January 17, 2023

Days of Rest

On anti-work politics and the meaning of Shabbat

Responsa is an editorial column written by members of the Jewish Currents staff and reflects a collective discussion.

We start the workday with a video call, our grid of faces presenting variations on the theme of bedhead. Someone is holding a baby. Someone is walking a dog. How are we doing? What are we working on? We know most of the answers already, since we do everything in collaboration: Each story has two editors, if not three or four. We spend so much time inside of texts together that we know the habits and rhythms of each other’s intellect: how this editor tests the syntactic joints of an essay, while that one stands back to see the shape of an argument. Sometimes the magazine seems to exist in the form of a long-running conversation between us. Because we have no office and communicate virtually over Slack, this conversation observes no particular schedule, often continuing long into the night or stretching through the weekend. Someone digs up a clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm that captures the latest contretemps on the political left. Someone recounts an experience they had while organizing; someone chimes in with an epiphany that struck them during therapy. Whatever you share, whenever you share it, someone will be there to reply.

But if there’s a rich pleasure in being the constant companions of one another’s thought, there is also an exhaustion that comes from never being left fully alone. Given that we who do the work also control the work—as a largely horizontal circle of editors—we sometimes wonder why we can’t seem to simply create less of it, since there’s always too much to go around. The answer stems at least in part from a genuine belief in the magazine’s mission. On its best days, this publication offers us a terrain on which to participate in political struggle, allowing us to leverage our subject positions to oppose the weaponization of Jewish history and identity against left-wing movements and marginalized groups. But even this conviction seems insufficient to explain the extent of our shared project’s hold on us. Other parts of our lives are perhaps more meaningful, or at least make more urgent demands: Some of us devote hours every week to organizing projects, fighting against the eviction of our neighbors or raising money to pay for abortions. Some of us are new parents, neck-deep in the exigencies of social reproduction. And yet, we find ourselves hunched over our laptops—late for dinner, late to the neighborhood meeting. At the end of each day, far too much remains unfinished. In the Slack we explain that we need to be offline for a few hours—have to go for a walk before the last of the light fades; gotta do the dishes before my partner divorces me—but we will be back later. Will work more after dinner. Will work on it this weekend. Will be around if anyone needs me.

In discussing the themes of work and rest raised in this issue, it occurred to us that Jewish Currents itself might present an interesting test case of a mission-driven, largely democratized workplace—with an explicitly leftist ethos and a strong union—where, despite seeming to have the power to end our own exploitation, we find that our shoulders rarely leave the wheel. At their worst, our jobs bear out a pattern that the anti-work theorist Kathi Weeks warns against: a vicious cycle in which every attempt to make a workplace better—more flexible, more democratic, more meaningful—also renders its claim on the individual more complete. Where one has more power to shape an organization’s mission, one feels more inducement to internalize its needs. When one’s “whole self” is welcome at work, what’s to stop work from cannibalizing the self entirely? In The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Weeks calls this dynamic a “bad dialectic,” in which “quality becomes quantity as the call for better work is translated into a requirement for more work.”

When one’s “whole self” is welcome at work, what’s to stop work from cannibalizing the self entirely?

Instead of imagining that we can strive solely for “better work” by fixing what we find oppressive even as we keep what we love, Weeks argues that we must aim above all for “less work”; in our case this would mean aspiring not only to give this magazine fewer hours, but to reduce its importance relative to the rest of our lives. Indeed, the anti-work left—the Marxist tendency that encourages us not only to organize as workers, but to contest the predominance of work in our society—argues that we all need to “get a life,” in Weeks’s words. The point is not that “life” and “work” are categories that exist in simple opposition, but that nothing short of a radical revaluation of both could enable us to fight for a world where work serves life rather than the other way around.

And yet, if we were to go out and get the lives we’re forgoing, what would we want to fill them with? Political purpose; intellectual discovery; love and collaboration among comrades. Can the only way forward really be to withdraw from a place where we experience those things in abundance? And does the fact that we receive a wage for the hours we spend here make the work less personally or politically meaningful? Marx famously wrote in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 that the human being is distinguished by the fact that “man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.” In other words, “free, conscious activity is man’s species-character.” We are not free at this magazine in every sense Marx intended, since we rely on our work to meet our material needs. But we do have freedom to revise our shared mandate to encompass what we—collectively, if not individually—want it to. Our work is not “merely” a means of subsistence, as Marx defines estranged labor; it is not only “a means to life” but also the stuff of life itself, a place we come to understand the world as it is and imagine it as it could be. And yet, in the future we hope to help bring about, we would surely work less, or differently. Which brings us back to the question: How do we keep from burning out in struggling toward the world to come, from building the new world from the wearying structures of the old?

The debate over the role of work
in the ideal society has long vexed the political left. Marx’s own oeuvre seems split on the subject. Though he contends in the 1844 text that productive labor—even if subject to capitalist appropriation—is essential to the species-character of the human being, in later writings his emphasis changes. In the third volume of Capital, Marx writes that humans by nature require a “realm of freedom” that “begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases.” Some leftist traditions, such as the Italian autonomist socialist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, have taken up Marx’s later suggestion that work is to be minimized, not exalted. As Weeks writes, the autonomists called “not for a liberation of work but a liberation from work”—as she and other anti-work theorists continue to do today.

It’s hard to know how to apply the rich corpus of leftist writing on work to our situation at Jewish Currents. Most anti-work theory deals with the labor done in for-profit contexts. But our magazine is a nonprofit, funded primarily by individual donors, grants, and subscriptions—a kind of workplace that doesn’t generate surplus value for anyone, and which remains strikingly undertheorized. (The most notable work on the subject, the 2007 anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded—published by the network of feminists of color Incite!—critiques the nonprofitization of social justice work as a constraint on radicalism but largely leaves aside the question of nonprofit labor conditions.) And yet, nonprofit employees seem to be the quintessential exemplars of the contemporary ethos that Weeks considers a pillar of work’s social hegemony: Whereas the infamous “Protestant work ethic” that Max Weber identified at the dawn of the 20th century frames industriousness as an expression of religious virtue, a sign that the worker is among those chosen for divine salvation, Weeks argues that this moral code has evolved in our secular age into a “postindustrial work ethic” that sanctifies work as “a path to individual self-expression, self development, and creativity.” Few have adopted this dogma more zealously than nonprofit workers, who typically accept lower pay in exchange for the promise of political alignment or personal fulfillment at the office.

In her 2021 book Work Won’t Love You Back, labor reporter Sarah Jaffe helpfully intervenes in the neglected space of the nonprofit workplace, arguing that its structure mirrors that of the corporation even if there is no profit motive in play. Because nonprofits compete for funding from wealthy philanthropists—who gain tax benefits through giving—their workers must woo and please benefactors who measure value according to capitalist metrics. As a result, Jaffe writes, employees at such organizations “wind up . . . under a kind of pressure to produce that mimics the pressure of the assembly line.” Jaffe suggests that workers—including at nonprofits—should avoid caring about their jobs so much that work consumes their lives. In a November 2021 interview on the journalist Ezra Klein’s podcast, she suggested that work may be the wrong place to look for meaning, holding up the example of a friend whose dead-end desk job leaves him free to make music, do political organizing, and invest in relationships on his own time. But spending the day doing tasks that feel devoid of purpose can be its own recipe for misery, as the anthropologist David Graeber writes in Bullshit Jobs. Like Marx in his 1844 writings, Graeber argues that humans have an inherent need to exercise their capacity to make a mark: Though he acknowledges that people naturally “rankle over what they consider excessive or degrading work,” he ultimately believes that we “rankle even more at the prospect of having nothing useful to do.”

At its worst, the work done in service of a better world—or even a better workplace—can be filled with the drudgery and stress of any job.

Cleaving to anti-work principles can feel even more challenging when work blurs not only with life, but also with a commitment to political struggle. Some theorists have sought to resolve this contradiction by arguing that the labor of revolution often transcends oppressive dynamics. In her 1984 essay “Putting Feminism Back on its Feet,” the Marxist feminist scholar and activist Silvia Federici writes, “One of the most creative activities is being involved in a struggle with other people, breaking out of our isolation, seeing our relations with others change, discovering new dimensions in our lives.” This is an ode to struggle at its best. But at its worst, the work done in service of a better world—or even a better workplace—can be filled with the drudgery and stress of any job. Jaffe provides several inspiring examples of workers who organize to combat work’s totalizing grip on their lives, but the stories illustrate the way that those struggles can become all-consuming in turn. A Planned Parenthood staffer who spoke with Jaffe emphasized that trying to unionize her workplace was “a job in and of itself”—and, like the one she was trying to fix by organizing, crushingly exhausting. “I can honestly say that there was a solid six to eight months that I cried every day on my way home in my car,” she told Jaffe. Whether unionists see themselves as fighting for “better work” or “less work,” in Weeks’s terms, the fight itself can wear them down.

Perhaps we can simply embrace this contradiction as a point of departure, re­cognizing that living out anti-work politics is a kind of work as well. As the social movement historian Robin D.G. Kelley told Lux in an interview on radical Black anti-work politics, individually arranging one’s life to eschew domination by work—saying, for example, “I’m going to live on my unemployment insurance for as long as I can . . . depressed at home, playing video games”—is “not anti-work culture,” since to be anti-work is always to be in the struggle. “Organizing work is work,” he said. “When you start to build new forms of social relations and forms of production that are more oriented toward subsistence and life, you actually start to build power. That’s not the end of it. That’s only the start.”

Woodcut by Ilya Schor, circa 1951, to accompany Abraham Joshua Heschel’s
The Sabbath.

Midway through our dive into the anti-work canon, it occurred to us that we were neglecting an intellectual lineage near at hand. If our obsession with work can be traced, in part, to the infamous fusion of Protestantism and capitalism, could we find ways to challenge it by exploring a different religious archive? After all, the Jewish tradition places Shabbat, the day of rest, at the center of ritual observance. Though few of us observe the Sabbath the way halachically observant Jews do today—spending the day eating, praying, and studying together; eschewing travel, the use of electricity, and even the act of writing—we wondered if what eluded us in anti-work arguments could be clarified by the contours of Jewish work and rest.

“It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it,” reads an oft-cited maxim from Pirkei Avot, a canonical compilation of rabbinic teachings. “Love work, hate power, and do not become too familiar with the authorities,” reads another. Indeed, Judaism has a notable appreciation for work; it is the presumed activity filling six days of the week. But when we began speaking with rabbis and scholars about Jewish teachings on the subject, we learned that injunctions to work appear nowhere among the 613 commandments, while injunctions to rest appear over and over again. We are not to work during the yamim tovim, the festival days; we are not to work the land or the trees during the Shmita year, when the fields are left fallow and personal debts are annulled. In the capitalist conception, time is linear—the straight path of progress that bears the promise of accumulation. But Jewish time is structured around these intervals of rest, radiating out in concentric circles. Prayer, an oasis in the midst of a day; Shabbat on the seventh day of the week; yamim tovim, punctuating the year; Shmita, every seventh year; Yovel, or Jubilee, crowning the culmination of seven Shmita cycles.

Like the revolutionary vision of anti-work politics, the emphasis on rest in Judaism appears connected to its world-making capacity—its ability to reorder our priorities, returning us to ourselves and our communities. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains in The Sabbath, his 1951 philosophical meditation on Shabbat, “the Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.” From this vaunted position, Shabbat edges out the usual coercive orderings of this world and replaces them with a time for delight that prefigures the messianic age; the Talmud teaches that “Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the World-to-Come.” In describing joy’s vital place at the center of Shabbat, Heschel recalls a classic Talmudic story: If a wedding procession and a funeral procession meet on the road, the wedding procession should take precedence. This is the principle of the Sabbath—joy prevails, disrupting our drudgery.

Like the revolutionary vision of anti-work politics, the emphasis on rest in Judaism appears connected to its world-making capacity—its ability to reorder our priorities, returning us to ourselves and our communities.

Paradoxically, in preserving this distinction between Shabbat and the rest of the week, between the sacred and the mundane, we blur it—we draw the Sabbath into the week, making our work restful, suffusing it with holiness. And yet, at the same time, we are told unequivocally that to think of the Sabbath in instrumental terms is to misunderstand its promise. The Sabbath is not “for” anything; the Sabbath is only for itself—a testament to the fact that our value isn’t defined by work, but is inherent in us. We are not aiming to rejuvenate ourselves for the work week, but only to be. We do not earn the Sabbath; it simply arrives. It does not care if we have finished our work, if we are ready for it. It intrudes; it supersedes.

This vision of rest might appear to take us away from the work of political struggle—but other readings help us to refuse this zero sum approach. Crucially, our rest periods force us to turn toward one another, knitting us together as a collective. In many cases, the community is the very condition of rest, what makes it possible. Prayer requires a minyan, a group of ten, and even for those prayers recited alone, according to the 16th-century Kabbalist the Arizal, we should begin by saying, “I accept upon myself the obligation to love my fellow as myself,” making communal what is otherwise solitary. How could the grand suspension of Shmita proceed—the harvest foregone, the workbench left empty—without the pooling of resources? If you return to the congregation every Shabbat, then the congregation is there the rest of the week. They are there in new life, and in sudden death. They are there to watch the children, to rebuild when the house catches fire, to tend to the sick, to defend the weak. The scholar Bonnie Honig has pointed out that the Sabbath is determined not by the seasons or the moon or the tides, but simply by a communal practice of counting the days—a reminder that we collectively make the world we live in.

In the Jewish tradition, the communal structure of rest is also the basis for redistribution: During Shmita, debts are forgiven and the poor can glean from the farmers’ crops—a process intensified during the Jubilee, when accumulated property is reallocated. The conception of private ownership itself is threatened by this arrangement, in which we are continually reminded that what we think of as our property really belongs to God. These cycles of relief have a spiritual component as well: Those who typically lack the means for prolonged study are given the opportunity to pursue it. Shabbat has been said to serve a similar function. The sages noted that, while it might be intuitive to expect a scholar to read Torah on Shabbat and a worker to welcome the chance to sleep, these roles might actually be reversed: The openness of the Sabbath allows the worker to delight in study, and the scholar to rest his mind.

The philosopher Giorgio Agamben has linked Shabbat’s refusal of “use” and creation of “new use”—the idea that we go about our everyday lives not to support production but to enable festivity—to the possibilities of the general strike. We also heard echoes of Shabbat in political occupations like Occupy Wall Street or the water protectors’ Camp Migizi—places where struggle and living are fused. In The Book of Sleep, the Egyptian writer Haytham El Wardany argues that “sleeping while occupying is the true heart of occupation, the essence which all are seeking.” When the occupiers lie together in a state of “weakness and vulnerability,” exposing themselves to one another in sleep, their defenselessness itself becomes “a source of strength and a means for change,” and the sleepers become “the brokers of a new reality.” Sometimes the reality summoned by this active, powerful sleep is temporary, like Shabbat itself. And yet, as with the congregation that assembles on the Sabbath, aspects of what emerge there may be durable. Kathi Weeks argues that by demanding more time away from work, we insist not only that we should be free “to choose among available pleasures,” but also that we should have space “to constitute new ones,” to create “new subjectivities with new capacities and desires and, eventually, new demands.” (She underscores that this is necessarily a collective task: “One cannot get something as big as a life on one’s own.”) We might hear an echo of this in El Wardany’s pronouncement that, for the sleeping occupiers, “dreams [are] the language of [the new] reality whose code they seek to crack.” What might we dream together if we could manage to rest together?

Shabbat, as both a day of rest in this world and a portal to the world to come, provides a model of how we might actively inhabit a prefigurative politic in an inhospitable present—by doing, and doing again.

The Book of Genesis tells us: “On the seventh day God finished the work that had been undertaken” and rested. The sages ask, how could that be? Did God work on the sabbath? The famous medieval rabbi Rashi resolves this contradiction by suggesting that the work God did on the seventh day was the creation of rest. “One great virtue of this reading,” Honig writes, is that it considers rest not just in its negative valence—“stopping to work”—but as a “positive activity that requires invention . . . and postulates enjoyment.” It occurs to us reading this that Shabbat, as both a day of rest in this world and a portal to the world to come, provides a model of how we might actively inhabit a prefigurative politic in an inhospitable present—by doing, and doing again. As the geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore put it, speaking of another prefigurative horizon: “Abolition is not absence, it is presence. What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities.” The mitzvah of Tosefet Shabbat commands us to steal from the week and add to the Sabbath—to welcome it in early and send it off late. This directive provides a clue to how we might expand these fragments further and further still. It is only in practice that we identify what could be in what is.

We are finishing this essay several weeks late, working on Shabbat to finally cross the finish line, to get this magazine out to you. In doing so, we realize we are repeating the pattern we observed among some of the overworked rabbis and scholars who took the time to talk to us about Shabbat: extolling the ideal while neglecting its practice. Now is as good a time as any to take their advice—not only to grant ourselves a Sabbath, but to draw its levity and ease through the week. In the space opened by joy that exists only for itself, we might begin to assemble the pieces of the world to come.

This responsa is indebted to Fannie Bialek, Matt Green, Ben Mabie, and Eli Rubin.

This piece has been updated to include the correct title of Kathi Weeks's book The Problem with Work, which was previously misstated.