At the end of March, I met with "my" rabbi -- the same rabbi who taught the 16-week Introduction to Judaism class I took that just finished last week -- and I'm now officially a conversation student, although it's not clear what I'll actually wind up doing in that respect. He gave me a whole slew of homework for our next meeting and asked me to write a reflection paper on parts of that homework. I've just now sent off my reflection paper to him, since our next meeting is Thursday; I sent it with a note of apology for its length, which I'm afraid will just be the cost of working with me as a conversation student!
I thought I'd share some parts of that reflection for the interest of the few folks who might be interested, so here's Part I, which is on Shabbat. I was supposed to reflect on some of the articles in A Shabbat Reader as I created my own Shabbat practice. (I also am not sure that I ever mentioned in this blog that D had shoulder surgery three months ago -- just one of the many things that made this an exhausting spring. She's doing well and has started physical therapy.)
One of my assignments was to create a Shabbat practice and, in support of that practice, to read Ruth Perelson’s An Invitation to Shabbat: A Beginner’s Guide to Weekly Celebration and Dov Peretz Elkins’s edited A Shabbat Reader: Universe of Cosmic Joy. I have been successful in the reading and, I’ll admit, less so in the creating the practice.
We do have lovely Shabbat candlesticks, which I bought for D back in 2000 in Grad School City (which just goes to show how long I’ve had this interest in Judaism), and we’ve had some delightful Shabbat evenings this winter/spring, but we haven’t been consistent in it. Some of this inconsistency has certainly been because of D's shoulder surgery and the resulting exhaustion and topsy-turvy-ness of our lives in the last three months; it’s hard to create a new habit when even our long-term habits have been temporarily thrown into disarray. But there’s more to it than that.
One of the things that I really love about Judaism is that the home is as or more important than the synagogue in terms of religious practice. But that very primacy of home also been a challenge, because I find domesticity is a fraught arena. Housekeeping and hospitality are twin sources of anxiety for me – anxieties I primarily deal with by avoiding as much as possible – and yet they also seem to be twin pillars of a home Shabbat observance. Here’s Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog’s description of a housewife’s life in the shtetl: “From sunrise to sunset the day is a race with time. The whole house must be cleaned, the floors swept and sanded, the woodwork washed, the kitchen tables and benches scrubbed, the towels changed. The housewife darts from broom to oven and back again, peering, stirring, prodding, dusting, giving commands to her daughters, and ordering all males to keep from underfoot. … Of a woman who has trouble coping with the domestic routine and runs a confused house, it is said scornfully, ‘For her every day is Erev Shabbes’” (“Sabbath Eve,” 105, in A Shabbat Reader).
Well, I am a woman who has trouble coping with domestic routine, and I definitely run a confused house, but I don’t do the frantic rushing around on Erev Shabbes but rather work all day Friday and then come home to collapse, which makes a peaceful , joyful Shabbat dinner difficult. Now, obviously 21st-century America is no shtetl, but I still feel domestic pressure around trying to “produce” a Sabbath evening celebration. One of the Talmudic stories that causes me great anxiety is the tale of two angels, one good and one evil, who look through the windows of houses on Shabbat evening to observe the Shabbat dinner. If the candles are lit and the table set beautifully, the good angel says, “May it be thus next Shabbat,” and the evil angel has to agree, “Amen.” But if the house isn’t prepared for Shabbat, the evil angel says, “May it be thus next Shabbat,” and the good angel has to agree, “Amen” (quoted from the Babylonian Talmud in “Shabbat in the Bible and Rabbinic Sources,” 4). I’m afraid that my household is one that the evil angel would enjoy! And even when I have pulled off a nice Shabbat dinner, the next week is usually downhill from there. Our most relaxed Shabbat dinners have actually been those when we’ve ordered out for food; Indian cuisine may not be typical of Shabbat meals, and naan is perhaps an odd substitute for challah, but those have been the most festive, relaxed meals we’ve had on a Friday night.
It’s clear to me that, in order to have a really nice Shabbat observance at home, I’d have to clean the house every Thursday night; that’s something my parents actually did when I was young (not because of Shabbat observance but merely to have a clean house for the weekend), but I have never yet been organized enough to emulate their ways, and normally on Thursday night I’m catching up on grading to return on Friday.
I loved reading this winter Elizabeth Ehrlich’s Miriam’s Kitchen, a memoir about moving toward keeping a kosher household; she was incredibly thoughtful about how keeping kosher, making a Shabbat dinner, and getting the house cleaned and kosher for Pesach all falls squarely on women’s shoulders, while also recognizing that these traditions make all sorts of small details of life an opportunity for holiness. All of this is still an area of struggle for me.
Friday night services have also been difficult, in part because of that collapsing in bed after school on Friday; when we do have Shabbat dinner, it’s often later in the evening because I’ve been napping, and then I don’t want to rush through dinner to go to services. Plus, despite the afternoon nap, I often am in bed by 9:00 on Friday night, so the thought of going out that evening is difficult. (I know I sound like I’m about 80 here, and clearly there’s something not sustainable about the way I’m living my school life if I’m so exhausted at the end of each week. Maybe that’s a separate issue, and maybe it’s not.)
On the positive side, Saturdays have been more successful. I have been pretty consistent about not to doing school work and especially not grading on Shabbat, and that has been lovely indeed. I still read on that day, but not for school; I have split my time between reading something fun and frivolous and reading my Intro to Judaism homework. Since the latter uses the same part of my brain as reading for school – I seem to have a single intellectual, analytical mode of thinking that I use for all kinds of reading that I am serious about – I was wondering if this constituted a real Shabbat rest, but I felt better after reading Norman E. Frimer’s point that “Sabbath study is an imitatio Deo, an emulation of the ways of God who, after six days, rested only from His physical creation, but whose intellectual and spiritual essence remained undiminished. Therefore we are bidden, especially on this day, to immerse ourselves in the life-giving waters of Torah” (“Law as Living Discipline: The Sabbath as Paradigm,” 60). But it is still a question for me, since that kind of reading and thinking is my regular “work.” The dividing line between work and not work is not so clear for me, since I tend to do the same things for fun as I do for my job (except for the grading!). I keep thinking about Arnold Jacob Woolf’s point that “The ‘work’ that is forbidden by Jewish law on the Sabbath is not measured in the expenditure of energy. It takes real effort to pray, to study, to walk to synagogue. They are ‘rest’ but not restful. Forbidden ‘work’ is acquisition, aggrandizement, altering the world” (“Reclaiming Shabbat,” 206). Well, my work is not about acquisition, and I don’t think it’s about aggrandizement (although maybe there’s always some element of that in teaching and being an authority figure); as far as “altering the world” goes, I guess that is what I do, and what I can avoid doing on Saturdays.
So those are just some of my thoughts about Shabbat at the moment. It will be interesting to talk about all of this with the rabbi later this week.