Old-New Sabbath


In 2003, Judith Shulevitz published an article in The New York Times Magazine called “Bring Back the Sabbath.” It was mistitled. What Shulevitz really wanted to command was something closer to “Bring Back a Sabbath,” some ritualized behavior in which the pell-mell nature of ordinary time could be brought to a stop. If this were all it needed to be, it could be different from traditional Sabbath observance. It could, to use Shulevitz’s words, be “religiously disciplined” without having to be religious at all. Yet what would it then mean to bring it back? How can something from the past return as something novel?


Part of Shulevitz’s answer comes to light in the genre of The Sabbath World, a book that incorporates and expands upon the 2003 piece. On the surface, the book mixes two kinds of nonfiction writing: the spiritual memoir and the light-footed synthesis of scholarship on a religious topic. Even the beauty of Shulevitz’s prose cannot prevent the reader from being occasionally disoriented by the oscillation between the two. One page narrates the sudden end of a relationship with an Orthodox man when she was in college, while the next treats the role of the Sabbath in the Gospel of Mark. But the true genre of the book is that of apologetics, and both Shulevitz’s history of the Sabbath and the more meandering story of her observance of (and failure to observe) it have roles to play in her argument for the importance of the Sabbath—or at least a Sabbath, whether it is that of traditional observance, something more eclectic, or even the development of what she calls “neo-Sabbatarian” social policy.  Such policies would, like the traditional Sabbath, set aside time “for family, for community, for one another,” as she told a somewhat incredulous Stephen Colbert.

Shulevitz’s opening and closing chapters, which discuss psychoanalytic interpretations of ritual, show that she thinks the Sabbath—whether old or new—to be grounded neither in revelation nor superstition, but in illusion, in Freud’s not unfavorable sense of the term. Rituals “come out of our own dreams”; they are techniques developed out of our wish to forestall the insecurities of existence. And so each of Shulevitz’s historical narratives shows how truths are made, and the role that the Sabbath has played in making them. The Hasidim of 2 Maccabees kept the Sabbath to prove to themselves that the world was ordered, while the 19th-century preacher Charles Shaw, who grew up in poverty, saw the practice of being washed and brushed before Sunday school as one that opened up a vision of a better kind of life.

On the other hand, each bit of Shulevitz’s memoir reveals that we need truths to be made. During Shulevitz’s childhood in San Juan, her family life is marred by her mother’s unhappiness and her father’s distance. While a college student at Yale majoring in comparative literature, she throws herself into literary theory only to discover it to be a tool for forcing students into a lockstep campus culture. It is only later in life, in a Talmud reading group, that Shulevitz finds true interpretive freedom—this group values the compelling answer, not necessarily the true one—and gains a genuine self-assuredness. “We all look for a Sabbath, whether or not that’s what we call it.” To look for a Sabbath, for Shulevitz, is to look for a community not unlike her reading group.

Shulevitz is not the first to have justified Judaism through recourse to its evident usefulness. Earlier interpreters of Jewish ritual could also be described as utilitarian. In 1836, Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the intellectual forefathers of Modern Orthodoxy, wrote The Nineteen Letters on Judaism, a series of letters in response to a young Jewish man’s charge that Judaism cannot bring Jews happiness. When treating the Sabbath, Hirsch’s fictional rabbi argues that since happiness has both a material and a spiritual component, Judaism has its own utility. Yet this could only be seen from within halakhic life. Hirsch had his rabbi write, “if you would conceive of yourself as God’s servant, surely then you would no longer see any reason for complaints.” Nine centuries earlier, Saadia Gaon had already defended the cessation of work on Sabbaths and holidays on utilitarian fictional grounds, “first of all that of obtaining relaxation from much exertion.”

Shulevitz uses similar rhetoric to try to coax her readers to re-enchant their social worlds through ritual. Observe a Sabbath! You’ll like it! (And you need it!) But Shulevitz differs from earlier Jewish utilitarians. First, she claims that Sabbatarian practice is useful whether God exists or not. God need not have commanded anything about the cessation of work in order for us to realize that overwork is, among other things, dangerous to our mental health. Second, she claims that study about the Sabbath need not at all lead to the halakhic practice of observing the Sabbath in order to be useful: “I need not be a Sabbatarian to be a Sabbatarian.” Learning is as useful as doing, because the life-changing force of a practice lies in its intellectual core.


As a result, she argues that we should remember the Sabbath (as commanded in the Book of Exodus) but need not exactly keep the Sabbath (as commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy). While this may help to explain and even defend her and her husband’s current failure to keep the Sabbath as much as she would like, she does not intend The Sabbath World to be merely an intellectual exercise. Study can be for the sake of politics, and Shulevitz is particularly compelling in her seventh and final chapter, where she argues for kinder, gentler blue laws that would protect American citizens from what Joseph Stalin once called “the continuous work week.” For instance, she suggests formulating policies that would encourage companies to privilege a customary daytime work schedule for their employees, and that would guarantee employees the right to refuse “non-standard” hours.

Here appears the specter that haunts all attempts to make the old new. Does one really need to point to the Book of Exodus to argue for policies that make it easier to protect a healthy balance between work and the rest of one’s life? Do we really need to remember the Sabbath, or imagine a new Sabbatarianism, in order to make its benefits real? Shulevitz wants to answer these questions in the affirmative. But she is not arguing for religious belief as a prerequisite for good policy. For her, “God is the ancestors” and nothing more. Neither does she seem to be claiming that a disciplined religious life is a prerequisite for good policy; if she were, she would be more worried about the flux of her own Sabbath practice. So what is her claim?

The policy orientation of The Sabbath World appears in its early pages. Shulevitz argues that technology has made the demands of work even more burdensome than they were a decade ago, when the border between home and the workplace began to turn into mist. Nevertheless, she is unhappy with current attempts at labor reform, for they assume that time is a commodity rather than something “relative and situational.” Time has value only through the depth of our commitment to the person or group with whom we spend our time, and such commitment can only be fostered by the structures of civil society. As soon as Shulevitz has made this claim, she introduces her reader to the Torah. Judaism and its Sabbath thus become interventions in a policy debate. The beautiful arouses commitment far more than any policy wonkery can, and for Shulevitz, the Sabbath and the rest of the tradition become a set of non-compulsory “poems to live by.”

This is a charmingly minimal sort of apologetics. Shulevitz need not ask anything more of her readers (whether religious or irreligious) than to appreciate the beauty that our ancestors (whether Jews or Puritans inspired by Jewish practices) saw in the Sabbath. And yet, I worry that The Sabbath World might not be minimal enough. Like Abraham Joshua Heschel in his 1951 classic The Sabbath, Shulevitz apparently wants Jews to contribute something as Jews to the fabric of American culture. Whether it is an appreciation for the reality of divine command (Heschel), or the utility of ancient custom, Judaism becomes that which can make our world extraordinary again.

Any focus on a Jewish contribution of this kind presupposes that the public sphere is lacking in some respect. But is it really true that all Americans are deeply needful of the Sabbath and the community that it allegedly offers? Could we all stand to go off the grid on a regular basis? Is it true that we will reap benefits when we do? Must we assume that if someone observes a Sabbath, but never finds rest, there must be something wrong with that person? If someone just enjoys solitary activities—bowling alone, reading alone, cooking for one—is that a sign that he or she has fallen prey to false consciousness?


Different people in different places, I would say, have different temperaments. Banal as it may seem, this claim constitutes a great threat to a long tradition of Jewish theological writing, which either assumes that happiness takes the same form for all, or concludes that it is only attainable for the majority.

With admirable brio, Shulevitz resists the implications that ought to be drawn from the fact of human diversity. In her last chapter, she regretfully describes legal challenges to blue laws over the last fifty years. The mishmash of arbitrary state regulations that currently remain, for her, signal that there is nothing that we hold in common with our fellow citizens besides labor and consumption.

But if the courts cannot make America keep a Sabbath, and if approaching tradition as poetry fails to motivate people who are content to bowl alone, then the only site from which one could possibly resist the alienating effects of the contemporary workplace would be a Law that transcends humanly made laws. Protection of the Sabbath would thus require a far different book than Shulevitz has written or could write, one that abandons the ambivalent territory of the old-new Sabbath for the righteousness that comes only with knowing the God to whom one prays.

Shulevitz’s ambivalence about tradition cannot be resolved. She is in the same position as all those whose temperaments lead them to feel both the pull of the ordinary present and the pull of the extraordinary past. They will never be Orthodox or fully secular, and will never be adequately able to account for the fact that certain rituals do or do not motivate them (or motivate them on some days but not on others). For rituals, in their eternal failure to offer up answers to the question “Why this way, and not that way?” cannot bear the weight that reasons—whether they be historical explanations or promises of the social benefits in the future—place on them. If those of us who are ambivalent about ritual give reasons for our ritual behavior or for our failure to engage in it, it is merely in the hope that we will find others with common temperaments. Perhaps it is only in the intimacies of such friendships, forever foreign to policy and politics, that we can find rest.




Suggested Reading

We Are Really Not One

Eric Alterman

Allan Arkush must be developing quite a reputation for himself as JRB’s chief of its pro-Israel thought police—I suppose I should be honored. Joshua Cohen went on to receive a Pulitzer Prize for a recent book for which Arkush attempted a no-less comically inept attack in these same pages. Sadly, he has not improved with practice. I suppose it’s possible…