The Sabbath debate in Israel.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
July 29 2005 6:39 AM

The View From Saturday

Secular Israelis try to rescue the Sabbath.

(Continued from Page 1)

Nowadays, these sentiments sound quaint, even stuffy. America's blue laws have vanished. Sunday, when it is set aside, is set aside for home improvement, soccer tournaments, shopping marathons, and supercommercialized or gear-heavy recreational activities, not for poetry, or moral uplift, or anything else that would engender the fellow feeling Beecher was so fond of. The justices' (and Gavison's) distinction between shopping and recreation also seems outdated, as shopping evolves into a kind of entertainment and entertainment devolves ­into a series of long-form commercials for worldwide celebrity brands.

A national day of rest in the global era—even for Israelis—is probably a fantasy. But it's a strangely inspiring one. Who talks of "public culture" anymore? Everybody talks about popular culture, but ours is the era of segmented markets, when hip-hop fans share no common ground with, say, OC addicts. Communitarians talk of civil society, but the voluntarism and community activity they demand is (and ought to be) local, not national; there's no obvious way to bring all those Knights of Columbus councils and bowling teams in contact with each other.

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What's useful about the Israeli Sabbath is not that we can have it in the United States. We can't and shouldn't. It's that the Israeli debate about Saturday evokes a memory of Sunday. The secular Sabbath once gave Americans an experience that was national in scope, personal in character, and religiously neutral. As soon as religion was disestablished, no one had to go to church, or anywhere else for that matter. As for the Sabbath falling on Sunday, Frankfurter, an active Jew, pointed out that to have a common day of rest, you had to pick one, and it might as well be the one that most people already observed. The benefit of having a majority of Americans share a day off, he argued, outweighed the harm done to religious minorities who might have to shut their stores or miss work on other days.

The texture of that day off is hard to conjure up now, because contemporary life offers little like it. For 24 hours, we stayed home and ate huge family dinners, or went to church, or set off on afternoon drives, and we not only did these things with members of our inner circle, but did them in the knowledge that everyone else in the nation was doing them, too. At any rate, they weren't doing the things they spent the rest of the week caught up in, and that gave us permission not to do them either. We had fewer choices, but that lack of choice may have been more liberating than we realized, because having the option of working or shopping often brings with it the nagging sense that if you're not working, you should be—and if you're not shopping, you need to be. One day a week, the country honored life beyond duty and beyond the imperatives of the marketplace. Americans embraced laziness, goofiness, random reading, desultory conversation, neighbors and relatives both pleasant and unpleasant—the kinds of things that knit them together even as they made them more themselves. We can't have those days back, of course, but we can try to remember what disappeared when they did.

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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