Judith Shulevitz’s new book, "The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time," is attracting a good bit of attention, as well it should. Blending personal experience with history, theology and philosophy, the book is both an emotionally and intellectually rewarding encounter for the reader, and the product of a highly intelligent and thoughtful writer willing to probe every angle of what the Sabbath has meant to the world.
The author participated recently in a discussion at the Harvard Club, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, with James Carroll, a former Catholic priest and now author, novelist and syndicated columnist for the Boston Globe. Their wide-ranging and erudite conversation was a reminder for me that the Sabbath is not just observed and discussed by Jews but is, of course, a centerpiece of the Christian faith.
"What Jesus means to me is what the Sabbath means to you," Carroll said to Shulevitz at one point, suggesting that both are about holiness.
Carroll and Shulevitz noted that the Sabbath was a point of tension in the life of Jesus and that he chose to violate the laws of the holy day as a means of expressing his new approach to religious life.
A good portion of Shulevitz’s book focuses on Christian concepts of the Sabbath, how it shifted from Saturday to Sunday, and the impact it has had on America.
Carroll, whose book, "Constantine’s Sword," is a monumental study of the Catholic Church’s long history of anti-Semitism, noted at the outset of the conversation that "the Sabbath lives an inch below the surface of all of our lives," and suggested that Shulevitz’s book deals with its vulnerability in our over-programmed 21st century American lives.
He posed what he thought would be "the simplest question" in asking what the Sabbath means to Shulevitz. But she responded that it was, in fact, "the hardest" because she finds the Sabbath to be "tantalizing and always out of reach."
Try as she may, she said she can’t quite follow its stringent call for separating from the busy world around her for 25 hours each week, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
In practice, she said, she tends to observe the Friday night rituals of lighting candles and drinking wine (an acknowledged favorite for her), but by Saturday she is back to many of her everyday activities.
"It’s the thing I can never quite do," she told Carroll and an audience of about 100 invited guests, adding that she appreciates the fact that, like a software program, the Sabbath "gives people the tools to try."
Perhaps its greatest contribution to Jewish life, she said, is in creating community by placing everyone on a common calendar, giving everyone the same day of the week, every week, to be free of work and able to come together for prayer, meals and socializing.
She described the day as giving her a sense of longing, of rest and of holding on to what it is precious. "It’s about boundaries – physical and temporal," she said, noting that for some Christians the day is a reminder of death and meeting one’s maker, while for Jews it is a foretaste of heaven, the day one acquires an additional soul.