Archive for July 11th, 2008

Sabbaths: Public and Personal

Sharon July 11th, 2008

I was talking to Aaron about various things recently, and we were discussing the remarkable amount of attention his wonderful article about The Four Day Work Week is getting – the idea is getting a lot of national play, and so is Aaron.   This is terrific – CNN is calling and various legislatures are considering it as a policy – I’m so delighted about it, and proud that Aaron is having a role in moving our nation’s policy to something we definitely need – more balance, more flexibility, more environmental awareness.

We were nattering away, as we do, and I being an opinionated sort opined that a partial key to pulling this off, and avoiding a scenario in which middle and upper middle class employees get this benefit, and the poor and working class are increasingly screwed would be bringing back a mandatory day free of commerce.   That is, I think it is quite possible that the four day work week will make it into the public discourse – and work very well for millions of middle class Americans whose work can be done at any time.  I am concerned, however, about how this may play out in service sector work – the ways in which, for example, shift workers who already struggle to get enough hours to receive benefits may find the new policy enabling them to be pushed out of access to health insurance, among other things, or the reality that poor workers, already struggling with gas costs may be left out of such adaptations (this should not be seen as an attack on Aaron’s idea, which I agree with very much – I’m simply concerned with the implementation).

While it is hardly a panacea, one thing I think would actively benefit both working families and businesses is a legally mandated day free of commerce.  Why legally mandated?  Because without across the board implementation, it won’t happen – workers in this market haven’t the power to demand a day off for themselves, and businesses can’t afford to be uncompetetive.  The only way that we can close down both energy use and free most people to have a day off is with a legal mandate.  This would reduce carbon emissions, but it would also reduce the enormous pressure on shift working families – who often have no idea if they will have any free time, who often struggle to provide child care every day of the week at odd hours, and it IMHO, makes it less possible for service businesses to argue that they can’t afford to employ enough people to go to a four day work week.  

Now I have a funny relationship with this whole idea.  I grew up in Massachusetts, a state whose laws were shaped in part by its long history of Protestantism, and when I was a kid, everything was closed on Sundays – period. Not only couldn’t you buy liquor, you couldn’t buy anything.

Around the time I hit adolescence, most of the blue laws that regulated Sunday commerce (except for the booze-related ones – these had minimal effect because I lived in Massachusetts, near the New Hampshire border, and the NH “packies” were an easy trip for teenagers with fake ids – not, of course, ( definitely not, Mom!) that I was one of them.

And I was extremely enthusiastic about this deregulation – at first just because I was a teenager and while I had no money, in principle I approved of being able to shop any time I wanted to, and later, on the principle of religious freedom.  I believed strongly that the state should not have any part in establishing a sabbath of any kind.  I still believe that the establishment of a religious Sabbath should be entirely out of the territory of the state.  But I’ve come to believe that the regulation of commerce should definitively include a day in which commerce is not permitted.  And given the makeup of the country, I think the chance of that day being anything but Sunday is exactly zero. 

Now as a Jew, this is a royal pain in my ass in some ways.  Since I don’t engage in commerce on Saturdays, that means the weekend is out for errand running.  Since I live a long way from most shopping, that means that the weekend was when I did my errand running, if any.  Guess what – I’ll deal.  And so would the rest of us.  While parts of the economy, especially some tourist-based economic activities might take a hit, the truth is that the compensatory savings on not heating, lighting or running the business would be worth it.  And one of the ways I think it would most be worth it is in family culture – at the moment, most American families have nothing like a sabbath – they have no time that is only theirs, no time not taken up with work and shopping and running errands.  In some ways, this will complicate things – but then again, there are millions of Christians, Jews and Muslims in the world who do in fact keep a Sabbath, and will gladly share strategies for getting organized and being able to stay home.

Now I suspect some people will disagree with me strongly, and some business owners will say this would kill them, and I’m sympathetic, although I think I’m still in favor of it.  Ultimately, transport emissions and building emissions are going to have to come down far further than by 1/7 – we don’t have a choice.  Ultimately the changes that are coming as energy prices rise and the climate changes are far more radical than this.  The real advantage of this idea is that it isn’t far away in our national memories – as we approach harder, scarier forms of conservation and adaptation, the first tools in our box should be the ones we’re not afraid of, that feel familiar to us in some way.  There are still many areas in the US that do close down on a Sunday – while it may seem a bit archaic, things that seem archaic – ideas like frugality, victory gardens, pulling together and making do, along with a day when all the stores are shuttered and families are at home together, have the virtue of a warm familiarity in a desert of newness.

Which brings me to the question of why I call it a Sabbath at all – commerce-free day would probably make more sense were I proposing legislation, given my concerns about the establishment of state faith – I have strong religous, cultural and moral reasons not to want to see the government implying the Christianity is a national religion.  And yet, I do think of it as a Sabbath. 

The reason I do is that Sabbaths are associated with freedom in the Torah – Jews are taught that as we kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept us.  The idea of the Sabbath that informed both Christianity and Judaism derives from a simple idea - one day each week, we will be free.  No master can tell us what to do.   No boss can demand we give up our energies, our time, our dignity.  In our own homes, however humble, we are free to do as we wish that one day.  Jews are taught to see that freedom from work and the money economy as a gift – and we do, mostly.  It is hard work sometimes to establish that oasis in time – but rewarding, oh, rewarding to have a day each week in which we are truly free. 

Abraham Heschel claimed that the reason that the Torah says that “On the seventh day God finished his work” instead of “He rested on the seventh day.” is that on the seventh day, God was still creating something without which the universe would still be incomplete.  What was it?  Heschel argues that it is “menhua” or ” tranquility, serenity, harmony.”  That is, all the work of creation was incomplete without the idea of time to repose and enjoy it.  And not only were people given the Sabbath, but the whole world was given that time – animals were not to be worked, but turned out on pasture to do as they will.  That is, the Sabbath itself was a time of freedom for the whole world – and a time when humans were obliged to lift the burdens of others – other people, the animals in their lives. 

One could argue that for those of us compelled by the idea of a religious Sabbath, there is an obligation to lift the burden upon the world, upon nature as much as we can one day a week – that is, the way we can free animals for their own sabbath is reduce the pollutants we pour into their environment, to slow the process of building and expanding into their habitats.  Perhaps we can free the world of some of some of the weight others bear for us. 

Now most people are not Jews, and most people do not keep a sabbath, and most people will perhaps not much be compelled by the writings of thousands of year old Jews on the subject of whether they should be shopping on one day or another.  And yet, I think the idea of the Sabbath as freedom – both freedom from work and freedom to lift the burden we place on the rest of the world might be worth considering.  One does not have to believe in a God that ordains these things to believe that it might be valuable to take one day and devote it to our homes, our families, the reconstitution of ourselves.  What we do on those days we depend on our faith, our family, our lives.  But our ability to devote our time to ourselves, our ability to negotiate with employers for less work, our ability to balance the environment and our lives depends, in part, I think, on our ability to silence some of the demands that the world places upon us.

 I know how very hard it is to keep a Sabbath in world that always calls to us.  I do it…mostly. It can be done.  And I know that many people will not see such a time as a gift right away – and some may never see it that way.  When I was a teenager, with a boundless energy, the idea of a day of rest, home with my family, seemed outrageous, pointless – who would want such a thing.  But the truth is that there are millions of peoplw who want precisely that, and lack the power to negotiate it, and the support community to enable it.  Overwhelmingly, Americans state they need more time – more time for family, more time to recover from the stresses on their lives.  And if we are to soften the rigidity of the five day work week, IMHO, a part of that would be the recognition that work itself has limits, and cannot extend into every moment of our lives – that other things, tranquility, rest, autonomy, freedom reside there too.