My 100-year-old observant grandmother did not go to shul on the first day of Rosh Hashana this year. She did go on the second day. The reason for her absence the first day was not due to illness, but because her Orthodox rabbi did not want her to attend if she had to arrive in a wheelchair.
For all the years I have known my grandmother, she has somehow managed to attend High Holy Day services at her New York City shul, except for last year when she was hospitalized for a broken leg. But even then, she still attended services held in the rehabilitation center.
Her apartment is directly across from the shul, but this year, due to renovations, services are being held a few blocks away in a different location. It seemed practical that my grandmother's non-Jewish assistant would be able to push her in a wheelchair to the temporary location.
When approached, the rabbi felt it important to counsel my grandmother that doing the right thing by Jewish law does not include someone pushing her to shul on the Shabbat of Rosh Hashana. He also told her that she should not attend Yom Kippur services.
My grandmother is a very tough lady. While she never listens to anyone else, grandma takes her rabbi's opinion as law and would never go against his word.
But his word infuriated me and I felt that I needed an explanation.
So I called the rabbi.
ACCORDING TO grandma's rabbi, she never actually asked him what to do, "She understands Jewish law and knew what I would say. She said she wants to do the right thing. So she is doing what she knows I would say," he said.
On the contrary to what the rabbi said, my family believes that he did have some say in grandma's decision to stay home on the prescribed days.
When I questioned the fact of why grandma's non-Jewish assistant could not push her, he said, "Halachically, she is involved in the action of being pushed. That is the law." He also went on to say that "a goy cannot do what a Jew cannot do."
I suppose there are many people who might say that the rabbi is simply following the rule of Jewish law and setting the right example for his congregation and maintaining his own religious integrity.
But it still doesn't sit right with me. For all I know, this could be grandma's last Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. What purpose does it serve for her not to go to pray with the congregation that she has prayed with for more than 40 years?
SO I sought out the counsel of my own rabbi. While Conservative, he fully understands the theology of Orthodox Judaism. He reviewed the concept of "Halacha with Compassion" and said that the laws of what can and cannot be done on Shabbat or Yom Kippur should not have been applied to my grandmother's non-Jewish assistant.
In my own life I have been involved with most of the branches of Judaism. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and a bit of Reconstructionist. I am not saying that any one of them is perfect or more just then the other. My own personal belief is that they all have their own weaknesses and problems. And yes, I have met some wonderful, tolerant Orthodox rabbis over the years.
In his sermon this weekend, my rabbi spoke about how nice it is for Jews to come together as a community at this time of year. That in coming together, we form a united entity which reinforces the essence of the holiday season. What a lovely thought. How sad though that this does not appear to be the case for all Jews. Our religious affiliations or titles seem to be driving us further and further apart.
My grandmother looks up to and respects her rabbi. He is her spiritual leader. As a devout woman, she trusts his word and will not question his authority. I cannot ask her how she feels about what she has been told to do or not do because I know she will never speak ill of her rabbi. I on the other hand, cannot sit idly by.
I do not claim to be the most learned Jew in the world. Or even the most committed. But I do try to be a caring and contributing member of the Jewish community. So I feel it is within my right as a Jew to question the actions of a fellow Jew who might be hurting someone I love.
I challenge anyone to give me a reasonable excuse as to why and how this rabbi is correct in how he counseled my grandmother. As Jews, we may not always agree with each other, we might even yell, but at least the lines of communication are still open.
Meanwhile, I'm praying for a more tolerant and unified 5767.
The writer, an American-Israeli citizen, is a former journalist, currently teaches media education and works in public relations. She lives in Hollywood, Florida.
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