The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time
By Judith Shulevitz Random House 2010, $26.00, pp. 288
When I recently typed the word "Sabbath" into a keyword search of the Library of Congress' online catalogue, I received a list of 4,215 books on the subject. A similar inquiry of the library system at Columbia University, where I teach, brought forth a slightly higher tally of 4,307. And from Amazon.com, evidently a less discriminating filter, there emerged 120.324 hits.
Even disregarding the biography of the heavy metal band Black Sabbath and Philip Roth's novel Sabbath's Theater, both of which are theological tracts of a more pagan sort, there remains no doubt that the literary ground of the Sabbath has been planted, plowed and harvested long past the point of exhaustion.
Chaim Grade has rendered it as part of a family memoir. Wendell Berry has dealt with it in verse and essay alike. Christians and Jews, blacks and whites, New Agers and fundamentalists all have had their turn. For contemporary Jewish writers and readers in particular, any book on the subject exists in the long shadow cast by Abraham Joshua Heschel's classic The Sabbath, which nearly 60 years ago framed his argument, both mystical and practical, for the concept of "sacred time."
Against such a towering example, amid such an overpopulated landscape, Judith Shulevitz has achieved something nearly impossible. She has written a book about the Sabbath that is truly singular. In fact, The Sabbath World could well become the Heschel-equivalent for a postmodern generation straining to hold on to the Sabbath against the allures of 24-7 technology and ecumenical politesse.
Insider and outsider, Shulevitz reckons with the Sabbath as both an unapologetically observant Jew (of the Conservadox sort) and as a passionate student of history and literature. She roots the Sabbath in all its irreducible Judaism while at the same time showing how this practice, and even more this idea, has affected the outer world by producing both imitation and backlash.
In her introduction alone, Shulevitz traverses from Kierkegaard to Akiva to Dickens, and the intellectual range never narrows. She parses Max Weber along with the Talmud, Saint Paul along with George Eliot, blue laws along with the Babylonian exile. In its depth and rigor, and in its confident handling of Judaic texts, The Sabbath World reminds me even more of Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish than Heschel's The Sabbath, but with one very significant difference.
Brilliant and icy, Kaddish was "a stone loner's book" (a phrase I first heard to describe Brent Staples' memoir Parallel Time). Though set in motion by his father's death the whole reason, after all, Wieseltier was saying Kaddish thrice daily--he restricted personal history to a frustrating and remote minimum, as if motivation could be peeled away from action.
Whether that choice reflected principle or anxiety, Shulevitz does not suffer from a similar affliction. The Sabbath World wears its erudition lightly--by which I mean that it never dumbs down material--but it does wrestle with complex substance in a disarm-ingly conversational tone. Shulevitz also utilizes her own story as a through-line, providing senses of forward motion and continuity in a book that might otherwise have read like a collection of discrete essays.
The autobiography really begins with her mother, Marion Shulevitz, the frustrated, observant wife of an aggressively secular husband and ultimately one of the first women to be ordained as …