Author

Who I am: The science editor and chief science writer of The New Republic. Regular contributor to The New York Times. An editor with a passion for starting or helping to start magazines (Lingua Franca, Slate).

Rather late in life, I decided to quit editing full-time and focus more on writing. At first, this was all about culture. I wrote columns in Slate and The New York Times Book Review, and contributed pieces to magazines such as  The New Yorker and The New Republic.

Then I wrote a book about religion. (See below.) Most recently, I have become obsessed with the social sciences and the turn toward biology that many of them are making. Last year, I was lucky enough to begin a stint writing and editing about science for The New Republic.

How I came to write The Sabbath World: About a decade ago, I began to take a passionate interest in the Sabbath, the ancient weekly day of rest. I told myself that this was purely a matter of intellectual curiosity, but it wasn’t. My feelings were murkier than that. I was ravenous for something, though I didn’t know what. I tried to get my hands on everything having to do with the Sabbath. Tales of good Sabbaths and of bad Sabbaths. Angry screeds against the dour Sabbath (“Sunday comes, and brings with it a day of general gloom and austerity. The man who has been toiling hard all the week, has been looking towards the Sabbath, not as to a day of rest from labour, and healthy recreation, but as one of grievous tyranny and grinding oppression”—Charles Dickens) and fulsome praise for its blessings (“In the Universe of Shabbat, a person finds everything new, different, more elevated and exalted”—Dov Peretz Elkins).

Mine was not exactly a socially productive obsession. Saying that I’d been reading up on the Sabbath was a good way to cut a vigorous conversation short. Occasionally, some kind soul would agree to chat briefly about the great modern work on the subject, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath, a retelling of Hasidic legend that has become a popular primer for people taking their first steps back to Judaism. This is a beautiful book, but many of the others I could have talked about were not. The more I read about the Sabbath, though, the more I was struck by the power of the idea. It seemed to me that  I could justify my interest in utilitarian terms. I could explain to my skeptical friends that a structured period of non-productivity could be very useful for an overscheduled society.

Soon after that, I came across another beautiful book. It was called The Seven Day Circle, by Eviatar Zerubavel, an American sociologist. Zerubavel grew up in Israel, a country where religious holidays are enforced with a strictness unusual in highly modernized societies. His immersion in the religious calendar had helped him to invent a whole new field, the sociology of time. Reading this book, I learned that the seven-day week was a by-product of the Jewish Sabbath. (The Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik called the day “the most brilliant creation of the Hebrew spirit.”) More important, I discovered that time has an architecture, and that that architecture has the power to affect us as deeply as the architecture of space does. Heschel wrote charming fables that revealed a world of legend inside the Sabbath. Zerubavel wrote dry social theory that made me grasp that even something as basic as the week has a history and an intoxicating power—the power to seem so natural that we don’t realize how carefully constructed it has been. It made me eager to understand the shape of my week—where it came from, what it meant, what values it incarnated.

I remember the exact moment when I realized that I wanted to write a book on this unwieldy subject. I was closing a gate behind me. The gate led to the backyard of a lovely little Tudor-style cottage that belonged to the man who would become my husband. The inside of this house, with its sloped ceilings and plain furniture, put me in mind of an English country church. Heschel calls the Sabbath a cathedral in time. My future husband’s house was a parsonage in the suburbs. We had just driven up from somewhere and I had been trying to explain to him what the Sabbath was, and why it mattered to Jews, and how it had once mattered terribly to Christians, too—particularly American Christians, and most particularly the American Puritans who founded this nation. They had such a deep hunger for the Sabbath—for the right kind of Sabbath—that they left England, whose Sabbaths they considered corrupt and lax, and sailed to America, in order to keep the kind of disciplined, godly Sabbaths they believed would transform their earthly existence into a New Jerusalem.

My future husband was a man with an impressive background in American history, but he didn’t know about the role the Sabbath had played in it. He belonged to a synagogue, but he had never thought of the Sabbath as anything but an antiquated practice reserved for those who had a masochistic taste for censorious laws. His face lit up, as it always does when he is given a fresh idea to mull over, and suddenly I saw what he saw: a largely forgotten aspect of the history of Western civilization and a non-academic way to explore an arcane but fascinating subject—that is to say, the social morality of time.

The social morality of time! I said. What a great phrase! No one thinks of time as a moral entity. We think of it as a mathematically neutral one. But what was the labor movement’s fight for shorter days and workweeks about, if not the social morality of time? And how about the way we’re always recalibrating our feelings for our friends, or our sense of how they feel about us, with the neurotic precision of a Larry David, based on how many minutes they’ve kept us waiting? If other people’s use of our time isn’t the object of infinitesimal ethical calculation, I don’t know what is.

But that’s not all the Sabbath is, I added. At this point he was opening the door to his house, which we knew, without ever having talked about it, that I would soon be moving into. The Sabbath, I said, is not only an idea. It is also something you keep. With other people. You can’t just extract lessons from it. Me, I want to keep it and teach my children to keep it. But at the same time, since I grew up watching a religious mother and a skeptical father play tug-of-war over our upbringing in a home in which the Sabbath was largely the occasion for unspoken recriminations about how we were being raised, I’m afraid that if I impose the Sabbath on my children they will resent me as much as I resented my parents. They will suss out signs of my ambivalence and use them as proof of my inconsistency and hypocrisy, as I did in my time. I like the idea of keeping the Sabbath, but at the thought of actually doing it, of passing an entire day following strange rules while refraining from all customary recreations, I am knocked flat by a wave of anticipated boredom.

My soon-to-be fiancé looked baffled and a little worried: What was he getting himself into?

  • “The Sabbath World is not merely riveting, wise and at times breathtakingly beautiful, it just might change your life.”

    —Jonathan Safran Foer