for it is increasing. People are obviously stressed-out and overburdened. It's not that we're overworked, we're actually working less than we used to, but it's that we've become discombobulated, we're not working at the same time as our loved ones, we don't get the reinforcement and refreshment of being together with our loved ones. Our time is becoming increasingly fragmented.

JG: Do people not look to tradition enough for clues about how to organize society?

JS: The point of my book is that there is this really old thing, one of the most important inventions in human history that was with us for many thousands of years, and there is a reason  for it, and we might consider thinking about it.

JG: What's the next book, the next big idea, a Jewish idea that would have this kind of universal applicability.

JS: I would say, 'Honor thy father and thy mother.' I think, first, Western civilization is youth-obsessed, it has begun to lose the idea of wisdom of the elders. I do think anti-authoritarianism has run amok and degenerated into a kind of knee-jerk instinct to be snarky and obnoxious and disrespect everything. I sound like a fuddy-duddy now, but I do think looking around me, at the world my children are growing up in, increasingly I - who was the most obnoxious teenager, the most rebellious teenager, who ran away from home and experimented with things I shouldn't have experimented with and gave my parents premature gray hairs - the thing that has been hardest for me to learn and to incorporate, and I think everyone else is having a hard time with, is honoring your mother and father. Also, more generally, respecting what you were given rather than blowing it off and thinking you can reinvent the world.

JG: And after that?

JS: The other radical idea I've been so impressed with Judaism for promoting is the family, the holiness of the family. When you go from a Temple-based Judaism to a ritual-based Judaism, you go from this idea that the site of the sacred is the Temple to the site of the sacred is the home, the family. Judaism is a home religion, and it practiced by the family in the home. The idea that holiness resides in the family is an amazing idea. I don't know of any other society that was promoting this idea. It's radically egalitarian in that every family is holy, you're not just getting religion from the king or the priest. The lowliest family has the same level of holiness as the king's. That's quite a radical notion. There is a negative side to this political concept of `family values,' but the positive side is the radical egalitarianism, the idea of protecting the family, particularly against some of the unfair forces of capitalism.

JG: This book is very Jewish, but you obviously wrote it with the non-Jewish reader in mind.

JS: To the degree my book is a success in reaching the Christian community it will be because I've managed to bring out these ideas from Judaism and explain them. When Leon Kass wrote about Genesis and bioethics, that certainly made a big splash, and the reason was he was taking a Jewish point of view and bringing it out of the Talmudic discourse and actually presenting it to the world. That just doesn't happen that often, and when it does, there are all these amazing ideas to be found.