Tikkun Magazine

Sabbath Practice as Political Resistance: Building the Religious Counterculture

A family prepares to break challah at a Shabbat dinner. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described the Jewish Sabbath as a “palace in time” that allows individuals to “lay down the profanity of clattering commerce.” Credit: Creative Commons/David Starkopf.

One thing Abraham Joshua Heschel and Karl Marx had in common, aside from having both been spectacularly bearded Eastern European Jews, is the 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—patently obvious but frequently forgotten—that makes keeping a Sabbath day both spiritually profound and politically radical. To reclaim time is to be rich. To reclaim a full day every week is to be among the 1 percent. Sabbath practice is also one of the most unambiguously articulated of all the commandments in the Hebrew Bible (even making the top ten!), and yet very few of the “people of the book” actually keep a Sabbath—only traditionally observant Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Mormons (except for Mitt Romney). Perhaps keeping this particular commandment is just too hard.

Surplus Time in a Capitalist Society

While Marx certainly did not intend to write a spiritual text when he wrote Capital in 1867, he ended up producing a work that has survived into the new millennium precisely because it speaks such deep spiritual truths about the meaning of human life. Marx’s books are still on the shelves at Barnes & Noble because we recognize ourselves and our modern woes in their pages. Like Scripture, they have long outlived the debunking of their factual details. Marx wails a prophetic lament on behalf of his society. He holds up a mirror, showing how human time—human life—is broken down, appropriated, and devoured by the “boundless thirst” of capitalism. He describes the “despotic bell” of the workplace that wrenches people (mere “personifications of labor time”) from their homes. In capitalism, free time is a waste or, at best, the necessary evil of 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 phenomenon today: that somehow in our high-tech world, we are all feverishly, dizzyingly busy. Because exactly as Marx described, any surplus time created by labor-saving technology is immediately sucked back into the system to create more value—more money, more goods, more innovation. We, the people, never actually receive the surplus time as time. Indeed, although the labor movement has brought us the weekend, we typically spend weekends in a flurry of acquisition, preparation, consumption, and productivity. Stopping is not an option. This is almost as true for the wealthy as for anyone. While the wealthy could technically “choose” to stop working or work less, they generally don’t. There’s always a mortgage (or a few) to pay and status to maintain, things to buy, and, perhaps most important, a general lack of anything better to do. Once we’ve been dehumanized long enough by the insatiable engine of secular acquisition and achievement, it’s hard to go back.


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Ana Levy-Lyons is senior minister at First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, New York, currently writing a book on the Ten Commandments as a radical spiritual and political vision. Visit facebook.com/Ana.LevyLyons.author. Twitter: @Ana_LevyLyons. Email: analevylyons@hotmail.com.

Source Citation

Levy-Lyons, Ana. 2012. Sabbath Practice as Political Resistance: Building the Religious Counterculture. Tikkun 27(4): 16.

tags: Health, Judaism, Spirituality