The Common Good
May-June 2000

Radical Shabbat: Free Time, Free People

by Arthur Waskow | May-June 2000

Honorable work and restful renewal are both aspects of responsibility.

Our religious traditions teach that human beings need time for self-reflective spiritual growth, for loving family, and for communal sharing. And the earth itself needs time to rest. Yet today's high-stress, environmentally toxic economy and culture preclude this sort of spiritual deepening.

Indeed, most Americans today work longer, harder, and more according to someone else's schedule than they did 30 years ago. We have less time to raise children, share neighborhood concerns, or develop our spiritual life. This unremitting addiction to "doing" and "making" has intensified many forms of pollution of the earth. This life situation crosses what we usually see as class lines: Single mothers who are working at minimum wages for fast-food chains and holding on by their fingernails to a second job to make ends meet feel desperately overworked; and so do wealthy brain surgeons.

Why is this happening? Because doing, making, profiting, producing, and consuming have been elevated to idols. While corporate profits have zoomed and the concentration of wealth has increased, real wages have remained stagnant for 20 years, and the pressure has intensified to work harder and longer just to stay in the same place.

Biblical "shabbat" is a critique of these idolatries.

Shabbat—the Sabbath—appears first as a cosmic truth in the creation story (Genesis 2:1-4), but seems to have had no effect on human life till just after the great liberation of the Israelites from slavery. In Exodus (16:4-30) Shabbat is made known, along with the manna in the wilderness. This story of food and rest echoes and reverses the tale of Eden.

In Eden, humans ate improperly from the earth—and brought upon themselves a history in which humans can eat only by working so hard the sweat pours down their faces, a history in which there is war between humans and the earth. (In Hebrew, the word for "earth" is adamah; the word for "human being," adam.)

But with manna and Shabbat, work is transformed in the context of food. The food comes gently; and for one-seventh of the time, there is rest from even that gentlest of work—rest that is a deeper practice than simply relaxing. With Shabbat, we get what Jewish tradition calls a foretaste (notice the reference to food!) of the Messianic Age, a higher Eden.

Not until after this direct physical experience of Shabbat does there come an explanation of Shabbat at Sinai. Shabbat is the most detailed and rich of the Ten Commandments. It appears in different forms in Exodus 20:8-11 and in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. In the first, God calls for restfulness to attune the people with God's own cosmic rest in the creation. In the second, God calls for restfulness to free all workers—home-born and alien, woman and man, servant and boss, human and animal. (As Jewish mystical tradition later asserts, these "two"—cosmic renewal and human freedom—are really one.)

IN BIBLICAL TRADITION, every landless person—most famously, Ruth the Moabite, immigrant from a despised nation—was entitled to walk onto the land of any farmer, to glean and eat from the corners of the field and whatever the harvesters had missed. This was not Boaz' charity. It was law. And Ruth's work was not demeaning—it was the work that most people of that era did.

Ruth's ability to do this honorable work depended on the regular field-workers limiting themselves in their own work: They put limits in space as well as the Shabbat limits in time upon their work. They did not pursue every ounce of economic efficiency, nor did they overwork themselves to gather every grain of barley. For their work to be honorable, they had to allow Ruth the space for honorable work. For Ruth to be able to rest and renew her spiritual life, she had to know that honorable work was available.

Honorable work, and restful renewal: both aspects of responsibility. Ruth, like every other citizen or foreigner, like every worker, even the earth itself and all its life-forms, was entitled and obligated to make Shabbat—the Sabbath. Time for self-reflection, time for family, community, and citizenship, time for God and spiritual pursuits.

This need for rest was not felt by human beings alone. The earth itself, says Leviticus 25, is entitled to rest. One full year of every seven, the earth must be given time to rest. No organized sowing or reaping; human beings could eat what they had stored up in advance, or what the earth gave freely as it had millennia before to hunting-gathering societies. For one year, there would be no slaves, no bosses. Rest for human beings from their toil, rest for human society from its hierarchies, rest for the earth from being used.

And what if human beings refused to allow this resting? Then, says Leviticus 26, the earth will get to rest anyway—on their heads! Through famine, drought, exile, disaster, the earth would rest. This law of rest is not merely being nice; it is the law of gravity.

WHAT DO WE MEAN by time for restful self-reflection? Do we mean turning away from community and society into individualistic fantasies and the mass media—or into a rhythm that society itself could breathe in, a rhythm that would breathe society? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote this about the Sabbath:

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, on which [humanity] avows [its] independence of that which is the world's chief idol—a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [human beings] and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [human] progress than the Sabbath? —The Sabbath

Over the centuries, Jewish tradition has kept exploring what practical steps would create the kind of deep restfulness and freedom that the Bible calls for. The tradition has taught that from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, Jews not work, nor use artificial transport, nor use money, nor write, nor carry even light objects across the boundary between private space and public space.

Instead, the tradition taught, Jewish families and communities feasted (and made sure that even the poor had food to feast with), sang and chanted joyful prayers, took part in Bible study as a way to hear God's voice, let themselves take a nap on Saturday afternoon, and made love. In short, the Jewish Sabbath is a day for being, not for making. Many Jews who do not observe all the traditional patterns nevertheless come to the Sabbath in communal joy and celebration.

Doing, working, making are not intrinsically evil. Modernity has made possible much that is valuable. But a society that never pauses to catch its breath and reflect on its values, never pauses to love and affirm community and family—such a society forms "making" into a grotesque mockery and turns production, consumption, and overwork into idols.

RELIGIOUS AND SPIRITUAL communities can help individuals, families, congregations, and neighborhoods change this pattern in their own lives. Indeed, we have a special obligation to each other as members of communities of faith to help strengthen our spiritual lives in this direction. Together we can move in the direction of sharing work, encouraging rest, strengthening family and community, and living more simply—rather than piling up still more and more costly material goods by working yet harder and harder, longer and longer.

To do this we will need to strengthen the spiritual life through far more joyful festivals, far more deeply loving families, and far more soul-satisfying prayer and meditation. Those who are spiritually famished are almost certain to gobble up material goods; the spiritually well-fed can more easily choose to limit their material intake.

But such changes within our own communities of faith will be extremely hard to protect as long as we are vulnerable to overwhelming cultural and economic pressures that reward only production and consumption with money and with prestige.

To protect the sphere of being, religious and spiritual communities must also take action to change the social institutions that make for the idolatry of doing.

We must seek for everyone what Ruth the Moabite received: the right to time for self-renewal in family, neighborhood, community, and spiritual life, rooted in the right to a decent and honorable job with a decent and honorable income.

HOW DO WE in our high-technology society achieve what the Bible describes for farmers, shepherds, and tree-keepers? One key to winning the changes is shaping coalitions among groups that now see each other as alien or hostile. The well-off and the poor both suffer from being driven into overwork, so they can work together to end it.

The neighborhood congregations, unions, businesses, and other local groups could agree to proclaim Days of Renewal and Celebration from Friday through Monday of a given week—a "Free Time" weekend. They could arrange "neighborhood festivals" and "town meetings" during the four days—share music, crafts, and stories with each other; discuss the social and political implications of ending disemployment and overwork.

Members of participating congregations, unions, and other groups could be asked to take vacation time on these four days, and to spend the time at home rather than on out-of-town vacations. Neighborhood businesses could be asked to close on a paid-holiday basis.

Neighborhood participants could commit themselves to stick to a maximum eight-hour work day during the following month (or at least the next week), and to take on as a permanent practice a seven-minute period at work during each morning and each afternoon for silent, meditative, self-reflective time—not "working."

For some neighbors whose income is below the poverty line, taking a Friday as even one extra non-work day (assuming the Monday of this long weekend is a regular holiday) might be extremely damaging. This problem exemplifies the larger question about the relationship between underpaid wage-hour workers and better-paid salary workers.

How could the community meet this problem? One solution might be neighborhood congregations, unions, and their members contributing to a fund for paying eight hours "living wage" for any neighbors below poverty-level hourly wage who agreed to take part in the neighborhood events on the Free Time weekend.

Automobile traffic could be banned from a significant part of the neighborhood for a part of the four days.

It might make sense to piggy-back such a weekend onto the "Turn Off Your TV" week that is now encouraged by some schools, as a time to return family attention to non-TV ways of making family connection.

IN MUCH THE same vein, imagine religious communities working with businesses to arrange a week of reflection and renewal when employers and workers at a given workplace (both wage and salary workers) agree to set aside special time during a special workweek for family and neighborly activity.

For example, one afternoon could be for environmental clean-up of a place near work. An extended lunch-hour could be set aside for family members to visit the workplace and share stories and cooking. Another lunchtime could be set aside for a discussion of work itself, how to ease its burdens, how to set aside rest times.

The very first step, of course, is for religious leaders (clergy and laity) to focus the attention of their congregants and religious bodies on this question, to uncover the oft-forgotten wisdom not only of the Sabbath as a specific, agreed upon time, but also to focus on the "sabbatical moments" of contemplation, joy, calm, and love—of family and community—that can transform our lives.

When religious communities enter struggles for justice in society, we sometimes forget that justice in the biblical context has a deep root in spiritual calm. The jubilee passage of the Bible (Leviticus 25) calls for acts of justice—perhaps more radical justice (redistributing the land) than any other scriptural passage. Yet it never uses the word "justice" (tzedek) in its outcry. Instead it calls for "shmitah" and "dror" and "Shabbat Shabbaton"—words that mean "release," "pause," "non-attachment"—Sabbath within Sabbath, an exponential sabbatical.

In a society driven into unremitting speed-up, overwork, and burnout, into techno-idolatry and the worship of doing and making, it is our religious communities that can call the nation to a sense of the sacredness of calm, of being, of loving—shmitah, dror, and Shabbat.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow was a leader of the movement for Jewish renewal, director of The Shalom Center, and author of Down-to-Earth Judaism and Godwrestling—Round 2, and was working with the Free Time/Free People Campaign, when this article appeared.

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