Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Shabbat Manifesto

Shabbat is a bit of a strange animal, when it comes to Reform Judaism. Shabbat is, traditionally, one of the absolute cornerstones of Judaism. It would be almost impossible to exaggerate its importance. To the Rabbis of old, and to many, many Jews today, ignoring Shabbat is seen as a symbol (and an act) of denial of God's sovereignty, and even God's very existence. Non-Shabbat observance is, basically, apostasy and idolatry. Observing Shabbat is seen as so powerful that it's talked about as one of the ways to bring about the Messiah. For thousands of year, Judaism without Shabbat was an impossibility; the two were completely intertwined.

But, it's long been difficult for Reform Jews to figure out what, exactly, Shabbat means to them and how, or even if, we were going to honor Shabbat. There are theological troubles, to be sure - it's easy to say that we have to observe Shabbat, because God created us, and therefore God has the right to tell us how to act (that was always one of the philosophical underpinnings of Shabbat, and it also explains why non observance is such a big deal - it's either saying that "God didn't create us" or that "God creating us doesn't mean that God's in charge of us"). But, if we don't believe in a literal, Creator God, then the reasons for observing Shabbat start to get fuzzier. I can tell you that "you can't go to the mall on Shabbat," but it's an empty statement. Absent some all-powerful, literal God to back up that statement, it doesn't carry any weight.

Without that imperative, it's been much harder to give people a reason to really engage in Shabbat. There is so much happening in our lives, and much of it, frankly, takes place on Saturday. Why should I give up shopping, or a baseball game, or whatever else I want to do? Why should I, instead, go to synagogue? I mean, if I like synagogue, then I have the right to go. But, there are so many other things I would rather do. Why not do them?

Normally, Shabbat is seen primarily through this lens - things I am not not allowed to do. I can't drive. I can't turn on lights. I can't watch TV. I remember growing up hearing stories about Orthodox Jews (with the subtext being, "crazy, extreme, backwards thinking Orthodox Jews") who would pre-tear their toilet paper before Shabbat, because tearing was a violation of the laws of the day. 

Again, if there really is a God, watching my every move ("...making a list, checking it twice..."), and if that God is going to punish me for violating those laws, or reward me for observing them, then it becomes clear why I'd do them. Observing Shabbat is important, in part, for the same reason that not shoplifting is important - they keep me out of trouble with the authorities (or, with the Authority). But, what if I don't believe in that kind of God?

All of this is a (much longer than I expected) intro to a little website I was recently pointed towards called Sabbath Manifesto. It's not a new idea, but it's nice implementation of it. It tries to frame Shabbat, rather than as a list of things we can't do, or as a theological proposition, as a set of 10 Principles* to help us have a weekly day of slowing down, unplugging and rest. They are fairly simple:

  1. Avoid Technology
  2. Connect with loved ones
  3. Nurture your health
  4. Get outside
  5. Avoid commerce
  6. Light candles
  7. Drink wine
  8. Eat bread
  9. Find silence
  10. Give back

* I have a rant in here somewhere about the need to frame every list in Jewish life around the number 10. I know that there were 10 Commandments (actually, I don't know that, but that's another story), but can't we, sometimes, have 8 or 12 principles?

There's definitely some stuff missing here. Glaringly, there is nothing in this list, or in the description of the site, that talks about holiness. Rest - yes. Sanctity - not so much. If we don't at least try to direct our rest towards something greater than ourselves, then we're turning Shabbat into something a bit solopsistic. A bit, dare I say, idolatrous. So, I'm not going to say that this manifesto is all that we need.

But, it's not a bad start. 

One day a week to slow down. To focus on these 10 principles, rather than on the myriad claims that the world places on us, the other 6 days. Doesn't sound too bad.

"More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews." -- Ahad HaAm

1 comment:

Claire said...

Since I can't do without technology on Shabbat, when I am working I at least try not to write citations... That's one thing I can do consciously.