A Space for Purposeful Rest: Lessons for Clinicians From the Idea of the Sabbath

— Despite our culture of workaholism, we can still discover the restorative joy of rest


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In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Sabbath is a day of rest during the week. This week's guest, Judith Shulevitz, is a journalist and literary critic who has thought deeply about what the secular world can learn about meaningful rest from the practice of the Sabbath. In her book The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, she explores how, despite our culture of workaholism, we can still discover the restorative joy of rest, reflection, and family.

Shulevitz is also a regular contributor to The New York Times and The Atlantic, and is the chief science writer for The New Republic. Over the course of her conversation with Henry Bair and Tyler Johnson, MD, she discusses the origins of the Sabbath, the ideals this tradition can bring back for the individual and community, and how clinicians can create space for purposeful rest amid their busy lives.

In this episode, you will hear about:

  • 2:50 What drew Shulevitz towards re-engaging with her Jewish faith as an adult
  • 5:20 What observing the Sabbath looks like in a traditional Jewish household
  • 10:33 An exploration of the idea of a "secular Sabbath" and what it could mean for the modern world
  • 13:00 The relentless culture of medical residency training and the factors contributing to it
  • 36:37 How medical training affects physicians' sense of community
  • 38:52 Advice to those with very busy schedules on how to make space for purposeful rest
  • 47:36 Reflections on the need for physicians to process the extremes of emotion and suffering they encounter
  • 50:45 Why it is critical to be present in the real world during times of rest

The following is a partial transcript (note errors are possible):

Johnson: We are really grateful today to have on the podcast with us, Judith Shulevitz. I first heard her myself listening to her on a podcast with Ezra Klein, who records a podcast for The New York Times that is this general-interest podcast where he talks to all kinds of people about all kinds of things. He had her on the show, oh, maybe 2 or 3 months ago. I was really captivated by her ideas. She is, as I'll let her explain in a moment, an expert on and has written a book about the idea of the Sabbath. And that's the reason that we invited her on the podcast.

You may be kind of scratching your chins wondering what in the world this has to do with becoming an internist or whatever it is that you're training to be. But we're hoping that we can draw that idea out in the podcast, and that's what we're hoping to talk about today. So Judith, thank you so much for joining with us in conversation.

Shulevitz: Thank you for having me.

Johnson: Could you start by just telling us a little bit about yourself? What's your background? What do you do and how did you get to where you are today?

Shulevitz: So I'm actually a literary critic. I'm a book critic and general contributor to The Atlantic magazine and to The New York Times. And I've been an editor, but most of all I have been on a kind of Jewish journey and went from being raised in a quasi-religious household to not setting foot in a synagogue for years to beginning to grasp an absence in my life.

I began to feel, kind of accidentally, when somebody told me I needed to go to synagogue because I wanted to go to church. I wound up becoming part of what we call a Shabbat community, which was my point of entry back into Judaism.

It was while explaining this idea to my then super-assimilated but Jewish husband who never thought of it in any but negative terms that this was this collective pause, not just a break in the week, but a break in the week that happened for everybody at the same time, allowing for community, that I saw because he's one of those people who makes everything you say sound more interesting than you realize it is, that we together saw that this was an idea vanishing from our world, except in, you know, Orthodox communities and Seventh-day Adventist communities.

And that it was really one of the good ideas of Western civilization and should be presented as such. In other words, not just a history of the Jewish Sabbath, but also a history of the Christian Sabbath, because in terms of absolute numbers, more Christians than Jews have kept the Sabbath and mine it for ideas about the ideal organization of society, not just the religious organization of society.

When you said the idea of the Sabbath, I do want to stress that because I thought of it as presenting a history, presenting a sort of account of my own personal experience with the Sabbath, but also saying this is a social idea, this is a sociological construct of time and we can extract lessons from it that can be used, not just by the religious, but in general.

Johnson: So before we get to those generalized applications of the idea, let's back up for a moment and ask this question -- "What does the Sabbath look like?" We're not talking yet about any of the sort of larger ideas, but just day-to-day, what happens on Saturday? Like, what would that be like if you're growing up in an observant Jewish household?

Shulevitz: So I want to distinguish myself from an observant household. I said quasi-observant, because in fact, you know, it was in a kind of mixed marriage. My parents' was a kind of mixed marriage in the sense that my mother was herself moving in the direction of religion and wound up becoming a rabbi. My father couldn't have been less interested.

So there was always this tension in our household between what my mother considered the ideal disposition of time on a Saturday and what he considered the ideal disposition of time. However, that said, I have spent time with people for whom this kind of internal division within the family is not the case. And so I can talk about what it's like at its best. When you're immersed in a Sabbath community, you keep the Sabbath the way Jews who follow what's called halakha, or Jewish law, keep the Sabbath.

Again, I would say, an idealized Sabbath, there's a very small number, comparatively speaking, of people in this country who keep it that way. But what I would say is I want to stress, first of all, that there are positive commandments and negative commandments, positive traditions. I would say things you do and things you don't do. I would highlight to begin with the tradition of a Sabbath dinner, which involves a lot of preparation beforehand because you're not supposed to do certain kinds of cooking on the Sabbath family togetherness [time].

You know, it is a tradition to invite people over or to be a guest. You light the candles, you say some prayers, often you sing.

For the full transcript, visit The Doctor's Art.

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