Enhancing Shabbat observance

August 16, 2015 22:20
3 minute read.
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Late Bar-Mitzva for Holocaust survivors at the Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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With all due respect and in agreement with his ultimate objective, I have serious reservations as to whether Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardoza’s suggestions (“Observe Shabbat,” Jerusalem Post Weekend Magazine, August 7) will enhance Shabbat observance.

The ideas of riding bicycles and a Shabbat tram may initially sound very appealing.

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However, upon further reflection and considering historical experience, I am not so sure that they would be positive contributions. On the contrary, they may lead to further desecration of Shabbat.

In 1950, the majority of members of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of Conservative Judaism in America permitted those who lived far away to drive to and from synagogue on Shabbat.

The ruling was intended to strengthen Conservative Judaism by fostering increased synagogue attendance.

However, in 2003, Rabbi Dr. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Conservative Judaism’s rabbinical seminary, asserted that the ruling was a mistake and indicated that Conservative Judaism “gave up on the desirability of living close to the synagogue and creating a Shabbos community.”

Whether the Conservative movement could have prevented the decline of community is a moot question.

For the Orthodox, the traditional observance of Shabbat did foster community.

Shabbat and its requirements virtually predefine where one may live, namely within walking distance of a synagogue. While this prescription strongly limits the opportunities available in terms of geographic mobility, it also prevents many of the problems that mobility in America and other countries frequently entails. Orthodox Jews do not experience the same kinds of struggles to develop roots in communities to which they have recently moved as do many others in society because Shabbat almost assures that they will have a community.

By virtue of Shabbat it is given that one will live within walking distance of the synagogue and, invariably, within walking distance of at least some, if not most or all, of the other members of the synagogue-community.

Orthodox Jews do not have to worry about where they will meet people in their new neighborhood; they know that they will meet them in the synagogue on the very first Shabbat there. They also know that there they will probably meet children with whom their own children will socialize and, in many cases, with whom they will also go to school.

Rabbi Cardozo quotes Erich Fromm’s call for the establishment of Shabbat as a universal day of harmony and peace. I would add that Fromm also interpreted the meaning of the Shabbat’s prohibitions on work (melachah) in a very traditional manner: “‘Work’ is any interference by man, be it constructive or destructive, with the physical world. ‘Rest’ is a state of peace between man and nature.

Man must leave nature untouched, not change it in any way, either by building or by destroying anything. Even the smallest change made by man in the natural process is a violation of rest. The Sabbath is the day of complete harmony between man and nature. ‘Work’ is any kind of disturbance of the man-nature equilibrium” (You Shall Be As Gods [New York: Fawcett, 1966] p. 154).

When considering religious change, one should be very cautious. There should be serious investigation of the reasons for non-observance and careful weighing of whether the change will enhance or diminish observance.

The writer is professor emeritus of Sociology and Jewish Studies, Rutgers University and a senior fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. He is completing a book titled Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy which will be published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

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