The Sabbath World 

How and Why I Obsess Over the Sabbath
New books dissected over email.
March 23 2010 9:39 AM

The Sabbath World 


The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz.

Dear Judith and Mary:

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

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

Welcome, Mary, to Slate. And to Judith, welcome home. What an extraordinary book you have produced, and what a pleasure to be a part of this discussion. I want to confess upfront that I read the book over three consecutive Sabbaths, and that it's not highlighted, underlined, or dog-eared in the way most of my review copies are. The Sabbath World, much like Sabbath itself, has been a languid, thinky, out-of-time experience for me. Like cholent, it gets better and better as it stews.


There are really two parts to The Sabbath World, and maybe we can talk about them in order. The first is Judith's gorgeously written and researched exposition on the Sabbath as a day out of time, a commitment to community, a personal struggle with holiness, and a political and historical football in the evolution of both Judaism and Christianity. This is the psychological, mythical, and historic tension between our collective need for a Sabbath and our refusal to be encumbered by it. The second part is also about a push and a pull, but this is Judith's personal struggle—through years and years of Sabbaths, a wrestling match between obligation and disappointment and longing and boredom and, as a parent, the ever-present soccer question.

Since Sabbath at your house looks very much like Sabbath at mine, Judith (dinner, song, ritual, wallets, cell phones, no cell phones), I wanted to preface my thoughts by admitting that I obsess over Sabbath. Partly because I have always found myself more at home in Sabbath than almost anyplace—I grew up in a family that observed it with greater and greater commitment over the years—I sometimes feel that if I fail to build a home in Sabbath for my children, I will have done them irreparable harm.

More and more I am the one in the corner at the cocktail party having a version of your Sabbath conversation with some other parent; someone longing to make the commitment you describe to the bodies of our parents, our churches, to our own dreams. We fret that our lives and the lives of our children are too bound up in what Abraham Joshua Heschel called "thing-hood" and mastery and domination. We look like that iconic image of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. We are being chewed up by machines, by time, by stuff. We also know, as you put it, that Sabbath "does something"—if there is a loftier spiritual experience than sprawling across a puffy chair on a Saturday afternoon with your 4-year-old, a smelly cat, and a torrent of dust motes, I can't think of it. For me the Sabbath question isn't so much why as how?

Perhaps the hardest part of Sabbath is quite literally the unplugging. If we turn off the televisions and the BlackBerrys, something might happen, and we might be the only ones who didn't know about it. I wonder what you both think about the ways technology makes us feel connected to one another in ways that Sabbath once did. One of my favorite writers, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has described meditation as a sort of practice death. You get to drop out completely for a little while and discover that life tumbles by just fine without you. I have come to think of Sabbath the same way: as a practice death. Judith, you describe the seventh day as "God turning his back on us to occupy himself with something even more important to him than we are." I wonder if that is—forgive me the fanciful notion—a sort of practice death even for God?

One thing I did realize reading this book was the extent to which Sabbath is wasted on the young. Like you, Judith, my childhood memories are ambivalent at best. I remember being bored, and missing high-school dances, and never-ending dust motes. I wonder whether it's impossible to love Sabbath until you are old enough to need Sabbath.

I want to ask both of you so many questions. I want to ask about some of the normative issues Judith raises about blue laws, and time, and money. I want to ask whether you think everyone in America isn't secretly longing for someone to give some version of Sabbath back. I want to ask you to describe the loveliest Sabbath experience you've ever had. But I mostly want to know what you thought of this book, Mary, and how you, Judith, felt writing it. There's a complicated feeling of relief when you out yourself as a Sabbath junkie, isn't there?


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