Shabbat (non) Observance

I just finally got to Judith Shulevitz’s Sabbath World. It got a lot of public play when it first came out in 2010. I tried to avoid it. As a snarky academic, I’m supposed to have mixed feelings about this kind of book, and maybe I do still entertain a bunch of questions about this book in particular. But I also really liked it. So there you go!

The book consists of the personal meditations of the author –a middle class not so young anymore woman who has come over the course of a life to a more sustained observance of the Jewish sabbath (Shabbat). The text follows the author’s exercise in ironing out her own ambivalence. To observe the Sabbath and the many restrictions on daily life that traditional forms of observance entail (no work, no spending money, no driving, electricity such as television or internet) —or not!?! The balance sheet is complicated. Sabbath observance secures a special kind of aesthesis (slow time, quiet space, side-real mental consciousness). Like any mental or spiritual discipline, however, it limits personal autonomy as we have come to know it in the modern west.

The book has at least two components. One is historical. The other is autobiographical and confessional.  


With the historical material, you get a kind of primer. Shulevitz tracks the origins of Shabbat in the Hebrew Bible. And then it gets interesting, twinning a survey of sabbath observance in Jewish and Christian traditions. Familiar with the New Testament and rabbinic-kabbalistic sources I found this not so interesting. Readers not familiar with the history of Sabbath might find this more engaging. The author has a light touch.

I started paying serious attention to the discussion of Christian Sabbatarian movements (in Hungary and Transylvania!) and Sabbath observance among Puritans in England and the American colonies, and the hegemony of the Sabbath world in nineteenth century England and United States. There was wonderful material about the Sabbath in Wordsworth, George Elliot and, of all people, T.H. Lawrence

And then it occurred to me. The biblical, rabbinic, and kabbalistic sources you come to expect in a Jewish book about religion. The Christian and English romantic sources stand out. In this book, they provide the lever with which the author (who studied English lit and literary theory at Yale in the 1980s) managed to work her way into observing a hybrid, American (!) form of Jewish Shabbat. Sort of like Emerson and Whitman in Kazin, but Kazin couldn’t connect them with Jewish religion (Kazin was the subject of my most recent post below.) 


The second confessional part of Sabbath World can be read in a logical sequence. Its worth the couple grains of salt that it will require of many readers.

Step 1: The author sets up the attraction to Shabbat as an attraction to a kind of poetic-aesthetic place.

Step 2: She then makes a big promotion of the fact that the she won’t light candles on time, she won’t pray, she can’t believe. So you the reader will naturally ask at what point enough is enough and at what point do you as a reader decide that this is entirely too self-involved. What’s the point of observing Shabbat in the first place? And what’s the point of this exercise? This question was posed by the critical reviewer writing in the Jewish Review of Books. You might want to ask it yourself. Why should anyone else care how the author observes or does not observe Shabbat?

And then you’re done with the book because you are not interested in pursuing the line into Shabbat that the ambivalence in this book sets out to generate.

But let’s be patient and complete the line.

Step 3: The author combines observance and snark –after all, she studied English literature and literary theory, at Yale, during the 1980s. One could dismiss this ambivalence as self indulgent, but I think that would be a big mistake. The ambivalence about religion and spirituality strikes deep contemporary chords worth exploring.  What you get is a combination of snark and non-snark. There is a canny holding onto self in the very act entering into sabbath-place.

Step 4: This hybrid position is the endpoint of the book. It is the author’s “I Observe – I Don’t Observe.” The author is going to observe Shabbat, but she’s also going to do any number of things that the lived life of a busy, modern person requires when she has to or simply wants to. It gives a form of religious observance, but one that also holds itself back. You could call it a form of “(NON) OBSERVANCE.” It suggests that there is a form of observance in the refusal to observe. There is also a refusal to serve in the act of observance.

This is very different than the idealizing picture of Shabbat in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s masterpiece The Sabbath (1955). People who are very observant or completely non-observant are not going to think much about Shulevitz’s book and its place in the middle. But this is the tension that makes this book and its project so contemporary. You know, it’s a big world out there and there are lots of different types of people want, think, and do all sorts of different things in all sorts of different combinations. There’s a full spectrum of observance between complete observance and total non-observance, each point along having its own dignity and coherence. The coherence of contemporary (non) observance is more compromised and complicated than simple observance or simple non-observance.

I’m inclined to think that in the middle is a pretty good place to be. Theologically, the middle suggests that maybe the very concept of a demanding God is not so “ungovernable” after all. I think the simple pleasures of religious ritual go often underlooked in religious studies, which tends to look at the symbolic valence of a ritual system. For instance, I could have done without the psychoanalytic wrastling that occupies the concluding pages of the book. Of course, pleasure is almost always undervalued in contemporary Jewish philosophy, which is why it is often such stuffy stuff. The 18th German Jewish savant Moses Mendelssohn was a standout exception. So too is Hava Tirsosh-Samuelson’s recent excursus on happiness in premodern Jewish philosophy.

Regarding modern-contemporary religion and 19th Century romanticism, I posted below about Werner Herzog.

About the reclining Buddha above in the picture. I’m not a Buddhist. I just like looking at him. Like Rachel in the Bible, I stole the “idol” from my mother.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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