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I have always valued the utilitarian aspect of Judaism, even though utilitarianism in itself is hardly justification for living a religious life. Circumcision may indeed help reduce the risk of certain kinds of diseases. So might refraining from sex at certain times. But those are not the reasons most of us adhere to these laws.

The strict Shabbat of Judaism is the most relevant of all our rituals in the world in which we now live. Difficult, I concede, but immensely rewarding. The value in taking a break from constant cell phone rings, texts, and messages that apparently cannot wait for one minute, let alone 24 hours, has actually dehumanized us. Otherwise intelligent hominids have to check their screens as they walk, eat, and converse, as if their lives depend on them. The endless Tweets, Facebook likes, LinkedIn requests, Skype calls, WhatsApp, and Viber messages constantly nag and distract us. Having a day in which one does not have to deal with all of this must make enormous sense for our sanity and indeed our freedom.

Not being able to drive ensures that families members have to stay in easy reach of each other. They will sit together around a table several times to eat, converse, and perhaps sing and study. It requires one to read books rather than screens, to hold, to touch, to feel the print. Instead of the ubiquitous Muzak of electronic sounds and sights, the all-pervasive screens and games, we can free our senses to the sounds of nature and our own brains. We are forced out of the mundane, into another world. Not entirely cut off of course, and with some concessions and compromises, but different enough to be noticeable, beneficial both physically and mentally. Shabbat is a therapeutic break in an otherwise electronic nightmare of conformity and similarity imposed by media, most of which is either trivial and valueless or materially and commercially importuning and insidious.

It is true that actually keeping Shabbat requires discipline and being able to postpone gratification or harness it, which is often uncomfortable and grating. But how does one succeed in any area of life without self-control and delayed gratification?

Petty laws annoy us. But imagine you take your family somewhere where there is no such thing as a day off, of the sort of Sunday most of us in the West recognize. If you want your children to understand it you will have to be negative and restrictive. No formal clothes, lie in bed later than usual, read the bulky Sunday papers, go for a walk, sit down to a meal together. These demands are all going to sound petty. It won’t help to say you can do whatever everyone else is doing on the other six days of the week. Kids will always want to do the opposite. Kids will always want to join their friends, the flow, the fashion, the easy fun way out. I know I always did, until yeshivah taught me the value of discipline.

This reflection on Shabbat was provoked by a recent BBC talk and interview with Matthew Engel, a former schoolmate of mine, now a well-respected British journalist. In it he discussed how the strict Christian Sabbath that once controlled the Scottish Islands has slowly been eroded, to argue for the merits of a day off, a break from the pervasive culture of perpetual work, business, computers, and phones. But on the way to that point, he and his equally non-Jewish Jewish interviewer made fun of the Orthodox Shabbat.

Matthew comes from a non-Orthodox Jewish family, brought up in the wilds of Northamptonshire. He and his two elder brothers were sent to Carmel College, where Shabbat was strictly enforced. Matthew later carved out a distinguished career for himself, probably because of the very challenges, difficulties, and disciplines that were forced on him. He became a cricket fan. He was also forced to play cricket at Carmel. Eventually he became the editor of the bible of cricket known as Wisden.

The cynic can make fun of everything and anyone, of handkerchiefs, and ties, and handshakes, and salutes–all meaningless aspects of most societies. One can make endless fun of cricket, just as he made fun of Judaism. It is a game which you can play for five days and get no result. A bowler hurls a lump of cork and leather at three sticks called stumps (a mystical number?). The ball must be thrown in the most unnatural way, over the shoulder at a batsman standing in from of the sticks, adopting rigid stances with funny names. The batsman wields a heavy slab of linseed anointed ash, and swings it in fixed and defined arcs. If the bowler actually hits the batsman, and they often try, he can claim “Leg Before Wicket” and get him dismissed, even if it hits his arm. There are ritual calls like “Howzat”, meaning he should leave the field. There are place names like “Silly Mid Off” and “Silly Mid On” (yes, honestly). And if a bowler hurls the ball six times (why six, indeed?) and the batsman fails to strike, everyone applauds. Yes, you applaud when nothing happens. I could go on, but you get my point. But it’s tradition of course. The defender of cricket will talk about broader and wider issues of gamesmanship, skill, and competition. He will resent you picking on small cultural details. But it’s those details that determine the difference between cricket and baseball.

So it is with Judaism. The broader idea of having a day that is different than the others is so wise and obviously beneficial. But the only way to achieve it and take it seriously is if there is a system to support and enforce the idea and give it structure.

Matthew ends up by saying he decided to make his own Sabbath which, out of deference to his heritage (ironically), he does on Saturday, despite describing his current religion as MYOBism (Mind Your Own Business). I wonder if he realized that, for all his rebellion, the idea had been planted in his subconscious and was now reemerging despite himself. His Sabbath is avoiding his computer and not answering his emails. But he confesses the overpowering attraction of horse racing, and making a bet leads him to make an exception.

And there you have it. If one tailors one’s religion to one’s own whims, one has neither consistency, nor pattern or communality. For all the inconvenience of a religious system, at least one has something recognizable and definable that one can share, even if one, as most people do, often fails to live up to it all, whether it’s orthodoxy in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or whatever.

In principle there’s no reason why each and every individual shouldn’t create his or her own lifestyle. And I haven’t even mentioned the idea of God. But that tendency towards solipsism is what has made society such a selfish/me/want-it-now world of instant gratification and the lowest common denominator.

The Olympians who we thrill at currently and the great cricketers need more than natural physical talent. They need skills, courage, and enormous discipline. We might make fun of their early mornings, their strict regimes of controlled eating, sleeping, and exercise. But we admire and delight in the results nevertheless.

10 thoughts on “Shabbat

  1. This is a great article Rabbi Rosen. In my opinion, the world of instant gratification will spell the end for cricket. How will we watch the same game for 5 days when we can’t even concentrate for 5 minutes?! It’s amazing how it is always a Jew who bashes traditional Judaism just as it is always an Israeli who bashes Israel.

  2. I was very disappointed, if I may use a headmasterly word, that someone I have liked and admired for half a century now should have responded so negatively to my Radio 4 talk.

    What I was trying to do, for a broad and largely irreligious audience, was to applaud the concept of the strict Jewish and Presbyterian Sabbath and to urge people to adapt the principles to the realities of their lives.

    Back comes the response. And once it’s stripped of dubious assumptions, ad hominen arguments and irrelevant guff about cricket, it comes down to this: the Sabbath is exactly what we say it is; don’t argue; don’t dare think about it.

    And of course most people don’t. Hence the collapse of the Sabbath. Hence the terrifying demographic trends for Jewry in the Diaspora. Hence the fact that I have dozens of Jewish friends, acquaintances and colleagues – sparky, intelligent, thoughtful people – who long ago concluded that Judaism has nothing to offer them. Certainly not the right to be taken seriously.

  3. Matthew,

    I really do admire you for all you have achieved and I thank you most sincerely for the kind words you expressed about me prior to my blog. But I am sorry you couldn't take a dose of your own medicine! Of course I was being flippnat and silly about cricket, just as you were about an Orthodox Shabbat. I was only trying to make a similar point to yours about there being something of value beneath the apparent superficiality. Insn't that sauce for the gander?

    I suffered like you from the restrictions of my youth, on not being able to watch Manchester United on a Shabbat afternoon. And because my father had the foresight to despatch me off to Yeshivah I was fortunate enough to experience a more positive experience than simply restrictions.

    The fact is that the Orthdoxy you claim is disappearing is resurgent around the world, to everyone's surprise, precisely because it offers a passionate and in depth counter balance to excessive self indulgence that appeals to some, certainly not the majority. There's still a lot I dislike about established religions and I despise religious authority of every kind. But thats no different to loving cricket and still hating the MCC.

    I welcome criticism of everything including relgion. You have me as wrong as you think I have you. I do respect MYOBism.

    Warmest regards and if you are ever in New York please get in touch. I am no fan of baseball.


  4. David
    In the blog itself there is a link to the Engel interview where it says "a recent BBC talk" (click on those words in the blog post above).
    All the best.

  5. Somewhere embedded in Mathew’s thought was the line that an “Outsider shouldn’t make simple assumptions in complex places” but yet Mathew seems totally comfortable to assume why G-d made the Sabbath. The notion that the Sabbath was made as the first trade union is perhaps something I would have expected the host of the show, David Baddiel to say, after all he is a comedian. I think that the story of the Island that Mathew visited, has an integral lesson to teach us regarding assimilation. Once the ship had decided to sail on the Sunday it paved way for all of the Island to follow suit, hence the Island by making the “convenient” exception to the rule, lost the rule entirely. The overall problem with Mathew’s thought, is that it has the audacity to expect G-d to have to conform to the way that the western world treats commerce on the weekend. There is an intrinsic healthy reason for having the day off from the world once a week, In the same way that there is a healthy value to eating chicken soup even if it is not Kosher but the point that Mathew missed is that G-d and Religion don’t come second place to Upper Middle Class Brits who want to combine their atheism with nostalgia, it is designed for those who want spirituality.

  6. Dear Jeremy,
    Three final points and I'm done.
    1. I had hoped that this talk might have been an opportunity for constructive dialogue between those who have a fixed view of the world and those of us who are certain of nothing and strive to find answers. The above exchange, and Mr Bernstein's contribution in particular, does not encourage me to try again.

    2. I'm afraid that if your main reading of the demographics of Diaspora Jewry is "a resurgence of Orthodoxy" we may be seeing different statistics.

    3. For the record, I adore baseball.

    Best, Matthew

  7. Mathew

    Please don't be done. I'd love to continue this and please dont mind other posts.

    My only criticism was the cynical tone, that I know you are so good at and people love you for it. When it is directed at something I care about of course I will react as would you.

    You question my statistics that Orthodoxy is on the rise. Here is a brief off the cuff selection of references to the significant rise of Ultra Orthodoxy , in the UK, in the USA and around the Jewish world.

    As with other studies, the Pew study found that the Orthodox share of the American Jewish population is likely to grow because Orthodox Jews tend to be younger and have larger families than Jews generally. While past surveys showed about half of respondents raised as Orthodox were no longer Orthodox, the Orthodox retention rate appears to be improving, with just a 17 percent falloff among 18- to 29-year-olds.

    Due diligance will reveal much more but of course living outside the North London ghettos you will not notice it. This phenomenon is manifest in all religions at the moment; a drift towards fundamentalism away from the vapid uninspiring insipid versions. And I suggest the reason is that if people are going to choose a religious way of life they will want something substantial, significant and passionate.

    The flip side of course is a greater degree of fundamentalism, inwardlooking socialization and as Norman Lebrecht describes it "Monotheistic, Monolithic and Monochromatic." I dissociate myself from that. What is more I strongly object all religious authority that puts power, control and insularity over universal humanity and ethics. And I detest religious compulsion ( although I could be accused of doing that as headmater but shools are different only in the sense that to achieve knowledge of anything one usually needs some measure of discipline).

    When I was young there were very few like minded Jews, orthodox but intellectually alive for me to mix with at school, university and beyond. Nowadays in London my children and grandchildren have an enormous pool of professional, educated articulate thinking orthodox families to socialize with. I assure you there has been a sea change in Anglo Jewry.

    At the same time there are negative aspects which I am alive to and make a point of criticising.

    My father always argued that significant Jewish identity and continuity required a pasionate commitment to Jewish life and Jewish knowledge and he has been proved right. The majority of Jews without such tools are indeed disappearing. But the minority who are involved are staging an unbelieable come back. And just as the response to anti Semitism has become more pro-active so too is the reaction to those who claim that living an orthodox life is medieval, primitive and silly. Quite the contrary it has even more to offer as the wider society struggles to find its balance.

    I really do value your thoughts and hope you will be prepared to continue the discussion.


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