The Sabbath World 

Everyone's Least Favorite Subject: Rules and Why We Need Them
New books dissected over email.
March 24 2010 3:55 PM

The Sabbath World 

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The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz.

Dear Mary and Dahlia,

I ran into our editor, Ann, not long after Dahlia filed, and she said to me, "Did you read Dahlia's last post? She got to the best part of all—music!" I felt a twinge when I heard that, since I deal with poetry, literature, and philosophy in the book, but not with music. The music of the Sabbath is a huge subject, and one you can't generalize about, but I know that to many, many people, including Ann—particularly Ann!—music is the functional equivalent of the Sabbath, even, perhaps, of religion itself. Music is a respite, a counter-narrative, an inspiration, a comfort, a visitation from a more perfect world.

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I do get around to talking about drinking songs. Many of the songs Jews sing around the Friday night table while they honor the Sabbath by getting gloriously smashed have a structure we tend to associate with Bavarian beer halls: repeated refrains, lengthening verses, fixed rhythms, simple lyrics. The Sabbath is all about collective transport, and it loves the things (wine, food, candles, song) that ease you on your way. Bach takes you soaring above the Gothic arches; gospel roots you so solidly inside the anguished longing for redemption you feel like you might burst, which is itself a kind of joy. Dahlia, I find our tuneless hums completely hypnotic, though I agree they're completely forgettable when compared with other religious musical traditions. (Have you ever listened to Yiddish lullabies? They're the great contribution of Eastern European Jewry to music, if you ask me.) Even when the music is banal—I don't have your reaction to praise music, Mary, but only because it remains exotic to me—the act of making it together creates bonds that surely some creative social psychologist would be able to find the physiological equivalent of, be it in serotonin levels, heartbeat and breath coordination, generalized sense of well-being, or something else.

And now I want to end by talking about everyone's least favorite subject: rules, and why we need them. Everyone always asks me why I wrote this book, and I always give feel-good answers about this or that missing from my life, but the truth is—and I think I'm honest about this in the book, even if I weasel out of it in conversation—what was really missing from my life were rules. What I was really sick of was knee-jerk libertarianism, my own as much as everyone else's. If we don't have rules, we don't have a Sabbath, or anything like it. The rules are onerous, and they must be continually rethought, re-debated, and re-legislated to keep pace with our kaleidoscopic mores, but without them we have no institutions, no customs, no shape to our time. Even the early Christians, however antinomian they may have been at first, figured that out pretty quickly.

Let me put it another way: If we as a society don't collectively set aside time for social activities—for leisure, for family, for the building of community,  for weird nonutilitarian pursuits—and protect that time against encroachment, we won't have any. We need rules (which, by the way, can be customs; they don't have to be laws) to teach us the tricky but essential distinction between time spent advancing ourselves and our mastery over the world, and time spent on one another. Perhaps that means taking care of our garden, as it did on the Sundays of Mary's childhood, or perhaps just being in one another's company, time that yields no profit other than pleasure and an enlarged quantity of love in the world.

None of this should mean telling Dahlia what kind of Sabbath she should or should not keep. But at the legal level, it may well mean taking what I call a Sabbatarian approach to labor legislation. That would involve perceiving sufficient value to what the French call "social time"—that is, traditional nonwork time, to limit our freedom to chip away at it, especially in our capacity as employers and employees. Otherwise I worry that we're headed toward a world dominated by what philosopher Josef Pieper calls "total work," or Stalin called "the continuous work-week." I tell the story of Stalin's nepreryvka in the book, and it is not a pretty one, nor does it seem as remote a specter from the past as we might like.

Anyway, thank you both for sharing your thoughts and memories with so much heart and so much eloquence. I've always thought book clubs are the most fun you can have while writing, and this one was no exception.

Best,
Judith

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Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.

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