Thursday, June 10, 2010

Shabbos in America

I just finished reading Judith Shulevitz’s very interesting book, The Sabbath World, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you all about it. You’ve probably all read some of her work in the New York Times (where some material from this book first appeared in the Sunday magazine section), the New Republic, or the New Yorker, but this is her first full-length work. And it is really quite the debut. I myself was not certain what to expect when I first saw it advertised. But then, as I began to consider the matter more carefully, I found myself very curious what it was all about. The vast majority of books about the Sabbath that I (or, I suspect, most of my readers) come into contact with, after all, are the kind of how-to-make-Shabbos manuals that are published by the dozens for a very specific segment of the Jewish market and that rarely, if ever, address the larger issues inherent in Sabbath observance. But a book about Shabbat—and Shulevitz uses the word “Sabbath” in her title specifically to signal that she is not speaking, or not solely speaking, about the observant Jewish version of the weekly day of rest—such a book written neither to encourage observance nor explain the ins and outs of making a pot of tea or having a baby on Shabbos, but rather to explore the concept of there being such a weekly day of rest in the first place and then to recommend that it be considered by moderns, and she means specifically to include non-Jewish people, with far more attention that it generally garners (which is, I’m sure, for most people none at all)…that, it struck me, is a book I should find very interesting indeed.

And that is exactly how I did find it. And more than just interesting, actually. By interspersing her analysis of the place of the Sabbath in Western culture with details of her own spiritual journey, the author has created a kind of testament to the way that religious values can be brought to bear as the building blocks of a life without the person whose life is in play being first obliged to equate embracing observance with the loss of intellectual integrity or perspective. Indeed, by speaking frankly about her inability to adopt traditional observance in all its punctiliousness and the way she has learned to live with the various inconsistencies (also enumerated in some detail) that have come to characterize her life as a Sabbath-involved modern Jewish woman, Shulevitz manages to speak both candidly and intelligently about a topic that really ought to interest all students of religion and culture and particularly all Jewish ones. Some of what she has to say is painful to read—I’m thinking particularly of a long passage detailing the Shabbos she once spent with a super-observant family in New Haven as a way of pleasing her then-boyfriend and how she was treated not as a welcome, dignified guest, but as a moron too insufficiently trained in her own Jewishness to be trusted to clear the dining room table or help clean up the kitchen without inadvertently violating some specific detail of Shabbat observance—but most of her reminiscences are benign enough. When she writes about her childhood home and especially about her mother, for example, even those parts of her story that will make readers cringe are bathed in a kind of warm light far more reflective of the love she clearly feels for the people in her story than suggestive of any sinister intention to expose their failings or their flaws to the reading public. And the same could be said of her various accounts of synagogue life—a certain amount of what she has to say that will make readers (and especially Jewish ones) uncomfortable, but even those accounts feel suffused with some sort of basically wholesome combination of respect for the larger enterprise and sympathy for the players in her story…including, impressively, those she does not appear to recall especially fondly.

There’s a lot here to ponder. Her long chapter, for example, about the growth of Christian sabbatarianism is fascinating and contained a huge amount of material that was either unfamiliar or wholly unknown to me. (I’m thinking here specifically of her description of the Transylvanian Szombatosok—literally “Saturday People”— who numbered tens of thousands in the seventeenth century and who embraced some Christianized version of what Jews would easily recognize as Shabbat.) But although her effort to trace the roots of the back-to-the-Sabbath movement in the Reformation was interesting enough in its own right, it was when the authors turns to the history of the Sabbath in America that I found myself totally caught up in what she had to say. Her chapter connecting the beginning of the story in Puritan America—and especially her account of the life of Thomas Shepard, one of the founders of Harvard University and also one of Christian America’s greatest sabbatarians—with the crazy quilt of blue laws that continue to govern the hugely inconsistent American approach to the maintenance of a common day of rest, for example, is terrifically interesting and filled with all sorts of provocative, challenging insights into the way Americans see themselves and understand American culture to function. But it is when Shulevitz turns to the philosophical issues behind the concept of a weekly day of rest that she shines the most brightly. Starting out from the observation that our world is filled to overflowing with mechanical and electronic devices touted as labor-saving wonders but which end up quickly enough first encroaching upon and then entirely swallowing up whatever limited leisure time their purchasers may actually have had before acquiring them, Shulevitz makes a very convincing case that Americans in particular have moved past the notion of a common day of rest too quickly for their own good. It’s a convincing case. And regardless of whether readers are completely brought on board, they will still find the argument thoughtfully and persuasively put.

There are flaws with the book as well. Shulevitz is not a trained scholar of religion and so has no choice but to rely on the research of others, which she cites extensively throughout the book. But she occasionally gives forth with undue authority about subjects she appears to know well but not really well enough. Her description of how the Torah came to be, for example, presents as simple facts theories that hold sway only in some specific corners of the scholarly world and which are considered wholly passé in others. The same—that she relies on the books she happens to have read—could be said with respect to her retelling of the story of the Maccabean revolt or the history of the early Christian church. Her habit of referring to the Tanakh as the Old Testament and to Jesus as Christ (as though that were his last name) will make Jewish readers, to say the least, uncomfortable.

But the section of the book that Jewish readers will find the most perplexing will be the concluding chapter in which she waxes poetic about all the positive things re-introducing the concept of even a wholly secular, religion-free Sabbath into American life would at least possibly bring to this country. Noting that she is not the first to have this thought—I personally took her advice to check on and was astounded at how many books published in the last decade alone have as their basic thesis the idea that Christian America should embrace the idea of a real Sabbath-style day of personal rest on a weekly basis—she never quite explains how the national re-adoption of legally requisite Sabbath rest on Sundays, or even the widespread, non-legally-required re-introduction of a weekly Sunday Sabbath into secular American culture, could possibly not be a ruinous development for observant American Jews who already have a day each week on which they do not work and on which they therefore cannot look after all the chores that there is no time to address during the work week. (In all fairness, she acknowledges the problem and addresses it. She just doesn’t really offer a practical solution.) And therein lies the crux of the book’s nervous energy: the author’s realization that she is proposing something that would probably do secular American culture no end of good but which would even further marginalize, alienate, and isolate those of us American citizens who already have a rich, meaningful non-Sunday Sabbath in our lives. Does Shulevitz sees this as somehow emblematic of some of the larger issues surrounding the Jewish presence in American society? I came away thinking so, although I’m not sure how fair that is. (In all fairness, I have to admit I didn’t really understand the last few pages of the book in terms of what the author is actually recommending. The point, for example, of her retelling of the story about how Freud’s attitude towards ritual developed against the background of an insult his father was obliged (partially by circumstance and partially because of his own meekness) to endure at the hands of an anti-Semitic hooligan on the sidewalk of his hometown also eluded me. Is the point that his father was asking for trouble by taking a walk dressed up in his Shabbos finery when he just as easily could have hidden his faith by dressing down to avoid notice? Surely, all rituals serve to divide those who observe them from those who don’t. Is that bad? Or, more to the point, does that oblige all who openly practice their faith to feel at least partially responsible when bigots respond negatively to their unhidden, unsubtle piety?)

These are all interesting questions that are compellingly presented and adroitly handled by the author in what is, finally, a very worthwhile work for American Jews (and also American non-Jews) to ponder. I know Judith Shulevitz’s mother, who is a colleague of mine in the Rabbinical Assembly, and I imagine she must be very proud of her daughter’s work. Reading this book I felt proud too: proud to be part of a national culture in which a Jewish author can publish such a very Jewish book and expect, apparently correctly, for it to find a wide audience among non-Jewish readers eager to learn what they can about our national ethos from an author who is so thoroughly and unabashedly Jewish in her orientation towards life, religion, and public policy. The Sabbath World is a great book and I recommend it to you wholeheartedly.

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