Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sabbath consciousness; time consciousness

Judith Shulevitz's strange, ambivalent, wide-ranging, learned, somewhat bemused and utterly fascinating The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time is beyond easy description. I won't try hard. Suffice to say this is a mix of personal reflections, Jewish belief and tradition expounded and dissected, Christian history recounted (very thoughtfully, this Christian thinks) and social implications probed.

Here's Shulevitz telling us what the Sabbath -- God's day of mandated rest, the Fourth commandment in the Hebrew Decalogue -- is and does for us:

If I were forced to single out one thing that is truly exceptional about the Sabbath, it would have to be its efficacy. The Sabbath does something, and what it does is remarkable. People who study the ways in which cultures evolve might say that the Sabbath gives societies a competitive advantage. It promotes social solidarity.

Imagine that there was a job called 'social architect;' and you had it. Your job description would be dreaming up the perfect society, ... casting around for existing social institutions to model your new society on, you'd happen upon the Sabbath. 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 ...

In the first step, you'd write laws to limit work time. That would make room for other kinds of time -- rest time, recreational time, family time, time for friends and guests, and, of course, time for God.

In the second step, you'd designate one particular day as everybody's day off. That would coordinate schedules, so that people across a wide range of occupations and social spheres would all have to stop working at the same time and be forced to turn toward one another, individually and in groups.

The third step would be to ordain that the day off be taken every single week, rather than now and again, so that not working at that time would become a regular habit. Once the weekly, rhythm of work and rest had become ingrained, it would set your community apart; it would establish clear boundaries between your society and all others, and boundaries, as everyone knows, are wonderful tools for ensuring the cohesiveness of a group.

And fourth, you'd make the day festive, filled with song, wine, food, and pretty clothes. People would come to look forward to the day as a treat, rather than experiencing its restrictions as a burden.

We don't have such a Sabbath. Some peoples, at some times have lived various approximations, some on Saturday, some on Sunday, not always happily. At present, we are losing most vestiges of Sabbath consciousness to our technologically-mediated 24/7 lifestyle.

...the advent of mobile time erodes the plausibility of the Sabbath the way coastal waters turn boulders into sand. This sea change isn't as complete as it may yet become. The large temporal frameworks of our lives remain fairly firm. We still work comparatively standard hours or go to school from morning till afternoon, fall through spring. But to the degree that electronics take over our activities and our interactions, personal time becomes more fungible.

Scattered about this book are intimations that recall meanings much of our experience obscures for any who want to recover them.

Think of sacred holidays as wells; they tunnel down through temporal strata and allow the past to bubble up into the present through the liquid medium of myth. Keeping the Sabbath means sliding the cover off that hole on a weekly basis. ...

That rings true for me. Making time for rest, for ritual, for Something out of the ordinary, that calls to me.

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