“A Palace in Time”
A Review of
The Sabbath World:
Glimpses of a Different Order of Time
by Judith Shulevitz
Reviewed by Ragan Sutterfield
The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time
Hardback: Random House, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Christians have all too often ignored the Sabbath. Ours is the Lord who questioned the keeping of the Sabbath, lowering its status, one could argue. Paul, in helping spread Christianity, also set the stage for a diminished view of the Sabbath as he tried to wrangle diaspora Jews and gentiles into one church by saying that there was nothing special about one day over another. Though both Jesus and Paul seem to have actually kept the Sabbath for the most part, it has been all too easy, outside of the very Sabbatarian context in which they were acting, to make the Sabbath a disposable idea, easily ignored or compromised when need be.
But if “the Sabbath was made for man” as Jesus says, most Christians have not accepted this gift of God. We have not learned to practice the Sabbath and so we are easily swayed by our kids’ soccer schedule or the mounting housework that we need one more day to complete. Most of us acknowledge that the Sabbath is important, but we find ourselves easy Sabbath breakers if something better comes along. We need a voice to call us back—a voice from the outside who understands all of our ambivalence.
Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time is just the right sort of book. Shulevitz is Jewish, with an experience of Sabbath few gentiles ever get a chance to have, and yet she is secular, agnostic, and has struggled with a deep ambivalence toward the Sabbath. She brings us the gifts of the Jewish tradition and yet understands the struggles of the modern gentile with a day set aside for a kind of rest that, on the surface, seems like a lot of work.
“The goal of the Sabbath may be rest, but it isn’t personal liberty or unfettered leisure,” writes Shulevitz. “The Sabbath seems designed to make life as inconvenient as possible. Our schedules are not the only thing the Sabbath would disrupt if it could. It would also rip a hole in all the shimmering webs that give modern life its pleasing aura of weightlessness—the networks that zap digitized voices and money and data from server to iPhone to GPS.” Yet it is this very release from the Gnostic realities of modern life that give the Sabbath its necessity and reality. It forces us to meet face to face, to walk rather than drive, to enjoy the pleasures of the slow and local in a radical way.
Ultimately, what the Sabbath is about, says Shulevitz, is the “morality of time.” Shulevitz explores this reality by looking at everything from her own childhood divided between a Sabbath keeping mother and Sabbath despising father to the regularity psychoanalytic session (birthed by the secular Jew, Freud). Throughout she delves into the theology, ethics, practicalities, and history of the Sabbath ranging from the Babylonian exile to modern Israeli politics. And she does this with beautiful writing that rivals any of our contemporary writers of nonfiction.
What keeps emerging is the modern struggle to compress time and the Sabbath’s way of creating a “palace in time,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel termed it in his classic book on Sabbath. In a world where “what [is] happening now, all over the globe, matter[s] more than what [is] happening here” it is no wonder that modern life seems like a boundless experience without an anchor. Without the strictures of time we are caught up in the “perpetual motion machine of postindustrial capitalism.” The Sabbath rescues us from this perpetual motion with all of the violence needed to halt the economic beast. The Sabbath breaks through the dehumanizing forces of the machine to make us, once again, human.
The beauty of the Sabbath must not be reduced to its social value however; it must not become something purely utilitarian. As Shulevitz says, near the close or her book after pointing out some of the important ways that Sabbath keeping can build a society, “The Sabbath may have defensible social value…but it also bears to testimony to that which can’t be defended, only re-experienced: men and women mute with the disjunctions of exile and the awkwardness of living in a time that doesn’t not feel like theirs and mournful with the wish to find a home, if not in space, then in time.” This is the exile we know until Kingdom Come. But as Christians we believe “the Kingdom is at hand.” Sabbath is one way we can begin living into that reality.
Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and farmer in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is also the author of the recent book Farming as a Spiritual Discipline.