Self-Portraits by Dana Kearley,, insta: @danakearley

Shabbat and the Radical Practice of Rest 

Left to my own devices, I would eat up my life with worry and work and fear. It’s Shabbat that reminds me: I am more than my “to-do” list. My work is not my worth. My humanity is not dependent on my ability to get things done. 

The tendency to value accomplishment isn’t simply a personal fetish. It’s baked into the very structures of society, the structures that undergird ableism. Ableism is a complex system, one that works in myriad ways to deny disabled people access, agency, resources, and self-determination. Ableism manifests in the social attitudes that stigmatize disability, the architectural barriers that impede access, the complex set of power relations and structural arrangements that privilege certain bodies or minds as normal while marking others as deviant, dangerous, and despised. One of the ways ableism operates? It fashions speed and stamina as a threshold condition for basic belonging. Ableist values intertwine with capitalist pressures to laud those who work at a punishing pace. One of the lies ableism tells us? You only matter if you can keep up. 

Dominant culture tends to rank people’s worth on the basis of accomplishment. It prizes forms of doing that are economically productive, that earn money, status, accolades, and all the trappings of approval. But disability justice refuses the assumption that the measure of a person’s value lies in what they can do, in how much or how quickly they can produce. Consider the words of Patty Berne, the cofounder and artistic director of the disability justice performance collective Sins Invalid: “We don’t believe human worth is dependent on what and how much a person can produce. We value our people as they are, for who they are, and we understand that people have inherent worth outside of capitalist notions of productivity.” 

Berne’s words resonate with me profoundly, as a Jew. A cornerstone of Jewish ethical commitment is the recognition that we are all made b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. To be b’tselem Elohim isn’t dependent on speech or smarts or your ability to work the system. God doesn’t see Herself just in the clever or the quick, in the lives we hold up as billboards of accomplishment. 

…This lie that work is all we are? This is what Shabbos comes to shatter. 

Self-Portrait by Dana Kearley

I started keeping Shabbat in graduate school, not the time most folks decide to set aside twenty-five hours each week for rest and rejuvenation. I can still remember how scandalous it felt, how subversive it was to come back to my dorm room and begin the ritual of unwinding my mind from the endless clutch of assignments, deadlines, worries, and work. No matter what I had to do, no matter what I’d left undone, on Friday night, I surrendered to the setting sun. I’d set out my tea lights, take a breath, strike the match, chant the blessings, and let the world turn to shadow and to gold. I would sit in the dark for hours, watching the candle flames flicker. Some nights I would read a novel. Some nights I would doze. Mostly I would sing, softly, without words. Sing myself back home. 

Here, too, I confess I fear that conventional Shabbos practice gives too little and assumes too much. Disabled folks with chronic illness or chronic fatigue are often sick for a long time, sick with no end in sight. What’s a single day of rest stacked against that truth? Nothing but another stingy sick-day policy. 

Shabbat can be a crucible for disability liberation. But to tap its power, we have to use it differently. We have to let it be a catalyst for our imaginations, a space for committing to the long, slow work of unlearning the ways that we’ve been taught to think and feel. Can we use the practice of Shabbat to help erode the  workings of a world where pace gets weaponized, where worth and work are so tightly entwined? Can it give us the impetus to build a world that supports and affirms disabled folks who work and make, or think and create, in radically different ways, as well as those who cannot work at all? Otherwise, Shabbat is nothing but a private holiday, a personal oasis, a little breath of calm that only serves to charge us up so we can work again. 

I’m not a stellar example of someone who’s got this sorted out. For six days of the week, my life is pitched for productivity. I teach at an elite university, where stress is a competitive sport. Disability has only raised the stakes. To challenge the doubters and defang assumptions that disabled folk aren’t good enough, I’ve doubled down on proving otherwise, stacking up accomplishment like armor. As a woman in a male-dominated field, as a wheelchair user in a world built for striders, the rules of the game are absolutely plain: Never let them see your limits. Never falter. Never pull back. 

Changing this landscape isn’t simply a matter of personal spiritual practice. To suggest we simply opt out of dominant culture’s demands fails to reckon with the way expectations about production and productivity are baked into the very structure of society. I live in a country where 22 percent of the workforce has no access to paid sick leave, where calling off can get you fired or keep you from making rent. I live in a country where many folks work two and three jobs to make ends meet, where caregivers almost never earn a living wage. I live in a country where access to good health insurance often depends on a person’s ability to secure and keep a job with benefits. I live in a country where most parents of disabled folks get no respite unless they can arrange and fund it themselves, where care is so privatized that it almost always falls on family alone. 

Who gets to rest? Who gets to live with ease? The transformation we need isn’t simply a transformation of the heart, a matter of spiritual awakening. There’s a risk here, a risk that we privatize these questions, a risk that we fail to challenge the social structures and public policies that make rest a luxury that only a few can afford. 

Jewish tradition describes Shabbat as a foretaste of the world to come, a little touch of paradise, a promise. But I am not content to wait. I’m not content to put off gentleness and generosity. I’m not content to leave intact a world whose pace pushes certain bodies and minds to the margins, a world that runs roughshod over anyone who can’t perform to a high-pitched standard. That’s part of what I keep, when I keep Shabbos—a commitment to building and dreaming a different way of being. For those few hours, I feel it in my bones. I taste its sweetness on my tongue. A world that offers each of us enough, that gives us all the space to savor. A world that values us for who we are, not just for all that we have done. A world that teaches us to sink into the slow, to linger over twilight, to tune our hearts to a different kind of time. A world that shelters us. A world that’s made for us. A world in which we know ourselves whole. 

Excerpted from Loving Our Own Bones: Disability Wisdom and the Spiritual Subversiveness of Knowing Ourselves Whole by Julia Watts Belser (Beacon Press, 2023). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.