…to keep it holy.
In The Big Lebowski, Walter Sobchak does not f***ing roll on Shabbos. Why not? The Old Testament gave two rationales for observing the Sabbath. The first, in Exodus, was that God created the earth in six days and on the seventh, He rested. Deuteronomy gave a different rational:
And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord, your God, commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
Reading Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism in the early 1980s, I became convinced that the story about the golden calf and Moses’s two forays up Mount Sinai suggested that the second set of tablets could not have contained the same text as the first. Thus the original set would have contained the “authentic” covenant, which Moses broke and thus, according to Freud “has to be understood symbolically: ‘he has broken the law.'”
A palimpsest is a manuscript in which the original text has been scraped off so the parchment can be reused for new writing. Metaphorically, it also refers — after Thomas De Quincy’s image — to memories that have been effaced and overwritten with new material. Julia Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality presents a similar relationship between an influential text and subsequent adoptions and adaptations, which consequently have an “ambivalent” relationship to the prior text.
The story of the Ten Commandments could thus be read as a story about a palimpsest or an intertext in which the authority of the “last word” should not be assumed naively. This interpretive susceptibility is reinforced by the existence of an oral tradition alongside, and presumably preceding the written testaments. I used to think Homer was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which to some extent he no doubt was. But he also “wrote down” a substantial legacy of inherited oral poetry.
One would have to be extremely erudite — and fluent in Hebrew at least — to have anything new to say about Exodus, the Ten Commandments or, specifically, the fourth commandment mandating observance of the Sabbath. Or, rather, anything new to say about what the texts really mean. What I offer is simply an interpretation of how they reflect on the present.
First, I assume that the scriptures reflect accumulated historical cultural experiences not all of which is applicable or relevant to contemporary life but some of which is very relevant. My focus on the Sabbath commandment is based in part on its enduring appeal but also on its affinity with particular modern perspectives and dilemmas.
Several authorities have commented on the fourth commandment as a hinge between those commandments that have to do with God and those dealing with community. Remembering the Sabbath addresses both. It is also the first commandment — and one of only two — that expresses a positive prescription rather than an injunction. The other positive commandment is the fifth, to honour your father and mother. The rest is all “don’t do this, don’t do that.”
Simply put, resting from labour is how one worships God.
Of course one can get pedantic about exactly what one must do or must not do to rest. Such an exercise comically makes rest itself into a specialized kind of labour. I much prefer Charles Wentworth Dilke’s early modern approach to disposable time:
After all their idle sophistry, there is, thank God! no means of adding to the wealth of a nation but by adding to the facilities of living: so that wealth is liberty– liberty to seek recreation–liberty to enjoy life–liberty to improve the mind: it is disposable time, and nothing more.
Dilke’s pamphlet provided an important piece of the scaffolding for Marx’s mature critique of political economy, which he repressed in Capital. A few select remnants are there if you look for them, though.
In the Grundrisse, Marx had proclaimed that “The whole development of wealth rests on the creation of disposable time.” In Capital, the order is reversed and presented explicitly from the perspective of capital, “the labourer is nothing else, his whole life through, than labour power, that therefore all his disposable time is by nature and law labour time, to be devoted to the self-expansion of capital.”
Enjoyment of life and improving the mind are dismissed (by the capitalist) as “moonshine”:
Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilling of social functions and for social intercourse, for the free-play of his bodily and mental activity, even the rest time of Sunday (and that in a country of Sabbatarians!) — moonshine!
The above is one of two allusions to the Sabbath in Capital. The second also decries hypocrisy of (Christian) Sabbath observance:
In England even now occasionally in rural districts a labourer is condemned to imprisonment for desecrating the Sabbath, by working in his front garden. The same labourer is punished for breach of contract if he remains away from his metal, paper, or glass-works on the Sunday, even if it be from a religious whim. The orthodox Parliament will hear nothing of Sabbath-breaking if it occurs in the process of expanding capital.
With regard to both disposable time and the Sabbath, Marx alternated between indignation at the hypocrisy of supposedly “Christian” capitalists and sarcastically parroting the capitalist perspective. Nowhere in Capital did he make the case for free time on its own merits. Instead, Marx quoted a resolution he drafted for the International Working Men’s Association advocating the limitation of working time as a “preliminary condition” for all “improvement and emancipation.” That resolution paraphrased a very similar sentiment expressed in 1848 by the factory inspector, R.J. Saunders, which Marx also quoted.
What’s the difference? In terms of hours on the clock, working less is the same as not-working more. There is, however, a spiritual difference, as Walter Brueggemann has suggested:
Rest, it is clear, is just as important as work. Indeed, it would seem that the definition of work ought to be secured by reference to rest, rather than the other way around. Work is a cessation from rest, a claiming of time for the maintenance and preservation of life that is characteristic of life outside the Garden of Eden.
Work is a cessation from rest. In a footnote, Marx ridiculed Nassau Senior’s abstinence theory of profit (the forerunner of “opportunity cost”) with a litany of abstinences:
It has never occurred to the vulgar economist to make the simple reflexion that every human action may be viewed, as “abstinence” from its opposite. Eating is abstinence from fasting; walking, abstinence from standing still, working, abstinence from idling, idling, abstinence from working, &c.
Again Marx appropriated the language of his opponent to criticize his opponent but in the process demotes Dilke’s benedictory “liberty to enjoy life” to the dismissive “idling.” As already mentioned, in the Grundrisse Marx had adopted Dilke’s formulation of wealth as disposable time to argue that all wealth rests on disposable time. Conversely, wealth enables “abstinence from working.”
The only question is who does the work and who gets the wealth. That question is answered by capital’s formula of value and socially necessary labour time. “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!” Moses and the prophets appear twice in Capital. The second time is in reference to the law of supply and demand:
What then becomes of the ten commandments, of Moses and the prophets, of the law of supply and demand, if in Europe the “entrepreneur” can cut down the labourer’s legitimate part, and in the West Indies, the labourer can cut down the entrepreneur’s?
Marx’s paternal and maternal grandfathers were both rabbis, with rabbis going back to the 15th century on his father’s side. He has been accused of antisemitism for his essay “On the Jewish Question” in which he characterized the “real Jew” as a huckster and worshipper of mammon:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew – not the Sabbath Jew, as Bauer does, but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.
Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time.
Marx indeed employed clichéd antisemitic tropes, just as Moses symbolically “broke the law” when he smashed the original set of tablets. His alibi, though, could be that he was equally contemptuous of the hypocrisy of Sabbatarian Christians in their selective enforcement of laws against (Sunday) Sabbath-breaking.
Whether ironically or not, Marx was in fact invoking the commandment against worshiping other gods or idols. In section four of chapter one of Capital, Marx explains the “secret” of commodity fetishism. It is instructive to read it as a Midrash on the same commandment.
Hiram Erastus Butler was publisher and editor of The Esoteric, in which Mayer May’s essay on the Sabbath was published in 1897. Butler was a follower of Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society until sometime in the 1880s when he went off in his own (odd) direction. He founded a Utopian community in Applegate, California that maintained a printing press to produce his books, pamphlets, and The Esoteric. He also expounded a simplified system of astrology called “solar biology”
From what I can gather from his writings in The Esoteric, Butler sought to ground his theories about sexual regeneration, aesthetics, astrology, etc. in biblical texts. Whatever his myriad occult eccentricities, Butler wrote at least one passage that I find quite profound:
[W]hatever a man trusts in as a means of deliverance from any of the ills of life, whether as a means of supplying the needs of the body, of gaining honor, the respect of his fellow man, or health — it matters not what it may be in which a man trusts, that, in so far as he trusts in it, becomes his god.
This was a summary of Butler’s exegesis of the second commandment (first in some numbering) against having other gods. Butler argued that traditionally this commandment has interpreted as being directed solely against pagan gods but in fact everything that appears powerful manifests a spirit and thus can become a god: money, sex, fame, erudition, position, Satan, Congress, the Supreme Court… anything whatever.
Human Rights, Gross Domestic Product, religion, history, progress, the proletariat. Any other thing than God you trust in as a means of deliverance from any of the ills of life becomes your god. That is something to think about.
I should reiterate that I don’t take the Exodus story literally. But I do take it seriously. It is a myth that presumably attempts to convey some momentous cultural experience. When I review the scholarly literature, I have to admit to doing so with preconceptions. Everybody has preconceptions but some of us conceal them under a cloak of “objectivity” (which is itself a preconception).
My preconception is the suspicion that the cultural history behind the Sabbath commandment has something to do with a labour revolt against oppressive working conditions, possibly combined with the discovery of a hygienic increase of productivity associated with regular rest periods. Scientific management meets the Judean People’s Front trade union movement.
Most of the scholarship is intentionally dull and inconclusive. Nothing to confirm or deny my prejudices. Erich Fromm’s 1927 essay, “Der Sabbath” is different. In the 1950s and later, Fromm followed up that essay with sections in books that toned down his originally wide-eyed, oedipal Freudianism but retained the central thesis: that rest from work was originally not for the sake of labourers’ physical or motivational recuperation but for a respite from the subjugation of nature:
In contrast to the concept of work today, which contains a psychological moment (fatigue, aversion) and an economic moment (a commercial purpose), the Jewish concept of work indicates something specific about the relation between man and nature. The person who performs “work” is not someone who toils or creates economic value, but rather is someone who has an effect on nature in a constructive or destructive sense, that is, someone who changes nature in its substance.
So the rest from labour is really directed at the land instead of the labourer. Of course, we can add that people are also part of nature and that work subjugates and modifies the worker, too. Fromm’s perspective on the Sabbath dovetails really nicely with Walter Benjamin’s essay that I cited in my last post:
The earliest customs of peoples seem to send us a warning that in accepting what we receive so abundantly from nature we should guard against a gesture of avarice. For we are able to make Mother Earth no gift of our own. It is therefore fitting to show respect in taking, by returning a part of all we receive before laying hands on our share. This respect is expressed in the ancient custom of the libation…. If society has so degenerated through necessity and greed that it can now receive the gifts of nature only rapaciously, that it snatches the fruit unripe from the trees in order to sell it most profitably, and is compelled to empty each dish in its determination to have enough, the earth will be impoverished and the land yield bad harvests.
Fromm’s ecological theory of Sabbath should trigger an earthquake. It is not simply that it provides a compelling perspective on environmental protection but it does so within the context of a cultural practice that has been sustained for 2500 years. The poet, Ahad Ha’am said: “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Might not a renewed, secular understanding of Sabbath keep the earth?
coda: Benjamin’s One-Way Street was published in 1928. He wrote it mostly during 1925-26 and began the section on German inflation, which concludes with the above excerpt, in 1923. One wonders about any encounters between Fromm and Benjamin.
Gershom Scholem was a close friend of Benjamin and an acquaintance of Fromm. He wrote in Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship that the two “later became colleagues at the Institut für Sozialforschung” and mentioned Fromm in a 1931 letter to Benjamin but says nothing about any direct interaction between them.
Fromm’s future wife, Henny Gurland, was a member of the party that included Benjamin and attempted to cross from France into Spain in 1940. It was Gurland who reported Benjamin’s apparent suicide in a letter to Adorno that Scholem reproduced in his book.
Finally, in his The Revolution of Hope (1968), Fromm rebuked Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man as exhibiting hopelessness and cited that Marcuse’s two concluding sentences without mentioning that Marcuse followed those sentences with a citation from Walter Benjamin: “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.”
UPDATE, May 12: In The Dialectical Imagination, Martin Jay mentioned that Fromm and Benjamin had never met. This information probably came from an interview with Fromm. Jay also referred to Benjamin’s interest in Fromm’s writing on Johann Jakob Bachofen’s theories about matriarchy. Two of Benjamin’s essays reference Fromm, “Johann Jakob Bachofen” (1935) and “A German Institute for Independent Research” (1938).