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.
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 — the twenty-five hours, from sundown Friday until three stars are visible in the sky on Saturday, devoted to prayer, family, community, pleasure, and awe. During this time, we do not work, discuss work, spend money, touch money, travel, strive to self-improve, tackle thorny problems, create things, or destroy things. We do nothing “useful” in the ordinary sense of the word. On this day the pores of time open and the world breathes. Heschel writes in the rabbinic tradition, describing the Sabbath as a gift from God, a “palace in time,” a living presence that enters the world bringing a whiff of eternity. He writes in the language of bliss and surrender.
And while Heschel probably did not intend to write a political text any more than Marx intended to write a spiritual one, the contrast between Heschel’s description of the Sabbath day and the world of power, control, and commerce could not be more pointed. 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.
The Sabbath is a reclaiming of time for God and for our inner baby. It is a reestablishment of a primordial birthright. At its best, the Sabbath allows the spiritual hippie child in us to come out and play. It’s a taste of an infinite present. We get to light candles, linger over meals with loved ones, take aimless walks through the town, run yelling on a beach, roll in the grass, read Rumi and Thomas Merton and Torah, sing our hearts out on our front stoops, get sticky from eating ripe peaches, dance at worship services, pray, daydream, talk, make love, sleep. Pleasure. Community. Love. We get to luxuriate in life’s fountain of blessings.
No Ordinary Vacation
On the surface, this all sounds like innocuous, good, clean fun. A little harmless R&R. It may even sound quaint and archaic, like something from a bygone era that we post-moderns no longer need. And ironically, Marx probably discarded the idea of the Sabbath as just another opiate — a momentary escape and brief therapy from a world where we are constantly exploited. He would say that the Sabbath (and religion in general) is part of capitalism’s “corrective” effect, like holidays and weekends — that is, capitalism band-aids the worst parts of the workers’ exploitation and compensates them just enough so that their oppression becomes bearable and they 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 violent secular world, but to represent in the now what redemption looks like, what justice looks like, what a compassionate social order looks like. It is to reconstruct the rest of time from the viewpoint of the Sabbath as unjust and untenable. Granted, the Sabbath traditions of some religious communities merely reinscribe the oppressions and exploitations of the secular world — excluding women, for example, from the domestic-duties hiatus that men enjoy. But a truly egalitarian Sabbath that lifts up a holy vision of the world to come performs deeply political work: it builds an “outside” to the current world. The self that emerges from such a Sabbath and reenters 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 becomes unbearable. The question becomes this: once they’ve seen Paris, how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm?
People get this intuitively. Mention the idea of a full Sabbath practice to the average American and the reaction is quite revealing. Typically, it’s terror. 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 vapid pleasures. When I told a high-octane lawyer friend of mine that my family keeps Shabbat each week and explained that during this time we don’t work or spend money or run errands, he shook his head and said, “Wow. That sounds terrifying.”
My friend was undoubtedly imagining all the things he had to get done. It’s hard enough, he was probably thinking, 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 mattress, taxes to be filed, a haircut to procure, the show to watch, the hallway lightbulb to be replaced — all these feel immutable to him (as such things do to most of us). The whispered voices of fear are loud in our ears, warning of the social costs we will pay, how our world may spin out of control, the threat of failures. Free time has to squeeze in around these immutable constraints, or so the thinking goes.
So when the Sabbath comes along and insists that in fact it is immutable and all else is negotiable, the world is turned upside down. It is the non-negotiability of the Sabbath that gives it its terrifying power. Exceptions are made only for emergencies threatening life or health. Everything else — everything else! — comes to a screeching halt at sundown. The secular understanding of what’s “reasonable” and “normal” gets trumped by a commitment to an alternative vision. A check may be left half written, a shopping trip abandoned with an empty cart, the writing of a paper stopped mid-sentence. This is where the personal gets political: the engines of our social and political systems are fueled by the faith that our daily work and consumer practices are immutable, inevitable, and somehow natural. By injecting doubt into that faith, Sabbath practice disrupts the dominant logic of American culture. Each person who keeps a Sabbath plays a part in exposing the underlying ideology of the status quo — the religion of materialism, self advancement, and the pursuit of individual happiness. For, in Heschel’s words, “a thought has blown the marketplace away.”
As sweet and gentle as the Sabbath may be, its arrival collides violently with the secular world. It forces us to choose every week: will I surrender to a deeper principle of joy and meaning or will I embezzle time from God? It forces us to confront the fundamental question: to what or to whom do I ultimately belong? To my possessions? To my boss? To my insecurities fueled by the media? To my fears about the future? To my boundless thirst for more? To whom or to what?
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 community” or “to the earth” or “to liberation,” I grow in spiritual strength. The tension between the call of work and the call of the Sabbath becomes merely weight added to my spiritual barbells — another opportunity to destabilize my ordinary world and lift up my deepest truths. This is why Sabbath observance is a spiritual practice: it takes discipline, ironically, to enter into an undisciplined, formless time. It takes discipline to reimagine our world. It takes courage to assert and reassert our freedom. It takes a true leap of faith.
It is no coincidence that the Sabbath was invented/received by a people who understood themselves to have once been slaves. The genius of their insight was that sometimes the most politically radical use of time is not to use it efficiently, but rather 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 that existed, 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 reaffirmed 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 whiled away twenty-five hours a week just lounging together on life’s playground.