Wednesday, March 31, 2010
New Thoughts on Sabbath
I'm listening to a fascinating interview by Terry Gross about Sabbath on NPR. I also read something about this author (Judith Shulevitz) in this past week's NY Times Sunday Book Review. (Random trivia: during the weekend my brother told me that Shulevitz used to live 3 doors down from he and his family. I've even referenced Shulevitz in an article I once wrote about Sabbath several years ago. What a strangely small world we live in.)
There are some things she says that I don't connect with -- this woman, Judith Shulevitz, is not very strict in her spiritual practice (in this case, Judaism) in many ways. She says she doesn't pray, and she's not very consistent in going to temple. She even acknowledges that while she practices Sabbath, she's also ambivalent about it. And her husband isn't observant.
Regardless, she finds herself irresistibly drawn to the idea, reasons, and many of the habits of Sabbath. She found herself wanting more out of life. So it's a quizzical interview in some ways, but lovely in many others. Perhaps I also enjoy hearing two people spend time talking about the appeal of knowing God, without fully knowing him. It's so enlightening and fresh... Good reminders to people who maybe spend the majority (or all?) of their time with others with whom they share the same beliefs.
I've always understood Sabbath to simply mean "stop" -- a time to remember that we are human beings, not human doings. More importantly, it is to be a time to practice what we are going to do forever: to enjoy the presence and worship of the Lord unhindered.
I don't want to give too much away, but two things that Ms. Shulevitz said really struck me, and enlarged my understanding -- and hopefully, my practice. Her latest book is a result of extensive research into the history of Jewish Sabbatical practice. She says that Sabbath is intended to be a collective rest. Not only a time set aside for spiritual devotion, but a time where that worship is to be shared. People are to enjoy restful meals and conversation and leisure together. I did not know this. I've usually used Sabbath to get time alone, to reflect, to turn off -- and use that time to read and be quiet, often outside. But she says that Sabbath is not intended to be a time of "personal liberty and unfettered leisure." Hmm.
Furthermore, she says that the goal of Sabbath is that "you as a human should not be exerting mastery over the world." That is why the Jews have so many prescriptions to not do any work. She points out that during the other six days of the week, we exert great effort to conquer the world and have dominion over it. We seek to harness resources, to make our own mark, to maximize our efforts. But one day a week, Shulevitz states, "let the world be as it is, and you be in it." Wow.
These both feel much bigger than what I have understood Sabbath to be. Like Shulevitz (though for entirely different reasons), I am ambivalent about them. In a small, almost two year old sort of way, I want to stomp my foot and just say that I like my Sabbath keeping the way it is. They are life-giving for me, and I look forward to them every week. So her challenges sort of bug me. But I cannot deny that there is a remote, faraway appeal that I can't ignore. I've been so focused on getting Sabbath to be "less of me and more of Thee" that I have neglected the larger community focus (both personal and global) that her statements point to.
See what you think. It's about 40 minutes. Well worth the time.
March 31, 2010 Fresh Air with Terry Gross