By Judith Shulevitz
literary critic, author
Ask Americans of a certain age about the Sabbath–Sunday if they’re Christian, Saturday if they’re Jewish–and the answers come in two flavors: nostalgic or appalled. The nostalgic grow wistful about quiet mornings and leisurely afternoons; they remember streets free of cars, sandlots full of kids, and dinners made special by family and slow-cooked foods (Sunday dinner, of course, was lunch). The appalled conjure up memories of long, dull days in which everything fun and interesting was either forbidden or not for sale, and time at church or synagogue passed about as quickly as it does at the dentist’s.
As a scholar I know puts it, there’s a light Sabbath and a dark Sabbath. The light Sabbath features community and festivity and what a famous professor of psychology once called “freedom from all slavery to the clock.” The dark Sabbath bristles with rules and regulations, and at the extreme, fanaticism. Think of Puritans putting people in stocks for Sabbath-breaking or ultra-ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem flinging dirty diapers at Sabbath violators, and you get the day of rest at its darkest. Americans may recall the light Sabbath with a certain fondness, at least if they hanker after a calmer way of life. But they are mostly thrilled that over the past 50 years we’ve done away with the dark, coercive one.
But what if I told you that we could have some of the light Sabbath back, if we’d accept just a little bit of the dark one? We could have something to which we’d probably say yes–namely, more time for self and family and neighborhood–and all we’d have to do is let ourselves be governed by a few nos, a few rules about not working at a pre-arranged time. Conversely, if we don’t accept a no or two, then the kind of time that used to be protected by the Sabbath–time during which everyone leaves the office or factory and turns to one another for entertainment and sustenance–is in danger of disappearing.
Am I calling for a return to blue laws? Not exactly, if by that you mean the laws that forbid us to buy liquor on Sunday, as well as (depending on the state) to wrestle, box, race cars, play bingo, or go oyster-fishing. What I am saying is that we could learn from the Sabbath how to protect our time against the two grand addictions of the age–work and the Internet. What we’d learn is the immense usefulness, to society, of a structured period of non-productivity, as well as the need to enforce that pause. Putting teeth into a neo-Sabbath might involve legislation–tougher laws restricting off-hours and weekend work, or compensating it at a higher rate. Or it might involve the voluntary revival of old customs, such as the list of non-activities recommended by the just-launched Sabbath Manifesto Project: “Avoid technology.” “Get outside.” “Drink wine.”
The problem many Americans have with the Sabbath is that it smacks of religiosity. If the Sabbath is a strictly clerical institution, then any laws that help us to keep it breach the wall between church and state, right? Wrong. A mere half-century ago, in 1961, the Supreme Court upheld Sunday-closing laws on the grounds that they did not violate the constitutional rule against state sponsorship of religion. Justice Felix Frankfurter argued that though the Sabbath was first taught in the Bible, the American Sunday had evolved into a secular institution, a civic good, “a cultural asset of importance: a release from the daily grind, a preserve of mental peace, an opportunity for self-disposition.”
Let’s update Frankfurter for the iPhone generation. Let’s say that, like him, we stripped the Sabbath of its religious trappings. We’d probably call what was left a social technology. We’d see this 21st-century Sabbath as a sort of giant software program, a way of coordinating a large group of people so that they could spend their non-work time together if they wanted to, or by themselves if they didn’t. What happens when we do that? Conversations, friendships, hobbies, affinity groups, neighborhood associations, charities–in a word, civil society. What happens when we don’t? The question is what doesn’t happen. The answer is, at least some of the good things listed above, because people are too busy working–and have too many different days off–to get together to make those things happen.
Nonsense! I hear the iPhone generation replying. You’ve forgotten about the miracle of real technology! Social networks have made it possible to be together even if we don’t share the same space and time. We no longer need a Sabbath, or any other religious anachronisms, to synchronize us. We can create our affinity groups without Sunday-closing laws or labor legislation, thank you very much.
To them, I say two things. The first is that whatever our technological selves may have become, we remain creatures of flesh embedded in space and time, and we need each other in the world, not just online. In fact, I’d go even further and say that the online networks we love so much make it all the more essential that we study the Sabbath closely. It is because the Internet is spaceless and timeless, because its networks make no concession to exhaustion or edginess or the craving for solitude, that we have to develop a counter-machinery that helps us turn it off.
And the second thing I’d say is that we shouldn’t run scared from the ecclesiastical associations that cling to the Sabbath like earth to roots. Religion is the source of most forms of transcendence in our mostly very mundane lives, whether or not we now pray or believe. Religion has given us storytelling, poetry, music, art, and theater; it has occasioned the founding of universities; it has been responsible for great advances in architecture. There’s no reason not to let religion lend us one of its most powerful social ideas–the Sabbath–as well.
Judith Shulevitz, a literary critic and a former columnist for the New York Times and Slate, is author of the new book “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time” (Random House). Her work has also appeared in the New Republic and the New Yorker.