Jerusalem on a summer Saturday can stun you with its sweetness—its taste of the world to come, the rabbis liked to say—or leave you sweaty and bored. It depends on how you spend it. If you follow the flow of foot traffic to some gorgeous old synagogue packed with enthusiastic young Jews, then get yourself invited to a leisurely luncheon underneath a spreading tree—and if you like that sort of thing—then you may thank the God who invented the Sabbath and the rabbis who made it the law of the land. If you’re stuck with two sick children in a guesthouse that serves no meals on Saturday, as I was a few weeks ago, you’ll be less grateful.
Keeping the Israeli Sabbath is hard work, even if you aren’t a tourist, particularly if you’re unmoved by its pleasures. Hence the dislike of many secular Israelis for Saturday—the streets cleared of buses, the shuttered grocery stores, the understaffed hospitals—as well as for the black-hatted men in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods who stone Sabbath-breakers and who have in Israel’s half-century of existence twice brought down governments for violating Sabbath laws. And hence my surprise when I learned that other secular Israelis have begun treating the Sabbath as a national treasure in need of preservation.
In a column in the Jerusalem Post two years ago, the nonreligiously-observant writer Hillel Halkin noted that so many Israelis now shop at malls on Saturday it seemed silly to complain about it—and then he complained about it. (Hundreds of stores at Israel’s 45 malls violate Saturday closing laws, and Saturday has become the biggest shopping day of the week.) As a struggling writer and father of two, he said, he used to take solace from the ban on getting and spending, especially on Friday nights—the only night of the week he failed to wake up in a panic "because the next day was a day on which you could not do anything about money anyway." A week without a break from acquisitiveness, he added, rather grandly, "is bad for the human spirit and it is bad for Israeli society."
Several prominent secular Israeli intellectuals have lately expressed the same thought. Like Halkin, and like American adherents to the back-to-simplicity movement, these secular Israeli Sabbatarians want to save the Sabbath from consumerism. They also want to remove it from the exclusive control of Israel’s Orthodox rabbis. Ruth Gavison, a Hebrew University law professor who has been working with a prominent Orthodox rabbi to draft a proposal for a less stringent Sabbath, told me that devising a Sabbath that even the nonpious could enjoy was part of a larger effort to rescue Israeli society. From what? I asked. >From the widening chasm between secular and religious Israelis, and also from those who no longer see a rationale for a Jewish state, she explained. What does the Sabbath have to do with the legitimacy of Israel? I asked, somewhat surprised. A viable Jewish state must have an authentically Jewish public culture, she replied.
At the legal level, Gavison’s idea is simple. She would codify permission for much of the noncommercial activity that already goes on and enforce the pause in commercial activity and industry already prescribed by law. Restaurants, concert halls, art galleries, and movie theaters would stay open—not just in cities and towns that have made special arrangements to do so, but throughout the country. Buses would run, which they do not do now. Malls would be closed.
Gavison’s vision of a unifying Jewish public culture is less clear. She herself isn’t sure what she means. Like many Israeli intellectuals, who model themselves on their European, not their American, counterparts, Gavison takes a high-minded approach to culture. She imagines bigger audiences for music, art, and theater; more meetings of affinity groups; more salons devoted to Jewish texts. One Jewish holiday celebrated in a semisecular way that might serve as an example is Shavuot, which commemorates God’s giving of the Torah to Moses at Sinai. It’s an occasion marked by all-night study sessions held not just at synagogues, but also at theaters and conference centers and other public venues. My stay in Jerusalem coincided with Shavuot this year, and I saw the streets come alive at 11 p.m. with the rather astonishing apparition of Israelis of all kinds, not just the religious, roaming from lecture to lecture in small groups under the Jerusalem moon, seeking enlightenment on subjects as varied as the Bible and politics.
Underlying Gavison’s dream are the revived ideas of Ahad Ha’am, the late 19th-century Zionist who argued for a cultural, rather than political, Zionism—an Israel based on a positive Jewishness rather than on ethnic nationalism and anti-anti-Semitism. What he was calling for isn’t clear either, though anyone who has ever found himself on a synagogue mailing list will be familiar with his sociological aperçu on the Sabbath: "More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel."…