The Sabbath World 

Could the Sabbath Be a Cure for Self-Sickness?
New books dissected over email.
March 24 2010 9:36 AM

The Sabbath World 


The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz.

Dear Mary and Judith,

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Well, I think you have both identified the problem. "Unplugging" alone is half the story. Simply dropping out one day a week isn't enough—though it's a start. As Judith points out, at some point, merely stopping gets "lonely and boring." And as Mary explains, Sabbath requires plugging back in to something—for you, Mary, that involves engagement in "liturgy, prior meditation on the readings, full-throated singing, and presence to the community." That sounds a lot like our own Sabbath, a once-a-month family minyan, that gathers in our living room. This all came about when a group of families wanted to try praying and studying together with our young children. As Judith surmises, we couldn't quite sort out how to do that at traditional Sabbath services, where the kids are either sent elsewhere or wriggle noisily on your lap and complain.


Judith, your meditation on groups offers up the word "communitas" to describe "group life that emerges at the edges of society … a gathering that may be a little offbeat, a little decrepit, rather hard to see the point of if you're peering in from outside." That describes our minyan about perfectly. We sing, we pray, we study text—you would love that part—we eat. Mary, that sounds a lot like the communal Sabbath you've described: the one that happens outside the home. Because we all take turns leading prayers and study, there is no sense of authority. But there's also no feeling that you're there to cheer on the real action that's happening way up front either.

Now to be clear, restful our minyan is not. Those Saturday mornings can be more roller derby than Rousseau, and it's all accompanied by the electronic chirping of either Buzz Lightyear or Cookie Monster the moment one of the toddlers discovers the toy bins. But I suspect that the resurgence of the independent minyan will transform 21st-century Judaism for some of the very reasons your book explores, Judith. So many of my friends have described feeling alienated and embarrassed in traditional Sabbath services because they don't like mumbling words or looking at their shoes while others mumble. If community means anything, it can't mean feeling isolated or conspicuous in a group that's meant to be your community. Maybe in addition to your beautiful meditation on time-sickness, Judith, we should consider the Sabbath as a cure for a kind of self-sickness; the weird loneliness that comes with being plugged in all week long.

Judith, your section on the blue laws was fascinating to me, because I knew so little about them and because they seem to have worked so very poorly, even at their best. In response to your question, I don't think we can ever return to a legislated Sabbath. If your book taught me anything, it's that over centuries, Sabbath makes a better carrot than stick.

Before I sign off, I want to spin out one more thread you have both touched on only briefly: music. I can't imagine Sabbath without song—that's probably a gift from my mother, for whom music and Sabbath have always been inextricably mixed. Whether it's the spontaneous harmonies at B'nai Jeshurun that threaten to blow the roof off on a Friday night, or Rick Calvert bubbling away on the iPod Friday afternoon as something bubbles on the stove, music, for me, has always been an arrow straight into the heart of the Sabbath. This is slightly complicated by the fact that observant Jews don't play instruments on the Sabbath, and goes a long way toward explaining why Christians have given the world such glorious music, while Jews are often best known for the protracted, toneless hum. Our Sabbath minyan does a lot of singing. We don't use instruments, but having been to services at which they do, I wonder whether we are missing out. Maybe you have some thoughts on this, Mary.

Judith, I really do want to echo Mary in thanking you for The Sabbath World. It's sort of the temporal version of the "slow food" question that's captivated us all in recent years. There may be a burgeoning "slow faith" movement that begins with unplugging and then slowly staggers toward the holiness Mary describes. And Mary, I, too, would love to hear why it is you think the early Christian leaders de-emphasized some of the aspects of Sabbath that Judith writes about, and which parts you would reclaim, given the chance. Thank you both so much for giving me the chance to unplug from my own whirl and to share this little patch of quiet with you, and with this stunning book.


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