Saturday, May 8, 2010

Judith Shulevitz Plugging for Sunday Rest for Society as a Whole

(Excerpts)  True rest, it turns out, is a group activity, not a solitary one; a restful atmosphere is the distillate of a society at rest, not the creation of a single person. This is a lesson we learn, belatedly, from the American sabbath, even as it vanishes. We rested best when others rested with us, keeping us company and giving us something fun to do as well as moral reinforcement against the fear we'll fall behind. We rest poorly when the world around us hums with activity.

Many religious professionals have preached this message from the pulpit, but the sabbath has had its nonreligious advocates, too. The most eloquent among them was Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who argued in 1961 that Sunday-closing - or "blue" - laws don't breach the wall between church and state. Rather, he wrote, they protect a scarce public good - "community repose" - that derives from ecclesiastical tradition but is now a "cultural asset of importance." Defending the midcentury American Sunday against those who felt oppressed by it, he said that a commonly kept day of rest promoted the orderliness of a society and the health of its people by providing "a release from the daily grind, a preserve of mental peace ... a time during which the mind and body are released from the demands and distractions of an increasingly mechanized and competition-driven society."

If you want to conjure up the release Frankfurter was talking about, think of Christmas Day or New Year's morning, when even convenience stores are shuttered and streets are silent, and the few passers-by amble or dawdle. Twice a year is about as often as we now manage to achieve the stillness we need to feel OK about being unproductive.

It is objectively harder to stop working now than in Frankfurter's day. The pace and rhythms of work have quickened, and each pause costs more than it used to. Globalization, just-in-time manufacturing and electronic networks, among other things, have made it possible to synchronize production and communication around the globe, but they have also made it necessary to operate on a 24/7 schedule. This creates, in effect, something that Josef Stalin once admiringly called the continuous workweek. Meanwhile, mobile devices have annulled the rules that used to prompt us to stop working at regular times (5 p.m., say) and pushed us into a zone of frictionless activity without temporal boundaries.

You may wonder what the sabbath can do to help us counter these enormous social, technological and economic forces. The answer is, very little - but a little can be a lot. We are not likely to bring back blue laws, and that is, on the whole, a good thing.

But the sabbath is not just a day off. It is also an idea. We can simply think hard about it, trying to puzzle out all that this very old and once-venerable human institution has to teach us about work, rest, time, sanity and the good life. What we might come up with if we figured that out remains a tantalizing mystery.

Judith Shulevitz is the author of "The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time." She wrote this for The Los Angeles Times.