The Postman Knocks Twice: Where the rabbis went wrong

The greatest revolution in human history is Shabbat. Too often it is treated by the rabbis as series of “Do Nots.”

Shabbat (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
"That’s not our business!” an enthusiastic bearded gentleman called out to me. “Come put on tefillin.”
The scene is Ben-Gurion Airport and I am totally concentrated on finding the right gate for my flight. Usually I just wave them off; I cannot stand anyone invading my privacy, but this time I had had enough.
“Have you asked anyone today whether he is honest? Did you ask anyone if he cheated someone today?” I snapped.
“That’s not our business!” the gentleman replied, astounded. How could I think such outlandish things? In effect, this article could stop here. Could there be a better demonstration of where the rabbis went wrong? Human relations, honesty, “Thou shall not steal” – none of these are the concerns of most rabbis. They are more worried about the externals of piety.
Or, they worry about the negatives of Judaism: What you must not do! The greatest revolution in human history is Shabbat. Too often it is treated by the rabbis as series of “Do Nots.” In defining “work,” the rabbis can make an issue of how to remove a fly from the soup on Shabbat (an early Lubavitcher rebbe ethical will) or why you cannot carry an umbrella on a rainy day.
“The greatest revolution in human history?” – now that’s some claim. According to our tradition the Ten Commandments were given over three millennia ago. The Israelites at Mount Sinai are commanded to observe Shabbat; in one version the word is to “keep,” and in the other to “remember” the Shabbat, to set it off (“holy” also means to separate, to distinguish) from the six-day working week. The seventh day, no one is to work – men, women and children. No human, not even a manor maid-servant. Not even your draft animals.
• Revolution/revelation No.1: Limiting the workweek, something which was unique in its time.
• No. 2: Women as well as men are to observe equally.
• No. 3: Every level of employee is free that day: servants and what then were prevalent, slaves.
• No. 4: New Jews living in your domain (that is those who have chosen to join your people) must also not work.
• No. 5: All creatures are free that day – even your work animals.
Shabbat is the day made for rest and “refreshing the soul.” On that day no creature, animal or human, belongs to another human. That day is an imitation of the Divine: Just as in the creation story the Creator rested, so all creatures should rest. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, Shabbat belongs in the realm of time, and not in the realm of space.
It is the day when we belong to ourselves, and to no one else. It is a day to spend with family, a day of learning, alone or with other family members, a day when we are restored to our ultimate humanity and innate divinity.
The historical impact made by the revolution of Shabbat stems from its basic lesson in the equality of all humans, or even of all living creatures. In this sense, it is the origin of every theory of liberty and equality, predating by millennia the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution a decade later.
In short: Shabbat is the mother of all human equality and of respect for the Other, even for animals.
It is a day of beauty and enrichment of the spirit, not just a series of “You Mustn’ts.”
Justice and decency: The social content In a number of places, the Torah and the prophets laid out ways that we should be decent and behave justly.
Not to exploit workers, nor delay their daily wage. To have fair weights and measures. To protect the weak, the widows and orphans; not to harvest a field right down to the furthest corners; leave something for the poor gleaners. Not to enter a man’s house when you come to collect a debt – wait outside; he may be poor, but he must be treated with respect. If he has given you his blanket as a guarantee to repay a loan, return it to him, because otherwise he will suffer from the night cold.
These examples, as they say in Hebrew, are “the tip of the fork,” a tiny taste of great human sympathy, of respect for the weak, of kindness and justice.
One of the finest commentators of the 19th century, Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto of Padua’s rabbinical seminary of Italy defined the basis of Judaism as compassion.
Where have Israeli rabbis been when compassion is involved? Where are they on any social issue? Where are they, as a devout religious-Zionist right-winger complained to me, in speaking out against the “price tag” indecency? Almost all rabbis in all the religious establishments are busy projecting or protecting their power. Out of the official (state-financed and recognized) Chief Rabbinate, I have yet to hear a rabbi excoriate bribery or falsehood in kashrut, or the maltreating of Jewish, Arab or foreign laborers.
The kashrut business itself is both immoral in its ugly competition between authorizing rabbis or agencies, and is another ploy for jobs for the boys.
Who has had the gall to overturn the rulings of other rabbis concerning conversion, creating a limbo for would-be Jewish families? Which rabbi has had the courage of chief rabbis like Shlomo Goren and Ovadia Yosef in leaving no stone unturned to release agunot (women who are “chained” to their marriage)? Chief rabbis have been under investigation by the police. Where are the rabbinic voices speaking out against improper rabbinic practices? What voice has been raised against fake registration in yeshivot and kollelim, inflating numbers of non-studying students to obtain more government financing? Can the end – supposed Torah study – justify the means of lying and cheating? Where are the whistleblowers, those rabbis who cannot stand to see rot in their own ranks? How is it that the official rabbinate has not, to my knowledge, published a code of behavior? And if the Torah is their code of behavior, why are so many hypocrites wandering around in their official uniforms? Why are there so many fake kabbalists, money-machine “babas” and charlatans in beards and black hats and Prince Alberts? Then there are the national-religious rabbis.
Aside from a small minority, mainly products of the Har Etzion Yeshiva and of the yeshivot of Hakibbutz Hadati, the vast majority are stuck in the one track of Greater Eretz Yisrael. That is of course their right, though to some it raises moral concerns about treatment of the Other.
Are there no other issues? Which Israeli rabbis have spoken out against the musketeers of the extreme political Right such as rabbis Ariel, Ginsburg and Axelrod, who threatened US Secretary of State John Kerry with the fate of Haman, who of course was hanged. I wonder where these rabbis were when Yigal Amir was being prepared. I wonder, but assuredly do not know.
The national-religious rabbis were educated in the Torah Ve’avoda movement, founded in Poland in the 1920s by Orthodox Jews who wished to combine social justice, equality and cooperation with return to the Land of Israel, and for many, to the soil. It gave birth to kibbutzim and moshavim that helped define the state’s borders, and whose members were (and are) honest working people, often intellectuals, including rabbis. What happened to both the Torah part and the Avoda part, that is a world of social justice as prescribed by our historically sacred books? Who speaks out against ugly forms of the race for wealth, the greed of capitalists, banks, cabinet ministers? Where are the voices raised in protest against the waste of public funds? Is it true that most of the rabbis ordained in traditional and many hesder yeshivot have never been taught all of the books of the Tanach? How many in the power-structure rabbinate have “ever opened another [secular] book?” – as the chief rabbi of Venice asked about reactionary rabbis of his time, four centuries ago. Does their concentration on Talmud necessarily make them into a kind of lawyer specializing in the minutiae of not breaking the laws, expositions of detailed external observances and religious piety, and a series of what not to do? How many have heard the prophets storm against the strong dispossessing the weak, adding strip of land to strip of land, pushing out their fellows? Why is the crude and porcine pursuit of wealth not regarded as a breach of another basic principle of the Revelation at Sinai – the worship of idols? In a society which worships money, no rabbi that I know of has called this idolatry. Let’s give it its proper name: “Shekelatry!” But honesty is “not our business.”
We are the People of the Book, the one that gave the first rest day to the world. That taught equality, honesty, fair weights and measures. That showed us how to help the weak and the poor. That possesses a Torah of compassion.
Except for a handful, the rabbis have gone away from all of that.
That is where they went wrong.
That is where they go wrong.
The writer studied at Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Columbia University. His respect for the rabbinate as it should be comes to expression in his adventure and historical novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams, published by Gefen, available at Steimatzky and on Amazon, and in eBook format. He can be reached at