Politics, Religion

Shabbos and the struggle to realize its radical political significance.

Avi Garelick is the director of the Prozdor Hebrew High School at JTS and a student in the urban planning department of Hunter College. This piece is based on an oral presentation at the recent Democratic Socialists of America conference on ‘Building the Religious Left’; you can watch that presentation here.

Shabbos is a day of rest that takes place once every seven days. Beyond that, our tradition tells us, it is one-sixtieth of the world to come [TB Berachos 57b] — the tiniest taste of a messianic age within this world. What can taking a day off teach us about liberation and redemption?

Judaism is a social religion, so Shabbos doesn’t take place at the level of an individual. It takes place at the level of a society. As such, one day off per week is a kind of labor policy – a potentially liberatory labor policy. This potential is most clear in this quote from Deuteronomy:

Keep the sabbath day to hallow it as the LORD your God has charged you. Six days you shall work and you shall do your tasks, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. You shall do no task, you and your son and your daughter and your male slave and your female slave and your ox and your donkey and all your beasts and your sojourner who is within your gates, so that your male slave and your female slave may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore did the LORD charge you to make the sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Robert Alter translation)

The Shabbos is presented in the setting of the social relations and the relations of domination of its time, which include the master-slave relationship. Deuteronomy tells us, as a kind of reminder of the principle of liberation, that slaves also get the day off. Remarkably, the master should observe Shabbos so that the slave can do so as well. Giving the master the day off does not necessarily imply a day off for the slave – indeed quite the opposite. Leisure for the master, in general, means the displacement of their labor onto their subordinates. In order to imagine and construct an institution of rest that actually means a true cessation of labor and not its mere displacement, we need to build society around that hope. We need to create collective institutions that permit not only the master, but also the slave, to rest. It is in creating those institutions that we create a possibility for redemption.

“You shall do no task.” What is a task? The Jewish legal tradition, the halacha, says it’s not just pausing what you do for pay. It’s not staying “home” from “work,” because, of course, home and work are not necessarily always opposed. Outside the sphere of waged employment, there are other activities of labor which take place throughout our life, and along with those activities of labor come the potential for their domination. So, the halachic definition of labor is basically a list of activities which are considered intrinsically constructive and therefore laborious. Those include many of the mundane activities of the household: lighting fires, cooking, cleaning, laundry, mending clothes, etc. Shabbos happens not just as a ban upon workplace activities, but also labor within the household – therefore affecting the terrain of gendered labor and gender relations, potentially in a disruptive liberatory way. Though, for the most part, throughout history, it has not had that disruptive liberatory effect within the patriarchy. Indeed, the sad truth is that throughout history Shabbos has not had the leveling effect which we hope it to have.

What are our goals, as the Jewish left and specifically as an observant Jewish left?

Today, Jewish culture and institutional life is strongly exclusionary to the poor and working classes. It is expensive to participate in Jewish life, to be part of a Jewish school, to raise a Jewish family, to keep kosher, and to keep Shabbos. On the Jewish left, we are part of a long-term uphill battle to make it possible for poor and working-class Jews to participate, to bring them back into the fold. In order to do that, we need to create those institutions of solidarity and support for keeping Shabbos. We are actually doing worse within the liberal Jewish world, because the Shabbos is seen as a matter of personal choice, and is thus confined to that sphere, and is not thought of as an obligation for Jews to take care of each other and make it possible to observe Shabbos.

Outside of these internal political dynamics of the Jewish community, as the labor movement has lost ground over decades, that has had its effect on working-class jobs. If you have a job in the service industry – good luck keeping Shabbos, that’s a real challenge. On the flipside, if you’re a capital owner or if you manage your own time, it’s much easier. That has created a lopsided effect on who is able to participate in Jewish life and keep Shabbos.

The core purpose of the observant Jewish left should be to make it possible for poor people to keep Shabbos. This entails a few points that may be controversial. The way Shabbos is observed now might actually be really bad! If the affluent enjoy Shabbos while the poor continue to toil, it probably does not count. This is what the prophet Isaiah was talking about when he said “New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies” (Isaiah 1:13, NIV translation).

We need to start building the institutions that will create changes in the social composition of shabbos observance. in order to do this we should learn from mutual aid traditions. can people in your community access free loans? is there a safety net for someone who can’t find shabbos-friendly work? are there community dinners that people can rely on? who feeds working people when they need to be at work all friday?

we also need to interrogate our structures of hospitality. who feels accepted in shomer shabbos spaces and who feels shut out? changing the status quo will require us to change our own patterns of home life and community, even if that makes us uncomfortable.

The Shabbos as an idea can provide inspiration for radical movements. Besides being a labor policy, it is also an environmental policy. It encourages us to take a break from constantly exploiting the world, to challenge the constant impulse of capital towards ceaseless movement and growth. But Shabbos is more than a radical idea. It is an existing practice. Like any cultural tradition, it is a site of struggle between the reactionary elements of that culture and the forces of liberation. So, whether you are within the observant Jewish left or in the religious left more broadly, I invite you to take part in this struggle: will the Shabbos of the future exist as an oasis of privilege? Or can we build it as a cross-class practice of solidarity that disrupts domination and capitalism?

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