A review of The Sabbath World

As the pace of life in the information age accelerates, complaints about how Americans live in time resound across the land. We long for something better, we say. And yet I sometimes wonder: When we complain about how busy we are, are we actually boasting of our importance? When we purchase devices that predictably lure us into working even harder, yet claim that freedom is what we seek, are we kidding ourselves? When we read (or even write) a book on the Sabbath—a growth industry in recent years—are we really open to the possibility of unplugging and entering into a different order of time? In the corners of our minds, aren't we also worried about what we would miss or concerned that we would chafe under the proscriptions that unplugging would entail?

Judith Shulevitz, the daughter of Jewish parents who disagreed with each other about the value of Sabbath observance, brings a lifetime of ambivalence to this book about time and its discontents. She is deeply attracted to the idea of the Sabbath. At the same time, she confesses, she has always resisted obeying rules and accepting constraints, traits she attributes to both American culture and her own restless spirit. Her disdainful teenaged self; her "willful, authority-baiting" self; her lit-crit self; her "grandiose, ambitious, jealous" self: all of these have lured her away from Sabbath observance. Another self has also been present all along, however. Shulevitz yearns for rebirth, for paths of righteousness and for rituals—the traditioned forms that commemorate "the un­governable reality of God."

In The Sabbath World, a philosophically minded journalist interweaves a wide-ranging investigation of the Sab­bath with stories of her own persistent struggle. The result is a meandering, lyrical excursion through the past, with pauses along the way for reflection. A moving account of the Sabbath in post­exilic Judaism provides an opportunity to ponder community and the troubled boundaries that sometimes preserve it, for example. A wonderful chapter on "the scandal of the holy" probes Genesis, the books of the Maccabees and rabbinic midrash for clues about what in the divine order and the human condition requires that this day be set apart. Hannah Arendt weighs in as well.