My Sentiments Exactly

Last week I heard a great interview with Judith Shulevitz by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air about Shulevitz’s new book, The Sabbath World. The book is about Shabbat, the author’s observance of it, and her ambivalence about doing so. The interview was about what’s in the book, in addition to Shulevitz’s thoughts on her mother’s having become a rabbi later in life, feminism and Orthodox Judaism, and psychoanalysis. Definitely worth listening to the interview and reading the book.

But what struck me most about what Shulevitz, a former editor of Slate and columnist for The New York Times and now a literary critic, said in the interview was that she was able to articulate many of the same things I feel about Judaism and religion in general. Only she was able to effortlessly express these thoughts in fully formed, beautiful, insightful sentences and paragraphs, while they have been a jumbled mess inside my brain for ages with little hope of being strung together as comprehensible prose. But now I don’t have to make the effort, because Shulevitz has already done so with far more literary flair than I could ever hope to possess. All that’s left now is for me to point people in the direction of her book and the NPR interview and say, “Yeah, it’s like she said…”

Judith Shulevitz

I share Shulevitz’s ambivalence about Jewish religious practice, but like her, am deeply connected to it. She says she does not believe in God, and I can be a believer in the morning, an atheist by noon, and an agnostic by dinner time. I’ve never met Shulevitz, but I feel like we are soul sisters. So, I’ll let her do the talking (in quotations from the NPR interview):

On why she is a Sabbatarian (someone who observes the Sabbath):

“There is an endless striving to get somewhere in life…Shabbat is an escape from the sameness, from trying to get ahead, always working.”

On why she is ambivalent about Sabbath observance:

“I’m an American in the 21st century, and I don’t like being told what to do and how to spend my time.”

On why rules (halacha) is important:

“Rules are how society passes on from one generation to the next moral behavior and moral activity, and its idea of how life should be shaped and life should be led.”

On why she prays despite not believing in God, and why she goes to shul to hear the Torah read and interpreted:

“Prayer is a way of speaking a very old piece of text, usually, that brings me a message from the past. And that’s the best I can do with it. For me, it is a way of orienting myself to the past. Because I don’t believe in God, the whole exercise in formal rather than deeply felt. What is deeply felt for me is the love of hearing stories being told.”

Why traditional ritual is important:

“God is tradition. God is in ritual. God is the idea that we can be connected to the past and to our ancestors through these extraordinary gifts that get passed on, which are rituals, which are ways of shaping time and space that have stories embedded in them that in doing, we come to understand.”

“Judaism speaks to me out of the past. That’s what I love about it. The reason I love ritual is it’s embodied. It’s in bodies. Bodies do it, and it speaks to me out of those bodies. And it’s almost as if when I do something, when I perform a ritual – which I know was performed possibly somewhat differently, but basically in the same way thousands of years ago – I feel as though somehow it’s almost as if I’m touching the chain of tradition. I’m touching the ancestors and the chain of tradition, and they’re coming into my body. I’m almost physically possessed. That is the power of it. And the language is the same way.”

What can I tell you? She just took the words right out of my mouth…Or, is it the other way around?

Click here to listen to the full interview on NPR.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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One Response to “My Sentiments Exactly”

  1. Bernie Says:

    So Judaism is nothing more than ancestor worship?

    Without the one God there are no rules. People may differ on the mode of transmission, but without that transmission there are only rules made by man which can be changed by man.

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