The Sabbath World 

Unplugging on the Sabbath Isn't Just a Jewish Problem
New books dissected over email.
March 23 2010 12:11 PM

The Sabbath World 

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The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz.

Dear Judith and Dahlia,

Thanks, Dahlia, for launching this conversation, and my gratitude to you, Judith, for the rich fare you have provided in The Sabbath World. You evoked memories of absorbing conversations at the Shabbat dinner table, where I have been so warmly welcomed as a guest. Your book is similarly hospitable to non-Jewish readers.

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The structure of your book, with its intertwining of analysis with rumination, mirrors your subject. It's not a book to be devoured at one sitting but one to be pondered—as if you were cultivating our Sabbath stillness. Were I an artist, I would have illuminated your elegant prose in the manner of a medieval Book of Hours for a graphic midrash.

Among the numerous possibilities for illumination is your claim that "[w]e have to commit ourselves to holy time before it will oblige us by turning holy." Ours is a culture reluctant to commit, suspicious of tradition, and oblivious to the toxic effects of our obsession with constant, instant communication. In your apologetic for a different ordering of time, you challenge us to value those communal practices, structures, and habits that center us in the deeper, if more elusive, realities of the sacred. You challenge our achievement-oriented culture to recognize the efficacy of keeping Sabbath.

Christianity embraces myriad ways of observing the commandment to "keep holy the Sabbath," though none is a precise analogue to Jewish modes of observance. The divergences developed, I think, less out of the teachings of Jesus and Paul (as you suggest, Judith) and more out of the struggles of communities in the second century and beyond to meet their own needs. This included worship "in the breaking of the bread," communal life, and reflection on the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The tragedy is that in the construction of distinctive identity, symbolized in part by the move from Saturday to Sunday as the "Lord's Day," leaders of these communities denigrated Judaism. In their polemic against "sabbatizing," these leaders also eclipsed the obligation to cease from work and obscured the emphasis on Sabbath rest and joy.

In general, Sabbath keeping in various Christian traditions today is linked more to church and less to home, and more to a formal memorial of the Lord's Supper and less to the informality of a celebratory family meal. Some churches, particularly in African-American congregations, celebrate Sunday with great festivity, extending the communal aspect over the course of the day. In my own Roman Catholic tradition, the obligatory aspect of keeping Sabbath primarily involves participating in Mass on Sunday. In my childhood we also heard injunctions to refrain from "servile" work (gainful work or arduous labor). I remember arguing that doing homework shouldn't be permitted, either, but my mother ruled otherwise. Yet, in emphasizing what was not permitted, virtually no attention was devoted to the liberating dimensions of Sunday rest.

I discovered the freedom of Sunday rest from my observant Jewish friends. Being with them has taught me the power of "time that we sanctify by means of ourselves," as you put it, Judith. My observance differs in its specific practices, which tend to be less communally regulated. Like you and Dahlia, I recognize the importance of "unplugging," but I might phone or e-mail friends too often neglected in the frenzy of the week. Our differences, however, are not ultimately as important as the common quest to resist the compulsions of work, accomplishment, and consumerism. For this resistance I require wholehearted engagement in my community's liturgy: prior meditation on the readings, full-throated singing, presence to the community. I also require the laying aside of my "to do" list. Neither is easy. The clock and the calendar too readily rule my life.

Judith, in drawing me into to your Sabbath world—its complexities and tensions, its beauties and freedom—you have limned a realm non-Jewish readers will enter with pleasure and gratitude.

Yours,
Mary

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Mary C. Boys is the Skinner and McAlpin professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names.

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