The Sabbath World:
Glimpses of a Different Order of Time
by Judith Shulevitz
Random House, 246 pages, $26
“At some point we all look for a Sabbath, whether or not that’s what we call it.” Thus, Judith Shulevitz begins this part memoir, part learned excursus through the theology of the Jewish Sabbath and its changed role in Christianity. She captures poignantly the great gulf between the rabbinic concept of the Sabbath as a foretaste of the World to Come and the desultory efforts of moderately observant Jews to dress Saturday in the robes of the Sabbath Bride. The book abounds with delicious lines, such as “Heschel calls the Sabbath a cathedral in time. My future husband’s house was a parsonage in the suburbs.” Shulevitz explains to her synagogue-going but agnostic husband,
The Sabbath is not only an idea. It is also something you keep. With other people. You can’t just extract lessons from it. Me, I want to keep it and teach my children to keep it . . . but I’m afraid my children will resent me as much as I resented my parents. . . . I like the idea of keeping the Sabbath, but at the thought of actually doing it, of passing an entire day following strange rules while refraining from customary recreations, I am knocked flat by a wave of anticipated boredom.
Shulevitz’ one experience with Orthodox Sabbath observance—watching an ultra-Orthodox family refrain from using toothpaste or sorting dishes or wringing dish towels in punctilious fidelity to rabbinic interpretation of Sabbath laws—inspired repugnance. In passing she allows that she never was able to pray, which of course is what the Orthodox do for a good part of the Sabbath. It is not surprising that she found it boring.
She has read and reviews with clarity the rabbinic literature on the Sabbath, although she distills it into a somewhat reductive conclusion: “The Sabbath—God’s claim against our time—implies that time has an ethical dimension. We rest in order to honor God and his creation, which suggests that not to rest dishonors both.” She wonders at the preparation of the home as for a bridal feast propounded by the Lurian Kabbalah. She spends Sabbath afternoon studying Talmud at a Park Slope synagogue and concludes, “The Talmud is like a giant game of telephone . . . even when we don’t understand what we’re reading, we listen in on the crackles and the static and the distant heartbeats of something garbled and important that goes by the name of Revelation.”
With her aversion to the overtly supernatural aspect of Judaism, Shulevitz circles her subject but finds herself unable to sneak up on it. The “sacred time” of the Sabbath is not a matter of ethics, but a step out of mortality. It is human participation in the eternal time of creation. That is what the rabbis meant when they called the Sabbath a foretaste of the World to Come: It is an irruption of eternity into temporality, and the Jew who observes it lives for a day in eternity. In this context, Franz Rosenzweig quotes the phrase in the Torah benedictions, which blesses God for “planting eternal life among us.”
Eternal life is the subject of the Sabbath, and Shulevitz’ discomfort with this also clouds her reading of the New Testament. She writes that, “when it came to the Sabbath, the historical Jesus would have had reform, not revolution in mind. He was a Reform rabbi, not a Jew for Jesus.” The work of Jacob Neusner, which Pope Benedict XVI cites in the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, set this old canard to rest. Jesus claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath and claimed for those close to him the same exemptions that apply to the priests in the Temple, the source of eternal life where temporality does not exist.
Christians do not keep the Sabbath—the foretaste of eternal life—because they believe that Jesus himself is both Sabbath and Temple. Shulevitz interpolates an account of Christian Sabbatarians without, however, understanding why it is that they were so heretical.