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October 07, 2006

Toward Shabbat

I have been blogging quite a bit lately about Michael Lerner's Jewish Renewal, and I have said it before, but I'll say it again: this book should be required reading, not just for Jews, but for all of humanity. Yesterday I read the chapter on Shabbat, which argues that Shabbat is a revolutionary practice. Lerner tells us that

Shabbat is both the result and celebration of the first national liberation strugle. Ruling elites throughout most of recorded history have sought unlimited power to expropriate the labor of others. When there is no limit, when people are forced to work till they drop or drop dead, we have a condition of slavery. Shabbat is the first historical imposition of a limit on the ability of ruling elites to exploit labor. It is the embodiment of the first time when the people who work were able to say no to a ruling elite and make it stick. The notion that working people could do this, that they had rights that limited the power of the bosses, was a new notion in history. The Jews built their religion around it.
Lerner goes on to claim that the weekend is the Jews' gift to the world: the secular version of Shabbat brought about through the efforts of trade unionists, who were disproportionately Jewish.

The fact that I am blogging on Shabbat, and that I blogged on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, should tip you off to the fact that I'm not a terribly observant Jew. My observance has waxed and waned at various points in my life, and has particularly ebbed since I moved to Ann Arbor. In college, however, I dated a guy who was shomer shabbos and, when we were together, I observed Shabbat with him. We attended Friday night services at Hillel, followed by dinner with friends. On Saturday we awoke to what our friend Leslie referred to as the "sun alarm" and spent the day reading, playing games, and going for walks. As night fell, we would break out a bottle of kosher wine, light the Havdalah candle, and sing the prayers. Then off to the movies! Although I did enjoy this observance, at the time I was more focused on what we couldn't do (turn the lights on and off, cook, ride in a car, watch television, use money, etc.) than on the gift, power, and luxury of rest.

Today it seems like there are so many reasons why I can't observe Shabbat: there is no synagogue in walking distance, I would miss the farmers' market, and there are just things that need to be done on Saturdays. In my mind, Shabbat is a luxury that I just can't afford, especially in grad school, which pretty much requires 24/7 attention. Lerner's point, however, is that Shabbat shouldn't be a luxury reserved for those who can afford it. The Torah commands not only that the wealthy rest, but that their employees and even their animals rest as well. But Shabbat doesn't just happen on its own. In a sense, of course, it does just happen; today is Shabbat whether I observe it or not, but the cessation of work doesn't just happen. I used to be confused by the phrase "to make Shabbat," which is how observant people tend to refer to it. After reading Lerner's chapter, however, it makes sense: in our secular world, we have to choose to make Shabbat happen; we have to choose to say no to the responsibilities of the rest of the week.

The problem, however, is that I can't make Shabbat on my own. Sure, I can light the candles, say the prayers, and take a rest, but Shabbat is really a community activity. Lerner points out that, unless a critical mass of people observe Shabbat, the capitalist market will force us to "choose" to work (or do our shopping, or clean our houses, or whatever). Furthermore, part of the joy of Shabbat is being able to share our leisure with friends and family, which requires being part of a whole community that observes Shabbat. Judaism is not a religion that can be practiced in isolation. Even reading from the Toray requires the presence of a minyan -- ten Jews. We need each other, and Shabbat can only happen if we all make it happen together.

Posted by eklanche at October 7, 2006 01:59 PM

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