Monday, December 13, 2010

Readings: Gettin' Holy Wid It

I don’t do book reviews, as such. What I do on this site is note what I happen to be reading at any given time, and post excerpts from that reading which strike me as interesting, relevant to my own state of being, particularly insightful, or illuminating. I’m reading a book now that is chock full of ideas falling into all of those categories. The book is The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. The author is Judith Shulevitz.

I discovered this book in the course of giving the New York Times book review’s list of 100 notable books of 2010 a desultory look-see. If you click the link and look at the list, you will see that this title is nowhere near the top. Yet it reached out and grabbed me. Inexplicably, the Times list’s little blurb held such appeal for me that I went onto OhioLink—the state of Ohio’s university resource sharing network—to borrow a copy from the University of Cincinnati libraries. I haven’t been disappointed by having made that little effort.

Simply stated, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I recommend it without reservation. At this time, I’ve read a little bit more than half of its 217 pages of text (and xxxi pages of introduction). The first excerpts I selected to share were found in the introduction. The final one that I will post was found on page 88. I could have chosen many more.

I should not give the impression that this is a totally uncharacteristic type of book for me to read. I read on religion frequently and broadly. All religions and many schools of secular philosophy interest me deeply. Religion has, in fact, informed my attitudes to the extent that I often don’t react to things as many people expect, or prefer, that I would react. This does not enhance my popularity. I have, therefore, experienced a bit of what this excerpt speaks of:

... Seen from the outside, the quest for religious solace looks preposterous. Søren Kierkegaard said that religion has a truth so purely interior that it approaches madness. ...Insofar as it is untranslatable, the holy, not to mention the search for it, has the powerful potential to be lonely.

But this book is about the Sabbath, as the title would imply:

Why associate the Sabbath with solitude? ... [A]t the core of the Sabbath lies an unassuageable longing. The Sabbath grasps at that which is out of reach. Qadosh, the Hebrew word for "holy," comes from a root that means "apart, separate, withdrawn." In Judaism, that which is holy is that which has been fenced off. The Sabbath rituals create this boundary, and the boundary creates the experience of otherness that we call the holy. But the inverse of this process is a yearning for an impossible ideal, a utopia that is by definition unattainable. The Law, the legal theorist Robert Cover says, is a bridge between our imperfect world and the vision of its perfection. Religious laws and rituals remind us that we live in exile, not in perfect harmony, neither with one another nor with God.

This next excerpt speaks for itself. I can relate to its every element:

We all know what it feels like to give short shrift to ourselves, our families, and our children, not to mention the stranger in our midst. It feels disgusting. Our bodies, our houses, and our relationships spiral toward disorder and decay. Our nails lengthen because we forget to cut them. Our eyesight blurs because we can’t be bothered to visit the eye doctor. Slime accumulates on pantry shelves. The tone in our spouses’ voices hardens. Children mutiny at times seemingly calculated to be inconvenient. Too busy to attend to our own needs, we lack sympathy for the needs of people who seem less busy than we are. That, too, has consequences. Before long, the underemployed become the unemployable, then the menacing mob.

In this book Shulevitz explores the idea that the ills described above might possibly to mitigated by returning to a dedicated observance of the Sabbath; whether as Jews, or in some Christian version. But most of us are trapped in attitudes which make such a return unlikely:

To those of us who live in a disenchanted, Euclidean world, the category of the holy feels like a superfluity, a drawer into which you might toss odds and ends. Sacred things are relics. Sacred words are abracadabra (the word is a parody of an Aramaic sentence describing God’s act of creation: avra ke’davra, “I create as I speak”). Holy days, once meant to open up the heavens for a glimpse of time on a cosmic scale, are now “holidays,” meant for skiing trips or preschool parties.

In order to enjoy the existential benefits of observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy, we would need to make a personal commitment:

Holy time, then, is time that we ourselves make holy—time that we sanctify by means of ourselves. We have to commit ourselves to holy time before it will oblige us by turning holy. […]
From this perspective, Sabbath rules can be seen as formal exercises in sanctification. Don’t do on that day whatever it is that you do on all the other days. What could be less enchanting than that? By divvying up the world into this kind of activity and that kind of activity, we fabricate holiness. The atheist would say that this proves that religion is a charade. The rabbis would say that this is how we become like God. After all, God ushered his world into being by dividing one thing from another: light from darkness, the heavens from the earth, and so on. Much of Jewish law flows from the Durkheimian notion that drawing distinctions is a holy act.

As a writer, I particularly related to the concept of distinction as an act of creation, and therefore holy. The making of art, whether with words, with colors, or with shapes (or any combination of the three), is always done by making distinctions between the infinite supply of these things available to the artist, so that certain carefully chosen elements are offered to the world as the Chosen ones.

If we could do these things, Shulevitz reasons, new possibilities might open up to us:

I could relinquish the overwhelming burden of being me and take up the lesser burden of being a member of a holy community.

These excepts do not even make a good start at presenting a selection of the fascinating historical facts and comparisons, the glimpses of personal history, and the religious and philosophical contemplation—particularly with regard to time—that has gone into the writing of this brief but richly erudite book. I again recommend it without reservation to any person who is not perfectly happy with his or her relationship to the world that they encounter on a daily basis. X