Something More than Mere Survival

Judith Shulevitz, from “Making Room For The Sabbath,” a conversation with Terry Gross about her book, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time:

The Sabbath World I was fascinated by rules. I sensed that one of the things about my life that I didn't like is that I was a kind of knee-jerk libertarian. Nobody could tell me what to do. But that's not how life works in a society. Societies have rules and we keep them. We don't object to the ones we all keep because we all keep them together. We object to the new ones that don't seem familiar to us. And I wanted to get familiar with these rules because it seemed to me that rules are how society passes on from one generation to the next moral behavior and moral activity and its idea of how life should be shaped and life should be led. And I wanted to get to know what these rules had to say to me...

The basic principle uniting all these rules is that you as a human being should not be exerting mastery over the world. For one day a week, let the world be as it is and you be in it and you're not trying to dominate it. That's the basic principle. Now the form that the rules took when they were first thought up was agricultural because they were conceived of in an agricultural society. And there's something to me very beautiful about this because not only were they conceived in an agricultural society, they were conceived of in a mainly subsistence farming society. So people were being asked not to bring in the crops. They were being asked not to do basic labors which would have helped them survive and they had to transfer that work of surviving to six days a week. And it had to have been very, very hard because we know how hard it is to survive when you're living off the land. And that to me gives me a sense of the seriousness with which it was taken and the beauty of the idea. Imagine telling people who are struggling to barely survive that one day a week they must give themselves over to something more than mere survival -- and they have the right to even if circumstances dictate otherwise. Those two things are very beautiful to me...

The thing that was most intriguing to me when I was working on the book and remains most intriguing to me, is as a fundamental political idea. And it's an idea that we've really lost in America today, though I think we've had it in the history and, indeed, I try to make the case that we were really one of the most Sabbatarian nations when we were founded by the Puritans. (Sabbatarian meaning keeping the Sabbath.) But this is an idea that we have really moved radically away from. And the idea is this: that as a society we have the right to collectively regulate our time and that everyone has the right not to work at least one day a week. You have to imagine a world in which this idea was conceived of and codified. This had never been said before.

[Thanks Tammy!]