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The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time

In this book which Random House published this year, New York journalist and cultural critic Judith Shulevitz describes her love/hate journey with the Sabbath as a contemporary Jewish woman. Consisting of almost 250 pages of personal narrative, history, philosophy, theology and various studies in ethics and psychology, there is something in it to affirm and challenge everyone’s thinking. My intent is to highlight a few nuggets from each of its seven chapters and conclude with some questions for discussion.

Part One Time Sickness:

Early on Shulevitz concedes that “The Sabbath seems designed to make life as inconvenient as possible.” She reports that for her “the Sabbath is not, and never has been, a day of rest.” This is because its preparations and restrictions cause tremendous stress.

She swiftly moves from this concession to a discussion of modern time sicknesses. She cites studies that say that flextime workers who have “irregular work hours…upset their psychological equilibrium.” She also talks about “time theft,” which is how workers, on the clock, can waste time at work and therefore steal it. She describes “time famine.” This involves the futile attempt of cramming more and more activity into the same amount of time, leaving only starvation portions of it left. And like many others, she refers to a study done at Princeton Theological Seminary which concludes that available time and ethical conduct tend to rise and fall together. Thus, “morality becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.”

Part Two Group Dynamics:

In this section Shulevitz contends that “out of Babylonian abasement Judaism as we know it was born and along with it the Sabbath.” She emphasizes its practical value when she writes, “if a strong and powerfully interconnected communal life was high on your priority list, you’d quickly realize that you had stumbled on a very good way to achieve it, because the Sabbath can easily be reconfigured as a four step program for forging community spirit.” These are:

  • Have Laws that limit work time;
  • Designate a particular day off for everyone;
  • Mandate that the day off be taken every week;
  • Make the day festive.

Schulevits includes reflections about her youthful experiences at summer camps which, in her view and that of some researchers who have studied them carefully, provide great opportunities for religious psychological manipulation. Nevertheless, she loved Sabbaths at camp because they gave her a break from camp life itself.

Part 3 The Scandal of the Holy:

Shulevitz suggests that the holiness of the Sabbath and keeping it holy is what it makes it “unpalatable” to Americans. With their busy upwardly mobile focus, having a day to do nothing seems wrong, lazy, and pointless.

Her view is that “holy time” is time “that we ourselves make holy — time that we sanctify by means of ourselves … By divvying up the world into this kind of activity and that kind of activity, we fabricate holiness.”

She offers a stark and perhaps even scary view of holiness. “Saying that holiness partakes of God is not to say that it is necessarily good,” she writes. In words that might indeed might come across to some as scandalous, she declares that the “biblical quality of holiness is not morally positive; it’s morally neutral, rather like an electric current. It can enliven or kill.” This is why “God lets Moses glimpse him in the burning bush but does not reveal himself directly, for his unveiled presence could destroy the future liberator of the Jewish people.”

Part 4 The Flight from Time

Shulevitz then launches into what turns out to be a lengthy history of the Sabbath among Jews and Christians. She thinks that “It is probably safe to say that the historical Jesus would not have been dismissive of something as deeply woven into Jewish life as the Sabbath.” Nevertheless, “with the advent of a Messiah who is himself divine, all time is holy time.” According to Paul, she contends, “Jesus erased all distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, including the law, and holy and unholy.”

Yet she holds that the New Testament “furnishes no evidence of a regular Sunday gathering other than a handful of references to the day that can be interpreted as indicating that it had been singled out in some fashion — though only if you’re willing to ignore alternate readings that suggest Sunday was just one day among others.”

Traveling through the first several centuries of Christian history, she refers to the work of Samuel Bacchiochi and declares that “Constantine’s knack for blending Christian faith and pagan syncretism was one of his great weapons as emperor.” He “must have found it a most fortuitous coincidence that the Christians had settled on Sunday as the day of their Lord, since it was also the day set aside for worshipping the sun.”

Part Five People of the Book:

This chapter compliments the last as it surveys the history of the Sabbath in more recent centuries. Her discussion of the Sabbath among the Puritans relies heavily on the work of famed Marxist historian Christopher Hill. Among other things, he thought it important “to know that Protestants throughout Europe strove to do away with the more than one hundred saints’ days observed by the Catholic Church every year” because they were “committed to rooting out idleness.” In some ways, then, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism, on the one hand, and intense Sabbath keeping, on the other, were linked.

Shulevitz also discusses the Kabbalist’s view of the Sabbath and its importance. The Kabbalist “didn’t just remember Creation … He renewed Creation. He didn’t just align himself with God’s calendar; he sustained its very existence. When he rested, he didn’t just imitate God; he helped God heal a broken world.”

Part Six Scenes of Instruction:

In this section of the book the author discusses the Sabbath through various lenses and functions and offers a few genres:

The Hygienic Sabbath: This Sabbath is reflected in Dickens argument that “Sabbath should be a day for promoting mental well-being and improving moral character.”

The Romantic Sabbath: The author describes this as “an unpressured, serendipitous, nostalgic experience of time” in which the souls finds a “seat solid enough to rest itself there completely and to gather all its being without needing to recall the past or to straddle the future.”

The Communitarian Sabbath: The idea comes from “the novels of George Eliot and the nom de plume of Mary Ann Evans,” about pastoral living involving a “community that is held together by organic bonds, by the ties of family, affection, and village economy.”

Part Seven Remembering the Sabbath:

In this final section Shulevitz ponders whether today we can effectively keep a Sabbath at all. “It’s true,” she writes, “the Sabbath is a fossil. It’s the past hardened into rock, whereas time becomes more fluid with each passing day.” This leads into a diatribe about cell phones, text messaging, and social networking. “Maybe we have all the community we can handle,” she writes, “and what we want is to be alone!”

Shulevitz admits that “I keep the Sabbath but only halfway.” She observes it “largely by keeping our electronic devices off, including cell phones…. We put our wallets away, with the same resolution about money, which is not to be handled on the Sabbath.” After all, she writes, “We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember.”

Concluding Questions:

A book as richly provocative as this one prompts many discussable questions. Here are five:

  1. Shulevitz freely admits that for her the Sabbath has never been a day of rest because of everything it requires and prohibits. What percentage of Seventh-day Adventist men and women would say the same thing today?
  2. Shulevitz writes that we ourselves make the Sabbath holy by separating it in our activities from the other days of the week. Does this increase, decrease or leave about the same our appreciation of its holiness?
  3. 3. Shulevitz sometimes suggests that to say God is holy is not to say that God is morally good. Does this mean that our distinction between morally good and bad does not apply to God or that we must look to other features of God’s character to find moral goodness? Or is she just plain wrong about this because, contrary to what she says, the notion of holiness includes moral goodness?
  4. Shulevitz agrees with Samuel Bacchiochi and many others that the loss of the Sabbath among Christians in the first several centuries occurred as part of a more general and unfortunate rejection of their Jewish heritage. How might this relate to the charge today that Seventh-day Adventists are “Jewish legalists”?
  5. Shulevitz agrees with the late Christopher Hill that some early Protestants emphasized Sabbath keeping, albeit on the first rather than the seventh day of the week, partly in order to get people to work more by doing away with Roman Catholicism‘s many religious holidays. Is this economic interpretation unhelpful or unhelpful?
  6. Shulevitz suggests that in our time perhaps Sabbath keeping should serve our need sometimes to be alone rather than together. How might this change what we do and don’t do to keep it holy?

Seth Pierce holds an MDiv. from Andrews University and pastors in the Kansas-Nebraska Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He is the author of What We Believe for Teens and the Peter Paul Pappenfuss series. He currently writes a column on the fundamental beliefs of SDAs for the journal Signs of the Times.

Readers are invited to purchase this book and many other things in a way that benefits the Adventist Forum without increasing their Internet prices by using the Amazon box at this web site’s home page.

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