My problem with Shabbat sometimes (and this isn’t going to make a lot of sense at first, so bear with me) is that I like to have rules — clear, unambiguous rules. I don’t like to have to fall back on feelings, on “I’ll know it when I see it.” On the contrary, I like to have a concrete understanding of what I am doing or not doing in a given situation.
On the other hand, I am starting (slowly) to come to terms with the fact that some aspects of the traditional set of rules for Shabbat really don’t work that well for me, at least not if we accept the notion that the overarching purpose of Shabbat is to give us a chance to recharge, reconnect and deepen our spiritual lives.
To take just one example, I personally have a lot of trouble with the traditional injunction against writing on Shabbat. I am by nature a writer. I always have been, ever since I learned to read and write. Writing comes easily to me — much more easily than speaking, actually — and it’s one of the primary ways in which I relax, process the world around me, and connect with myself and others. It therefore comes as a natural impulse to me that on a day in which I’m supposed to be resting and recharging my batteries, I would want to spend some part of that day scribbling in one of the notebooks that serve me more or less as a second brain. This is something that I do throughout the week in the little snippets of time between other things I have to do, but I never feel like I get “enough” time to write, and several hours of uninterrupted writing time without any pressing concerns is about the closest thing I can imagine to heaven.
All the same, I can definitely sympathize with the tradition that includes writing in the category of “work” prohibited on Shabbat. Writing is a creative endeavor, and it can certainly be a labor-intensive activity. Whether there is a difference between writing that would be “work” and writing that would be “not work,” and how we would distinguish between the two, is an open question. The same thing goes, I suppose, for any kind of creative activity that falls within the 39 kinds of forbidden labor but which might be either relaxing or tiring, depending on when one is doing it and how it is being approached.
Because of this, the rabbinic approach — to avoid the issue altogether by focusing on the type of labor and prohibiting them categorically — makes a certain kind of sense. What I worry about sometimes is that the way in which they identified the list of activities to be prohibited was deeply embedded in the social, economic and technological conditions of their own times and makes less sense in our own.
As for myself, I must admit that during this summer I have developed the habit (I won’t dignify it with the term practice) of writing in my notebook on Shabbat. This probably has as much to do with where I am at the moment than anything deeper — spending the summer by myself in Chicago has made it rather difficult to fill up the long summer Shabbats in ways that feel enriching and spiritually rewarding. All the same, I am somewhat bothered sometimes by how disconnected my Shabbat practice sometimes seems. A large part of this feeling must be because any Jewish practice cannot be completely personal. Ours is a tradition that thrives off of community, and what seems to be missing much of the time in my Shabbat practice , whatever it may be, is the sense that it is developing in relation to others besides myself.
The idea that has been floating around in my head lately in response to these feelings is the development of small, discrete “circles of practice” –groups of three or four individuals, or a few families — that would come together to work toward the development of shared approaches to Jewish practice. This need not be oriented toward any traditionalist understanding of halachah (though it certainly could be, and halachah would probably form one of the sources of inspiration for any such group in some way), and the goal of the group need not be a uniform set of practices. The idea, rather, would be to have a small community in which people could work out their approach toward various aspects of living Jewishly together, get feedback, share ideas. Such a group might exist within a synagogue community, or consist of members of different synagogues, or outside the developed communal structure of institutional Judaism altogether. The important part would be the indiviudal members’ commitment to work together to help expand their collective understanding of practical Judaism, in whatever form that might take.