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Shabbat as Counterculture

Picture the scene: there are just 15 minutes to go before shabbat begins, and Shmuley and Miriam are busier than ever. The heavily packaged battery-bred kosher chicken sits in the oven, while the timer on the dishwasher is set ready to come on after dinner. Their son, Yankele checks the internet to see if the NW London Eruv is fully functional while their adult daughter Rochele puts on copious amounts of makeup in the hope of snaring a young lawyer or accountant at the local young professionals’ Friday night dinner (£22.50, payment by cheque or credit card). The road is full of families behaving in much the same way, thanks to the shrewd practices of a few Golders Green estate agents who weed out ‘unsuitable’ buyers, and half an hour later much of the street troops down to the synagogue to hear the rabbi exhort them to do more for Israel and to complain about bias in the media…

It doesn’t have to be like this…

November 25th is Buy Nothing Day, a festival that has grown out of the anti-capitalist and anarchist communities (originally invented by Adbusters), as a means of opposing consumerism and ever increasing materialism. The day challenges the notion of the ethical trading movement, that our aim should be to buy fairly traded ethical goods. Buy Nothing Day suggests that this is insufficient; we also have to buy less. Having an entire day in which you entirely opt out of the market gives a window into a world where you are content with what you have are able to define yourself without reference to material resources. Buy Nothing Day, for whatever reason, tends to fall on a Saturday.

Because of this some Jews take a very smug attitude towards it; they will of course be buying nothing, as is the case every week, when they observe Shabbat. Their attitude is deeply complacent-assuming that Judaism already knows all the answers and has nothing to learn from modern, secular innovation. In fact, the concept of Buy Nothing Day offers an entirely new perspective on Shabbat, one that allows the facile boundary of religion and secularism to be entirely transcended. Shabbat, when brought back to its essence, is the anti-capitalist festival par excellence. For 25 hours each week its participants reject most of the trappings of modernity, and focus themselves on walking, talking, eating, reading, and singing, as a way to get back to the essence of things. In doing so they put a break on the impact of inequality, on this one day, where nothing can be traded, the differences between them become less relevant as they allow themselves to focus on where they are rather than on where they are going.

Shabbat has all sorts of countercultural elements: Eruvs for Shabbat are imagined boundaries that break down the barriers between public and private domains. There are few better counterpoints to the bourgeoisie culture of the family and the home than a concept that can describe thousands of people within an area as being part of one, unified dwelling. In a functioning traditional community, Shabbat is centred around at different locations, in which it is rare to know in advance exactly who is coming. This points towards Derrida’s notion of ‘radical hospitality’, for a host to expect to receive the unexpected, for the boundary between stranger and guest to be radically broken down.

Walking;  at its best, shabbat observance actively encourages walking, and thereby brings people out of private houses and cars and on to common ground, particularly the streets. In the words of anarchist collective Reclaim the Streets “The street, at best, is a living place of human movement and social intercourse, of freedom and spontaneity. The streets belong to the people: they seize control of the city’s elemental matter and make it their own”. Prescriptions that limit carrying from one domain to another, prevent writing or forbid sorting one thing from another are often seen by liberals as arcane prohibitions and echoes of a ghetto mentality. They should, however be rethought in the light of environmentalism and sustainability; the entire Shabbat experience is geared to reducing and eliminating our ecological footprint. At the end of an observed Shabbat you have left things just as they were before the day began-you have truly trodden lightly on the world. You have left your surroundings unaltered, have remained in one place, travelling only as far as your feet will carry you, moving at a speed that, as the great Catholic liberation theologist Ivan Illich taught, allows for an egalitarian relationship with your surroundings. By not separating one thing from another, in something as mundane as food preparation (although, as Levinas teaches, there are few higher religious acts than giving someone a meal) we teach ourselves at the deepest level of the futility of separation in general, and grow towards an understanding of ultimate unity.

These virtues described are often not present in the way Shabbat is observed today. Many middle class Jews often eat large meals within the safety of a small group of others of similarly large incomes, limit their contact with the outside world to a few suburban streets on the way to the synagogue and utilise all manner of absurd technological ‘innovations’ from timer dishwashers to automatic elevators. These shabbatot do nothing to break down economic inequality, instead they perpetuate it. It is this kind of Shabbat, a day of sloth, gluttony and self-congratulation that has put off Jewish radicals from engaging with religious culture in general.

But things can be done differently. Imagine:

a Shabbat in which candle light and cold food remind you what it is to live without luxury.

a Shabbat where the restriction of walking allows you to fully explore the area in which you live-becoming an organic part of your environment rather than just a traveller through it.

a Shabbat in which the absence of the daily grind allows you to really think, to transcend the limitation of the realistic and embrace the possibility of the utopian.

Such a Shabbat can, ironically, fulfil the role given to God by some radical contemporary theologians: the force which makes for transformation. To put it in another way, quoting the mantra of the World Social Forum, it is the force that shows that another world is possible.

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