Sunday, January 23, 2011

Some thanks and a book review

Sorry for going dark there; this week turned out to be a tad more challenging in terms of time management than I usually like.

A big thanks to those who responded to my questions on what to teach a church group about "Basic Judaism". Great, wonderful and insightful answers and very very helpful! I'm not teaching until February 2nd, but I'm going to use many of the suggestions and report back after my experience.

I've been back in a reading mode for the first time in a long time; before the new year I'd been doing a very bad job of actually reading books (either for work or pleasure) without finding myself bogged down or distracted. I was perhaps getting through 3-6 books a year. Well, since January I've gotten through 6 already, and I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on the more relevant texts.

The first one I wanted to talk about is Judith Shulevitz's The Sabbath World. It's gotten very good reviews and won some awards, and I was both curious and hesitant to read it. Curious because I'm always interested to see how modern Jews are struggling to make the tradition relevant, and hesitant because, well, I was afraid that it was going to be too much of a self-help book (it seemed in that vein) and at least partly because my old alt-rock instincts tell me to be wary when others say something is a good thing.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I cracked the book open (okay, I read it on my Kindle, so I didn't do any cracking, but I don't have a better metaphor, so there). While Shulevitz admits her own ambivalence toward the notion of Sabbath and shows us her own struggles to find meaning throughout various points in her life (her childhood observance, her attempts to be shomer shabbat, her explorations of a congregational life, etc.), it is also a careful, albeit non-academic, survey of historical trends and values regarding the Sabbath throughout history. She does a very good job of looking at Jewish and Christian Sabbetarianism in Europe, the Middle East and North America, and while she doesn't use that analysis to point to trends or defend a thesis per se, she does analyze the sociology of the Sabbath; specifically, why the idea has raised such staunch support, but also opposition, through the ages. She writes:

"Americans, once the most Sabbatarian people on earth, are now the most ambivalent on the subject. On the one hand, we miss the Sabbath. When we pine for escape from the rat race; when we check into spas, yoga centers, encounter weekends, spiritual retreats; when we fret about the disappearance of a more old-fashioned time, with its former, generally agreed-upon rhythms of labor and repose; when we deplore the increase in time devoted to consumption; when we complain about the commercialization of leisure, which turns fun into work and requires military-scale budgeting and logistics and interactions with service personnel--whenever we worry about these things, we are remembering the sabbath."
If I have any quibbles with the book, it would be two. Firstly, for such a 'popular' book it has some pretty awkward turns of phrase, and a clear ambition towards academia. While the efforts themselves give the subject greater heft, the voice of the author merely weighs the book down, with her need to reference Habermas, Freud and Harold Bloom. Stephen King, in his Entertainment Weekly column, describes a particular kind of affect in writers as "look ma, I'm writin'!" This could be described more as, "look professor, I'm writin'!"

The other issue--though I'm not sure it is one--is that in her conclusions and recommendations, she maintains that ambivalence toward Sabbath, even to the very end. She writes: "Keeping the Sabbath as our forefathers did strait-jackets us in an identity that we do not choose and for which we may not want to take the consequences. It goes against our yearning for a world of infinite possibility. It exposes us to violence, ridicule, prejudice, ostracism. On the other hand, we are often as irrationally opposed to ritual as ritual is irrational in its demands upon us...Rituals are not just idealized visions of how things can be. They are also artifacts of history." (emphasis mine) In some ways, it's terribly unsatisfying: you want her, as a reader, to plant a flag somewhere. On the other hand, there's something intellectually and spiritually honest about her lack of assuredness, and I think many of us struggling with how to intertwine modern and traditional values can appreciate this refusal to be consistent or certain for its own sake.

So, worth a read. And more than that, worth asking the questions she asks herself: what does it mean to observe a Sabbath, and what happens to our lives (and our society) when the Sabbath is absent?

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