The Conversation

One of the intellectual joys here in Israel is the ubiquity of conferences on the great issues of the moment. They seem to take place somewhere every day, or at least every few days, and attract a great variety of rabbis, ministers (i.e., ministers in government, not churches), Knesset members, professors, and thinkers. One such kenes, conference, took place a few days ago, hosted by the Yeshivat Hasder of Rishon Lezion, and was entitled, “Torah va-chaim,” or “Torah and Life,” and I happily attended.
No heading could sound more generic, but the specific theme was the integration of Torah values and ideals in the general society especially in light of the presence of secular Israelis whose vision of Shabbat differs from that of the Torah world. In other words, how does a Jewish state observe Shabbat, and not just a state of Jews? To be sure, this is a debate that has been taking place for 70 years, if not 700 years, and each generation wrestles with Shabbat issues in its own way that are in some respects similar and in others dissimilar to the struggles of previous generations.
For example, most Israelis enjoy the concept of Shabbat as a day of rest and leisure, a day to pursue other aspects of life than simply the earning of money and the production of goods. That definition obviously includes Torah-observant Jews but also many non-observant of halacha. But one familiar refrain in recent years has been the claim of some that they enjoy Shabbat by “shopping,” going to the malls and just spending time there, if not also money. But how can they shop if Israeli law mandates that stores be closed on Shabbat?
This came to a legal skirmish very recently. Despite the law, some stores in Tel Aviv and elsewhere have been willing to – illegally – open on Shabbat, and pay the fines for said violation. It is an extremely cost-effective act; the fines are rare, not very high when they are imposed (which in Tel Aviv was not that often), and the income generated by sales far exceeded the fines. Other merchants sued, claiming that they were being placed at an economic disadvantage by not being open on Shabbat, but they themselves did not want to open on Shabbat – some for religious reasons but most because they simply wanted a day of rest. They did not want to be slaves to the material world, and felt that it is their right – guaranteed by the law – not to have to work seven days a week.
Concomitant with this was the growing reality that businesses that were open on Shabbat, illegally, would only hire workers who were willing to work on Shabbat and thereby openly discriminating against religious Jews and others who would not work on Shabbat. What an anomaly! In New York, New Jersey and most elsewhere in the US, no employer has the right to insist on Shabbat work, and dismissal for refusal to work on Shabbat is a human rights violation and regularly, and successfully, litigated. In Israel, no such protection exists (!) because the law itself bans Shabbat work.
Several months ago, the High Court ruled that the Shabbat laws must be enforced, that stores must remain closed, and that the fines for violation must be sufficient enough to serve as a deterrent. (Enforcement remains an issue.) But note another irony: the Court’s ruling was not based on Shabbat as a religious ideal, i.e., that Jewish law prohibits Shabbat labor. That undoubtedly would have been a losing argument in that secular body. But as the complaint was phrased in secular language – the rights of workers – the Court upheld the Shabbat laws as a cornerstone of human rights in a modern state.
Almost all the secularists on the conference panel approved of the decision, although perhaps it is unfair to label as secular those who perceive the value of Shabbat even if they observe it in a somewhat unconventional way.
The issue that kept recurring was the secular dilemma. Everyone knows what they – and other Jews – can’t do on Shabbat, but what can they do? Assuming that they are not going to the synagogue (but I have also seen well known “secular” Israelis in shul on Shabbat as well, davening like everyone else and not in attendance because of any particular event), what can they do if they can’t shop, and there is no public transportation, and cultural or entertainment venues are closed?
There has been a suggestion made in the last few years, and agreed to by a number of prominent Israelis across the societal spectrum who signed a “covenant” to permit the opening of places of entertainment and culture – theaters, museums, libraries and the like, loosening the restrictions on public transport, etc. while keeping Shabbat in the public domain or official facilities. Known in Israel as the “Gavison-Medan Covenant,” it was drafted and signed by Ruth Gavison, a law professor, and Rav Yaakov Medan, the Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion, and is uniquely Israeli. People who have no official role in society – without any legislative or judicial function – came together to resolve the debate but without any real authority to do anything about it except have the media depict it as a real agreement. (Similarly, the Geneva Initiative of Yossi Beilin of more than a decade ago purported to settle the conflict in the Middle East once and for all; of course, he had no authority to agree to anything on behalf of anyone, and yet his work product is still cited approvingly by the Israeli Left.) Such is unimaginable from an American perspective.
Nonetheless, several of the rabbis participating in this conference agreed with the “covenant,” and were willing to accommodate secular Israelis’ desire for cultural events on Shabbat, with some indifferent to the desecration of Shabbat and others on condition that Shabbat violations are not blatant. Fortunately, MK Tzipi Hotoveli, the Deputy Minister of Transportation, star of the Likud, and a religious and proud Jew, rose to the occasion and, in effect, chastised the rabbis for their willingness to forego the public observance of Shabbat. She, for one, is not, as to her a Jewish state is unthinkable without public observance of Shabbat. Granted, no one wants to make private transportation unlawful on Shabbat – that awaits the Sanhedrin and the Messianic era – but she found it objectionable that she had to defend Shabbat when some liberal rabbis are ready abandon it to curry favor with their fellow liberals. That doesn’t mean women can or should be rabbis, but as we know, “The wisdom of women builds the house…” (Mishlei 14:1). Women can and often do have a greater innate sensitivity to certain Torah values than do men.
It need only be mentioned that, in the grand style of Israeli “negotiations,” all the concessions came from the traditional element, none from the secular group – except, I suppose, their agreement not to riot or file suit about the existence of any remaining restrictions, at least for the time being. For sure, these concessions, if ever implemented, will be pocketed and serve as the basis for any future covenants. That should sound eerily familiar. (Another irony is that Ruth Gavison, although nominally secular, is one of the few professors and legal elites that is a political right-winger.)
Thus one flash point will be the unfortunate opening planned in the near future of a pedestrian mall at the old railway station in Yerushalayim. Under the pretense that several people will walk around on stilts (“entertainment”), shopping stalls will be open for business. It is an obvious disgrace, surely to be litigated to an unhappy ending. And, in response to the tedious howls of “religious coercion!” if the place will be shuttered, one participant – Uzi Dayan, leading security official for years and today a fairly traditional Jew – simply noted that all laws are coercive, by definition. That is why they are “laws,” and not suggestions. I add that those who want to “coerce” Haredim into the military must surely be aware of that. Apparently, the “majority” does reserve itself the right to use religious “coercion” when it suits them; a different grouping of much the same people should not protest when such is used against them. It merely reflects the will of the majority, which, after all, is a tenet of democracy.
Three longtime olim from Ethiopia – a rabbi, a politician and a journalist – spoke about their often unhappy experiences with the Israeli religious establishment and the rest of Israeli society. (Interestingly, all the secular participants wore kippot out of respect to the place and the topic, but not the latter two Ethiopians.) All three had marvelous senses of humor and at times very compelling stories, but their indictment of Israeli society as racist and their complaints about their absorption and subsequent treatment fell flat. In classic Israeli style, they were each heckled by audience members (indeed, there is no time allotted for questions; people just yell out a question while the speaker is speaking). Here, their complaints were greeted with shouts from the audience. “Stop whining!” yelled one older oleh from Iraq, “We were given almost nothing when we came!” An immigrant from Yemen hollered: “You don’t how good you had it compared to the way we were treated!” Publicly chastised, the three Ethiopian-Jews were made to feel like full and equal members of Israeli society, which, I suppose, is also progress.
In the lexicon of the left, repeated several times here, what was most important was the “conversation,” that people are talking about these issues. Indeed, the recognition that all Jews – of whatever level of observance – have a shared destiny is itself inspiring and needs reinforcement. And as Rav David Lau, the new Chief Rabbi, concluded the proceedings, all Jews have a share in the land of Israel and nothing is more important than finding a way to live together in harmony, peace and mutual respect.
Another week, another kenes.

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10 responses to “The Conversation

  1. The Jewish Bible teaches the importance of
    Shabbat observance 19 times:

    [A] Genesis, Chapter 2, Verses 1-3
    [B] Exodus, Chapter 16, Verses 28-30
    [C] Exodus, Chapter 20, Verses 8-11
    [D] Exodus, Chapter 23, Verses 12
    [E] Exodus, Chapter 31, Verses 12-17
    [F] Exodus, Chapter 34, Verses 21
    [G] Exodus, Chapter 35, Verses 1-3
    [H] Leviticus, Chapter 19, Verse 3
    [I] Leviticus, Chapter 19, Verse 30
    [J] Leviticus, Chapter 23, Verses 1-3
    [K] Leviticus, Chapter 26, Verse 2
    [L] Numbers, Chapter 15, Verses 32-36
    [M] Deuteronomy, Chapter 5, Verses 12-15
    [N] Isaiah, Chapter 56, Verses 1-7
    [O] Isaiah, Chapter 58, Verses 13-14
    [P] Jeremiah, Chapter 17, Verses 21-27
    [Q] Ezekiel, Chapter 20, Verses 10-12, 19-24
    [R] Ezekiel, Chapter 22, Verse 8 and 26
    [S] Nehemiah, Chapter 13, Verses 15-22

  2. Joan Hamblin

    I commend religious Israelites (is that the plural form for the name of the citizens of Israel?) for trying to keep their Shabbat free from secular incursions. Most of the United States, unfortunately, gave up a long time ago. I deplore shopping on our Sabbath (Sunday for me); I attend my religious services; unfortunately, the television does get turned on and is watched in my home. But almost everywhere we look, others have no such concern or consideration for the Sabbath. Everyone should read the promises from God enumerated in the scriptures that Mr. Cohen listed that could/can come from keeping this day sacred.

    • All true, but the real question is not how do we reinforce to ourselves the beauty of Shabbat but how we teach it to others.
      -RSP

  3. The brief foray into gender politics was, respectfully, unnecessary. Hotoveli’s objection did not stem from any unique observations women bring to the table, and no doubt many men made the same points she did. We’ve had many men speak up against public chillul shabbos. So, expressing no comment on the general concept, this is hardly indicative of “The Wisdom of Women, etc.”

    But of course, the real issue here is Shabbos. Seems to me the secular Jews pose a real problem. We all know what we’ve been told we cannot do, but what then can we do? You know who else has this problem? Us religious Jews. Shabbos has basically been transformed into a 25 hour eat and sleep fest, with a few hours in shul. What is one to do with the remaining 20 or so hours? While it away shmoozing? The puerile, knee-jerk answer, as it is for everything, is “learn!”, but of course, most Jews have no interest in learning so much, including those who do generally learn. We have to be honest – shabbos is extremely unproductive.

    Now you can answer that this is precisely the point, that we are supposed to be unproductive for one day a week. ( Actually quite a bit more than that, when you factor in all the yomim tovim, themselves nearly three weeks of time.) That sounds really keen, but when you look at the great men of history – the Edison’s, the Churchill’s etc – . none of them accomplished all they did by sitting and doing nothing every six days. And I say this as someone who loves and appreciates and looks forward to shabbos the whole week. It should be possible to rest from one’s labor, contemplate God, and yet still accomplish. We can accept, despite what we may think about it privately, the formulation of chazal prohibiting 39 categories of labor as the definition of prohibited “labor.” This still leaves room for plenty of activity currently considered beyond the bounds. Seems to me that this coalition you speak of has done good work towards reconsidering what Shabbos is, what it has become, and what it can be.

    Some of your colleagues, Rabbi, including one of the Berman’s, I forget who, have written about this, and urged greater acceptance of using the day for sports, at least for children. I’m fully aware that any innovation in Jewish life is met with calls of apikorsus, reform, etc ad nausem. Likewise, going to museums ( lets stipulate free, and on foot) will be met with catcalls, but would it really, truly, be against the spirit of shabbos to go to a museum on shabbos? I submit davka the opposite, particularly when the current default mode is little more than wasting one’s time sleeping or chatting, with perhaps (in the summer) a trip to the park with the young kids.

    In short – as its described in your essay, I see nothing wrong, and everything right, with “the Conversation.”

  4. @DF: As a ba’al t’shuva, I grappled with many of the issues you wrote of. What you denegrate as “schmoozing the day away”, I view as having a chance to have relaxed conversation with friends and family that does not exist much during the week. Shabbat is the only day I read for pleasure and self-enrichment, It is the only day I enjoy meals together with my family, without the distractions of phone calls or the idiot-box (TV). It is a day when my home is peaceful and quiet, or filled with the laughter of friends and family. Far from being a day of “don’ts”, Shabbat for me is a day of unequaled peace and beauty. The prohibitions are observed, but are in the background, much the way the sound of crickets provides context for an evening on the sofa with a good book. In other words, they are ever-present, but never intrusive. I made Shabbat into the beautiful experience I believe it was intended to be, and it is without fail the finest day of each week. I pray that you, too, will feel the love that Hashem showed us by giving us a day to praise Him, bask in His light, and cease from the toil of subsistance. But, as Rabbi Pruzansky would probably say, you seem to have a grievance with the Torah.

    As to the examples you cited of over-achievers who, according to you, rarely rested from their lofty pursuits, I would add a few of my own: Moses, Aaron, Joshua, King David, and many more of our great leaders, who, in spite of their strict observance of Torah and Shabbat, accomplished things Churchill, Edison, and other modern men of science and politics can only admire in awe.

  5. Thanks for the reply, Phil. Interesting thoughts. I beg of you, though, please refrain from ill-considered assertions like “you seem to have a greivance with the Torah.” If every partipicant in an argument was facilely said by his opponent to merely have a greivance with X, we’d never get anywhere, would we? And I do already “feel the love of Hashem”, thanks very much. (Tip: It is considered presumtuous and not a little self righteous to write in such manner.) The things you described – no TV, no cell phones – are all true. I readily concede these are what makes Shabbos what it is, and in fact, it is precisely because this is universally acknowledged that these prohibitions exist. ( Because the notion of electricity being akin to fire is tenuous, at best, and cellular technology is not even that.) And chatting with one’s friend is great – up to a point. I dont deny any of this. My point is that Shabbos ned not be LIMITED to these small endeavors. If one derives satisfaction from sitting in his front yard chatting away, that’s wonderful. But others of us would like to do a little more, be it for exercise or be it for sight seeing (for which opportunities are also limited in the week.)

    The examples I’ve mentioned do not even include true chillul Shabbos, even by chazal’s definition. For a Jew who accepts the concept of Shabbos, but does not feel bound by the definitions of chazal, other forms of relaxation will suggest themselves. The point of all this is that “the Conversation” described by R. Pruzansky is something that should also be occurring here in the US, and among regular orthodox people.

    The things you described – no TV, no cell phones – are all true. I readily concede these are what makes Shabbos what it is, and in fact, it is precisely because this is universally acknowledged that these prohibitions exist. ( Because the notion of electricity being akin to fire is tenuous, at best, and cellular technology is not even that.) And chatting with one’s friend is great – up to a point. I dont deny any of this. My point is that Shabbos ned not be LIMITED to these small endeavors. If one derives satisfaction from sitting in his front yard chatting away, that’s wonderful. But others of us would like to do a little more, be it for exercise or be it for sight seeing (for which opportunities are also limited in the week.)

    The examples I’ve mentioned do not even include true chillul Shabbos, even by chazal’s definition. For a Jew who accepts the concept of Shabbos, but does not feel bound by the definitions of chazal, other forms of relaxation will suggest themselves. The point of all this is that “the Conversation” described by R. Pruzansky is something that should also be occurring here in the US, and among regular orthodox people.

    • DF – I did not intend to be presumptuous with my “grievance against the Torah” comment. I apologize if it came off that way. What I was refering to was an earlier post by Rabbi Pruzansky. I believe it was his post on “Neo-Conservatives”, which discusses the Open Orthodox movement. I think if you review that post, you will understand why I made that comment. God forbid I would put words in your mouth or the Rabbi’s, which is why I was careful to qualify that assertion. After reviewing the post on Neo-Conservatives, I would like to know if you understand why I wrote what I wrote. Your comments about electricity use on Shabbat further illustrate my point: You seem willing to accept Rabbinic authority provided it makes sense to you. Normative Judaism welcomes inquiry and debate, but there is no personal “smell test” for the incorporation of halachic practise into one’s life. Again, if I have assumed too much, I apologize. However, if that is indeed the case, the Rabbi’s thoughts in the Neo-Conservative post are quite germane.

  6. Phil – I read R. Pruzansky’s piece on neo-conservatives when he wrote it. You will find a comment of mine towards the end of it. It is tempting to engage in discussion about it, but that’s not the point I’m making here.

    The issue here is the best use of Shabbos. For most orthodox Jews, the day is spent primarily in eating and sleeping. This does not have to be the case, EVEN WITHIN THE STRICTURES OF ORTHODOX HALACHA. What is wrong, really, with a baseball game? What is wrong, really, with visiting a museum or an art gallery? Yes, you can find some pikpuk in halacha to make, as you can with almost anything, but does that really override the tremendous bittul and shmamma most people experience on Shabbos? Should it? Yes, there are slippery slope considerations, and yes, like every other innovation in Jewish life since at least the Second Temple, healthy conservative instincts will take issue with it. But that’s to be expected. 60 years ago it was considered a sin of the highest magnitude to even speak Hebrew, and now every major yeshivah in Israel gives shiurim in Ivrit. I could go on, but you get the point.

    One key point to make is that this is not predicated upon modern liberal social trends. In other words, dont confuse this with the open orthodoxy thing R. Pruzansky talked about. Their entire platform is almost entirely dedicated to their perverse version of “social justice.” (Basically feminism, with a dash of homosexual issues and a smidgen of old-fashioned pay practices.) The shabbos issue is universal, not connected to any passing idea or fashion. I think it is correct to reject most of open orthodoxy ideas, because, all protestations to the contrary, their motivations are coming from the wrong place. How to properly observe shabbos, and make the most of our time, is a world apart.

    • DF – Intersting comments. I guess the crux of my feelings on this is that a Torah-Jew should be willing to find a rabbi, and accept his authority, rather than go it alone. To me, you seem to be making your own value judgements as to what is authentic Shabbat observance, and what is just trendy or generally accepted. Also, you seem to take issue with the idea of prohibitions of permissable activities that might lead to the impermissable. Again, if I am mistaken, I apologize. The way I see it, one must accept the judgement of his rebbe. I admit, I don’t always follow what my rebbe says, but I count that as a personal failing, without trying to justify any divergence from my rebbe’s application of Jewish law. But I agree with you that there is no harm in having the conversation about Shabbat, or any aspect of halacha, provided the motive is to preserve and observe Torah.

  7. “The way I see it, one must accept the judgement of his rebbe.”

    That is indeed basically the difference here.