“Leaning in” to Work and Rest

New from the SOVA blog by Judith Rosenbaum

Original post can be found at http://sovaproject.org/2013/06/21/leaning-in-to-work-and-rest/

Like most people following the news over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what it means to “lean in” (and its counterpoint, “opt out”) and the assumptions and judgments inherent in the term. Sheryl Sandberg, an executive at Facebook, coined “lean in” to encourage women to make a more passionate commitment to career ambition and leadership; it’s meant to carry a positive connotation (though in my experience is referenced dryly and with some cynicism/resentment by many women). And opting out, of course, refers to women choosing to leave the workplace to become stay-at-home mothers. Both place work at the center, with action defined by one’s orientation toward career (and notably placing all the agency in the individual with little to no regard for the social context for these actions).

But as someone in the midst of career transition, I find myself wondering why this debate is necessarily framed around work. I’ve recently left my job of more than a decade in order to invest time and energy in figuring out what I want to do next, and to catch up on the self-care I’ve neglected for too long. At first glance, this might look like opting out, but I prefer to see myself as leaning in, in a broader sense – not into a specific workplace or leadership position but rather into an exploration of my passions and desires, which after all are necessary fuel for that “lean in” drive. True, I’m not working full-time or earning a significant salary right now, but I’m deeply engaged in questions of how to create a meaningful, sustainable career, as one component of a meaningful, sustainable life. And believe me, this process takes effort worthy of “lean in” recognition.

Similarly, I look at my friends who are not working outside of the home (or working very part-time), and in some cases I see women who have not rejected work or career but rather have actively chosen to “opt in” to a particular vision of family life. Though it may look like they have embraced a traditional family model, I know that many of them are striving to create something that is actually counter-cultural for our achievement-oriented Northeast community – a life that is not defined by public accolades or by the assumption that the more frantic your life is the more important you must be. And most of them view this period as one stage in a lifetime of varied work.

Even as I follow the “lean in” media debates, I’m also turning to Jewish texts and traditions for guidance and wisdom. As readers of this blog know, next fall (2014) begins the Shmita year – a sabbatical of human, agricultural, and financial relaxation and replenishment. During this period, which takes place every seven years, the land lies fallow, debts are cancelled, private lands revert to public access, and all people – rich and poor – have the opportunity to devote themselves to spiritual renewal.

Though Shmita was designed for an agricultural society (and only applies in the land of Israel), the wisdom it offers is just as relevant to our 21st century world. In our current 24/7 lifestyle, in which technology has largely overcome nature’s built-in rest periods of darkness and sleep, we need the structural reminder to relax and renew more than ever. Shmita provides a model for sustainable living and a vision that rises above personal ambition and success. It recognizes that there are times to lean in, and times when leaning back is just as necessary and important. It reminds us that our own “lean in” drive should be in service of something larger than our individual success; we must lean together toward a more just and equitable society.

Shmita encourages leaning in, but calls us to pay attention to what we are leaning in to by building a cyclical shift in the center. Unlike our current Western model, work is not always at the center; nor is personal ambition or material success. Shmita acknowledges that leaning in is not a unidirectional movement but rather a collective dance of changing rhythms and swaying patterns. I’m still struggling with some of the steps, but I think it could catch on if more people joined in.

Judith-colorcorrectedJudith Rosenbaum is a writer, educator, and historian. She is the former Director of Public History at the Jewish Women’s Archive, where she helped create a more inclusive history and promote history as a tool for social change. Among the many projects she directed at JWA are the Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolutionexhibit and the Living the Legacy social justice curriculum. With a BA from Yale and a PhD in American Civilization from Brown, Judith has published articles in both academic and popular journals, and on blogs including Jewesses with Attitude (which she co-founded), the Huffington Post, and Role/Reboot. Judith is also co-editing an anthology that explores contemporary redefinitions of the “Jewish mother.” You can read more of her work at judithrosenbaum.com.