Sabbath Practice As Political Resistance

2013 November 17
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons


Karl Marx and Abraham Joshua Heschel were both Jews with spectacular beards. If you asked them, that’s where they would probably say their similarities ended. Marx was doing economics and politics. Heschel was doing spirituality. And yet in my view, politics and spirituality dramatically converge with Marx’s and Heschel’s shared insight that time is the ultimate form of human wealth on this earth. Without time, all other forms of wealth are meaningless. It is this insight about time – completely obvious but frequently forgotten – that makes keeping a Sabbath day both spiritually profound and politically radical. Sabbath practice is articulated as the fourth commandment of the top ten and it shows up in many other places in the Torah. And yet very few of the “people of the book” actually keep a Sabbath. Maybe keeping this particular commandment is just too hard.


Mention the idea of a full Sabbath practice to the average American and the reaction is quite revealing. “Terrifying,” is what a high-octane lawyer I know calls it. When I told him that my family keeps a Sabbath and that from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday we don’t do any work, any errands, no shopping, no fixing things or cleaning the house or doing anything at all productive, he said, “That sounds terrifying.” He was probably thinking of all the things he had to get done. He was probably thinking – it’s hard enough to get everything done in seven days. Subtracting a day a week would be catastrophic. The deposition to prepare, the dry cleaning to be dropped off, the research required to buy a new mattress, taxes to be filed, the hallway light bulb to be replaced – all these just have to be done. And yet I stand in front of you this morning as living proof that some of them don’t have to be done and that the essential things that used to get done in seven days can, in fact, be done in six.


What’s this about? What was it about to the ancient Israelites who, in the Biblical account, had just escaped from Egypt when they received this commandment? We can never know for sure what was going on in the minds and hearts of ancient peoples but I think it’s safe to assume that it’s no coincidence that the Sabbath was invented by a people who understood themselves to have once been slaves. It was the ultimate statement of defiance against the political powers that had enslaved them or any that might try to enslave them in the future – that they answered to a God of Liberation and that one day a week, nothing and no one was going to make them work. We still have slavery today, literally in the form of trafficked workers around the world and figuratively in the form of people who are forced by financial necessity to work constantly.


We also have spiritual slavery. While Marx certainly didn’t intend to write a spiritual text when he wrote Capital in 1867 or any of his other works, I would argue that his work is intensely spiritual. Marx wails a prophetic lamentation. He holds up a mirror, showing how human time – human life – is broken down and devoured by what he calls the “boundless thirst” of Capitalism. In Capitalism, free time is a waste or, at best, just preparation for more productivity. Marx describes how technology, rather than freeing us from labor, creates an increasingly frenetic pace of work – the need to milk more and more value from a human hour – to “close the pores” of time.


Certainly we recognize this today: that somehow in our high tech world we are all still dizzyingly busy. Because exactly as Marx described, any extra time created by labor-saving technology is immediately sucked back into the system to create more value – more money, more goods, more innovation. We never actually receive the extra time as time. Even weekends we typically spend in a frenzy of acquisition, preparation, consumption, and productivity. Really stopping is not an option. And this is almost as true for the wealthy as for anyone else.


A century later, Heschel picked up where Marx left off, lamenting how our time – our lifeblood – is stolen from us. But Heschel approaches the question from a mystical, religious perspective. In his 1951 book, The Sabbath, he writes about the Jewish Sabbath –the mirror image of Marx’s dystopia – a time devoted to prayer, family, community, pleasure, and awe. He called it a “palace in time.” On this day the pores of time open and the world breathes. Heschel writes in the language of bliss and surrender.


And while Heschel probably didn’t intend to write a political text any more than Marx intended to write a spiritual one, in Heschel’s book the social/ political battleground is clearly staked out. Heschel writes:

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.


Embezzling his own life! What does it mean to embezzle one’s own life? “Embezzlement is the act of withholding assets for the purpose of theft by an individual to whom such assets have been entrusted, to be used for other purposes.” The asset in question here is time. Heschel is warning that when we stay embroiled in commerce day in and day out, we are withholding time, for the purposes of theft, which has been entrusted to us by God to be used for other purposes. If the idea of time belonging to God is problematic for you, think of it this way instead: When you were first born, the baby that was you had a completely organic sense of time. You woke, slept, and interacted with your world without any external drivers (often to the detriment of your parents). Time belonged completely to your infant self. You were in a natural state of relationship with existence, unfettered by conditioning, expectation, or any other imposed rules. In adulthood, you’ve very likely surrendered that natural state by necessity. There’s nothing wrong with it – we all do it because we have to. But that baby is still there inside us. 


The Sabbath is a reclaiming of time for God and for our inner baby and for the spiritual hippie child within. It is a reestablishing of a primordial birthright. It’s a taste of an infinite present. In my family, we light candles, linger over meals, sing songs while our kids play drums, go outside and wander around, see friends, talk, pray, and nap.


On the surface, this all sounds like innocuous, good, clean fun; a little harmless R&R. And, ironically, Marx probably discarded the idea of the Sabbath as just another opiate – a momentary escape.  He would say that the Sabbath (and religion in general) is part of capitalism’s “corrective” effect — it band-aids the worst parts of it and compensates us just enough so that oppression becomes bearable and we don’t revolt.


But to equate the Sabbath with an ordinary vacation is to mistake its essence and its revolutionary potential. The goal of a Sabbath practice is not to patch us up and send us back out to the rat race, but to represent in the now what redemption looks like, what justice looks like, what a compassionate social order looks like. It reconstructs the rest of the week from the viewpoint of the Sabbath as unjust and untenable. The Sabbath lifts up a holy vision of the world and performs deeply political work: it builds an “outside” to society. The self that emerges from such a Sabbath and re-enters the week is a changed self – a newly radicalized self who can no longer tolerate injustice. Oppression does not become more bearable as Marx feared, but rather it becomes unbearable. Once they’ve seen Paris, how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm?


People get this intuitively. And that’s why it’s scary. When we create breathing space in our week, all kinds of unwelcome feelings and thoughts can arise – feelings of despair or dissatisfaction with the world that we would rather leave buried under a mountain of tasks and momentary pleasures. And it’s hard because the whispered voices of fear are loud in our ears warning of the social costs we will pay, our world spinning out of control, the threat of failures. As sweet and gentle as the Sabbath may be, its arrival collides violently with the secular world. Everything comes to a screeching halt at sundown. A check might be left half written, a shopping trip abandoned with an empty cart, the writing of a work email stopped mid-sentence. The secular understanding of what’s “reasonable” and “normal” gets trumped by a commitment to an alternative vision. As Heschel put it, “a thought has blown the market place away.”


This is where the personal gets political. It forces us to confront the question: to whom or to what do I ultimately belong? Do I belong to my possessions? To my boss? To my addictions? To my accomplishments? To my insecurities? To my fears about the future? To whom or to what do I ultimately belong? Week in and week out through my own Sabbath practice I ask myself this question. And I find that as I am more and more able to answer, “I belong to God” or “to my deepest self” or “to my family” or “community” or “the Earth” or “liberation,” I grow in spiritual strength and joy. To fail to do this truly is to embezzle my own life.


And so I offer this challenge and this invitation to everyone here, especially our newest members, Melissa Paul, Devin Judge Lord, Kristina Fullerton, Devin McDonough, Lynn Chandhok, Sahm Forbes, Olivia Nunez – to explore some way, some version of keeping this one of the Ten Commandments. As you engage with this community as spiritual seekers, commit to building for yourselves a “palace in time” just as we worship together in this “palace in space.” For anyone who would like to explore the practical side of Sabbath practice, my husband Jeff and I will be co-leading a “Sabbath Practicum” on December 8 – three weeks from today. We’ll talk about the strangeness of modern liberals committing to a practice like this. We’ll share some of our own struggles with it, answer questions, and help you talk through how to design a practice that’s meaningful and workable (no pun intended) for you.


Sabbath observance is hard. It’s truly a spiritual practice. It takes discipline, ironically, to enter into an undisciplined, formless time. It takes discipline to re-imagine our world and ourselves. It takes courage to assert and re-assert our freedom.


It’s a paradox, but this commandment is about freedom. The Sabbath was invented by a people who understood themselves to have once been slaves. The genius of their insight was that sometimes the most spiritually and politically radical use of time is not to spend it efficiently, but to squander it — to spend it lavishly; to while it away; as if the present moment were an eternity; as if the present moment were all there is; as if we had all the time in the world. This insight became enshrined in Torah and henceforth the Israelites made perennial commitments to a liberating Power even greater than the Pharaoh. Imagine if we made commitments to a liberating Power greater than the Pharaohs of our day. Imagine if we re-affirmed those commitments every week with a community dedicated to reclaiming the wealth of time and the promise of justice for ourselves and for all the creatures of the earth. Imagine if we could learn how it would feel to be really free.



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