Thursday, May 06, 2010

Book Review: The Sabbath World

I'm old enough to remember the days of the Texas Blue Laws when only essential services were available on Sundays. My father, who grew up a hard-core Presbyterian, discouraged anything but church-going, reading and hanging around the house on Sundays. I remember my aunt (his sister) visiting one time and being surprised that he frowned on card-playing on the Sabbath.

That's all changed, now. Hobby Lobby and Chik-fil-A are the only businesses in our area that routinely close on Sunday as a matter of principle. Still, the habits of my youth linger, and I try to avoid shopping on Sundays and fuss at El Jefe for working on that day at home if its not absolutely necessary (my definition, not his!).

Therefore, I was intrigued to read Judith Shulevitz's The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time when I saw a mention of it somewhere. After finishing it, I was glad that I had to order a hard copy instead of my usual Kindle e-book (not available) because it is a book that I want to keep in my library.

The Sabbath World is not just a religious or theological examination of the meaning of sabbath, although it is that as well. Shulevitz skillfully weaves her own experiences with the concept growing up Jewish and now leading her own Jewish household with erudite discussions of the sociological and psychological effect of keeping sabbath on the individual and the community as well as how sabbath has affected the meaning of time itself.

One of the profound insights of the book is how Sabbath encourages the growth of community among those who practice it. Another is that the practice of Sabbath is not necessarily connected with religious faith--something the author struggles with herself as she describes the theme of her book as her ambivalence toward Sabbath-keeping.

The "social morality of time" is another theme of the book. Shulevitz explains that although we think of time as being mathematically neutral, the fight of the labor movement for shorter days and workweeks illustrates this concept. Shulevitz concludes that we are always "recalibrating our feelings towards our friends" based on how long they have kept us waiting. " If other people's use of our time isn't the object of infinitesimal ethical calculation, I don't know what is."

The Sabbath World is well-written and full of fascinating material about sabbath and sabbath-keeping in history, religion and culture. Although the writer is Jewish, she writes knowledgeably about New Testament ideas of Sabbath and its place in Christianity. I confess that I skimmed through some of the denser psychological sections, but I am sure that material would be interesting to other readers.


Mary Beth said...

Fascinating...I will be looking out for this.

I remember the Blue Laws too, and it's sad how easily we slipped out of that. We used to come home from church and read the newspapers together (remember when Houston had both the Post and the Chronicle!?) A sense that there was nothing more important to do. I miss it.

Elaine said...

For most of my adult life I have had a rule that I do no work on Saturday. Work is defined as anything I don't want to do. Obviously, I do make some exceptions -- but not many. I picked Saturday, because if I have to get up, shower, put on makeup and decent clothes for church -- Sunday is already shot. I am always surprised how unusual that is, at how many people have no real space of rest in their week.

Viola Larson said...

The book sounds like one I would like to read. Although my family was nominally Christian we observed not working on Sunday, church or no church. I remember my sister relating the story of telling the lady she worked for that she would not help with the ironing on Sunday because, well, it was Sunday. But we did play. And don't laugh but a hot game of poker that I often won was often played on Sunday night.

Robin said...

When I was teaching in the Jewish school, I went over to do some work one Saturday and accidentally set off the alarm system, which per protocol buzzed at the police station and fire department and resulted in a call from one of them to the principal's home. On Monday I apologized for interrupting his day and he looked completely baffled. "We would never answer the phone on Shabbos," he said. "Even if the building were burning down?" I asked. "How would we know, and what could we do?" he shrugged.

I would hazard a guess that, per God's idea, those folks accomplished a tremendous amount on the other six days precisely BECAUSE they took the 7th one entirely for God. Not that that was the motivation -- but it all worked out.