By Rabbi Josh Weinberg March 12th, 2021
There we were all in one place, a generation lost in space, and we were not sure what to do. Every Israelite together at one moment; all of us; at once; standing there in the middle of the desert with nowhere to go; waiting for instructions.
In the beginning of this week’s parasha VaYakhel-Pikudei (Exodus 35:1), Moses convenes the entire Israelite community and says to them: “These are the things that Adonai has commanded you to do: Sanctify your time – create a day of no work – Shabbat, and sanctify your space – create a Tabernacle. ”
Moses understood the necessity of liberating the Israelites from their previous slave mentality by giving them a day of rest. He also sought to unite the people, who were members of different tribes, under one common building project that would be the fruit of everyone’s labor and would be situated in the center of the camp. Before modern philosophy, Moses internalized the critical importance of sacred time and space. Immanuel Kant states that both are elements of a systematic framework we use to structure our experience.
While we may be comfortable using the term pluralism, it doesn’t translate well to “Israeli” (a direct translation into Hebrew does not exist).
So, let’s look at an example of how this plays out in Israeli society and use Shabbat as a case study:
Ahad Ha’am famously said: “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” We would not be who we are without Shabbat, and the ritual and importance of Shabbat has preserved us as a people over time.
According to traditional sources (i.e. Tanakh and the siddur), Shabbat has three purposes each of which serves to unite us as a people. In Genesis, observing Shabbat is a way to commemorate God’s creation of the universe on the seventh day when God rested from (or ceased) God’s creative work. In Exodus, Shabbat commemorates God’s redemption of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt and differentiates us from slaves; and in later Jewish texts, Shabbat is a “taste” of Olam Haba (the Messianic Age).
In contemporary Israel, Shabbat is at the crux of a politicized world. Since the days leading to the establishment of the State of Israel, a vague Shabbat observance was instituted as part of the “Status Quo” agreement between David Ben Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, and the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael Party. The agreement sought to present a united policy to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP)
In the letter, dated 19 June 1947, Ben-Gurion stated that neither the Jewish Agency Executive nor any other body in the country was authorized to determine in advance the constitution of the emerging Jewish state or its secular character. The letter stipulated policy principles in four main areas that are considered fundamental to Orthodox Judaism:
“Shabbat— the Jewish state’s day of rest would be that of Judaism, between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday.”
[The other three are Kashrut, Family laws (marriage, etc.), and Education]
Shabbat will be the day of rest. Simple, isn’t it? Since then, it has been anything but.
On the one hand, Shabbat has the potential to be the great unifier. It’s something that everyone in the country marks in some way. Shabbat is Shabbat. It’s what makes us ‘us.’ And it is a universal concept that offers hope for humanity – one of the Jewish people’s greatest gifts to the world.
What challenges the limits of pluralism is the question of what should be the public policy around Shabbat? In the interest of pluralism, should the state respect every citizen’s interpretation of the “day of rest?” Or, should the State impose a set of standards/expectations for behavior in public on Shabbat? Should the State support those who prefer to use public transportation, or who don’t have a choice, to who wish to enjoy nature, visit family, and access entertainment? Or should the Jewish State ban public transportation altogether and insist that places of business remain closed to maintain a sense of “public sanctity” and respect those who want to maintain the traditional tranquility of and laws pertaining to the day of rest?
Shabbat observance has nearly brought down the government as construction work on Israel’s main thoroughfare sent the Haredi Parties into a frenzy a few years ago. Now the issue of transportation on Shabbat has become a social justice issue as Israelis without private cars have no other way of getting around on Shabbat except on public buses. Even during the past few electoral campaigns the liberal parties have rallied around Shabbat as a day off (or ‘day of freedom’ in Hebrew) where one’s options are not limited on Shabbat.
Pluralism challenges us to ask: “Are we meant to tolerate everything?” How far we can push our lines until they are no longer recognizable as Jewish? As Reform Jews, are there things that we should insist on doing on Shabbat and prohibit doing on Shabbat? In arguably one of the best scenes in all of film history ever, John Goodman’s character Walter (in the Coen bros epic 1998 film “The Big Lebowski”) refuses to “roll on Shabbes” (go bowling) because he’s “Shomer f#$%^& Shabbes!” Despite the humor, irony (Walter wasn’t actually Jewish), and silliness of the scene, it ought to challenge us to reflect on our own red lines? The question is what our red lines as a people are, and what are yours as individuals?
As Israel approaches elections in 11 days, we know that the Haredi and right-wing parties are campaigning on being the only ones who will preserve Judaism for the future. If they get their way there will be strict enforcement of Shabbat laws in public. Some have campaigned in favor of shutting down the “sacred cow” of Israeli sports – Shabbat afternoon soccer matches attended “religiously” by thousands. Public transportation on Shabbat (an issue that our Israeli Reform Movement has fought for) will remain a pipe dream. But even as we oppose the attempts of the Haredim to control public Shabbat observance, there are ways in which we could benefit from ‘powering off on Shabbat’ and taking a 24-hour break from our devices and technology.
Shabbat can elevate us, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel beautifully wrote: “It is one of life’s highest rewards, a source of strength and inspiration to endure tribulation, to live nobly . . . The Sabbath is the inspirer, the other days the inspired” (A.J. Heschel, The Sabbath, 22).
And so, as we strive to build a society in Israel struggling within the limits of pluralism, but also preserving our core as Jews and ensuring that we will endure as a people, may this Shabbat be truly a Shabbat of Shalom, and of evaluation of who we are as individuals and as a people.