The Sabbath World
Glimpses of a Different Order
Random House: 250 pp., $26
In the mid-1990s, when my wife and I were first considering observing Shabbat, a friend told me that you had three chances to make it right with God. Celebrate Shabbat once, he said, and it was a tryout; you could always walk away. Celebrate a second time, and you were bound a little closer, but there was still an escape clause, a spiritual get-out-of-jail-free card. The third time, though, was the keeper: At that point, you were part of a covenant. I don’t know where my friend got his information -- he mentioned a rabbi, as I remember -- but his math only helped to confirm my ambivalence, to put Shabbat on hold for a few more years.
A similar ambivalence resides at the heart of Judith Shulevitz’s “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time,” a look at the Sabbath as both religious and cultural ideal. Shulevitz, a former culture editor of Slate and a onetime editor at Lingua Franca, has done her homework: Among the rewards the book offers is a capsule history of the Lord’s Day, beginning with Genesis and Exodus and expanding to encompass everything from blue laws to the quintessentially (post)modern concept of a technological Sabbath, in which we turn off our electronic devices for 24 hours. The challenge is in keeping these lines of thought balanced, in reflecting on the Sabbath as both ritual and idea. “Can we do nothing more than turn the Sabbath over in our minds, the way we would a poem, and extract from it anything worth having?” Shulevitz asks late in the book. “The answer is obvious: obviously yes, and obviously no.”
Quest for solitude
This, I think, is a classically Jewish form of introspection, the back-and-forth, the pro and con. And Shulevitz seeds it into “The Sabbath World” by integrating her experience, from childhood to the present day. She begins by describing how, as a child “upset about having been moved from a house with a garden in a suburb of Detroit to a cramped apartment in downtown San Juan, Puerto Rico,” she used to hide “in the space between a file cabinet and a freezer early on Saturday mornings.” Because this was a place of stillness, it became an emblem of her Sabbath, a caesura from the world.
Such a notion of stillness -- or more accurately, solitude -- comes up repeatedly in “The Sabbath World,” as Shulevitz traces her own elusive reckoning with the day of rest. As a teenager, unable to fit in at a Jewish summer camp, she found relief in the Sabbath; “Because I spent so much of it on my own,” she writes, “the Sabbath was also the only day of the week in which popularity and the lack thereof failed to dominate my consciousness. . . . I could just be indifferent, at which point, of course, being indifferent no longer seemed so necessary.” As a young adult, attending a Brooklyn synagogue where she knew no one, she took solace in her loneliness: “I sometimes think that those sad, solitary Sabbaths were the most spiritual I’ve ever had.”
Most resonant, perhaps, is her account of an undergraduate Shabbat spent with a family of her boyfriend’s acquaintance, an experience that should have been connective but ended up displacing her instead. “That afternoon,” she recalls, “Philip took me for a walk in the park. . . . I made myself start an argument with him about whether separate spheres for the sexes were confining or liberating, and whether women should have the right to study Talmud. But my heart wasn’t in it. His world was fixed and solid in ways mine wasn’t. It made no sense to quibble with that.”
And yet if this is fine for Philip, it’s not for Shulevitz, who immerses in her own spiritual inquiry, raising necessary questions about both the nature and the need for a day of rest. To understand the Sabbath, she suggests, we need to see it in all its nuance: as a force of social organization, as a way of separating the mundane from the holy, as a matter of contemplation and, yes, as a covenant with God.
Keeping the Sabbath
On the one hand, it’s a metaphoric manifestation, or as Shulevitz puts it, “not an object built in space . . . [but] a performance enacted in time.” Yet at the same time, she recognizes that the Sabbath “is not only an idea. It is also something you keep. With other people. You can’t just extract lessons from it.” This is a key point -- and not only for how neatly it encapsulates Shulevitz’s reticence. No, it also reminds us that there is a practical component to even the most abstract considerations, that while it may be true, as Kierkegaard argues, that "[t]o become religious is to brave a leap into the absurd,” religiosity also is “a form of self-sacrifice . . . [in which you have] to give up your ability to control your world.”
That, to be sure, is in the nature of everything, whether we observe the Sabbath or we don’t. We are all born and we all die, and the notion that we have much control over anything that happens is an illusion of the most benighted sort. It’s easy to lose sight of this, especially in contemporary culture, where it often seems as if we exist outside of time, amid the “ ‘pollutants’ of communications overload.” Despite her lingering ambivalence, Shulevitz hasn’t stopped looking for a more profound connection: “We could let the world wind us up and set us to working,” she writes, “like dolls that go until they fall over because they have no way of stopping. But that would make us less than human. We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember.”
Ulin is book editor of The Times.