Center Field: Hobbes vs. Jefferson in debate on Cinema City Shabbat closure

Modern rabbis should learn that less can be more; enabling freedom can strengthen Judaism and the state’s Jewish character, not weaken it.

Cinema City Jerusalem (photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
Cinema City Jerusalem
(photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
I first met one of my Jerusalem neighbors on a Shabbat as I returned from synagogue and he was working in his yard. After we chatted for a few minutes, he apologized that his gardening on Saturday included the occasional lawn mower and blower. He hoped the noise would not disturb our Sabbath peace. “No need to apologize,” I replied. “I’m North American. It takes a lot for what you do to hurt me.”
That is the attitude Jerusalemites should take in general – and particularly regarding the controversy surrounding Cinema City, the new 20-screen, ultra sleek movie multiplex, the latest step in Mayor Nir Barkat’s Jerusalem revival.
Trying to mediate between the city which wants the cinema closed on Shabbat and the owners, who want it open, the Supreme Court recently decided that the issue should be renegotiated. but any decision will go to the haredi- dominated Jerusalem city council which will then probably impose a Shabbat closure.
Mayor Barkat must lead here, remembering that those of us who elected him endorsed his vision of Jerusalem as both a modern municipality and the capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel (as well as being special to other religions, too). Cinema City should be free to recoup its investment faster by opening seven days a week. If religious coercion bankrupts it, that will hurt me, my kids, and our cinema-going friends much more than if it stays open – which does not affect me because it is not in my neighborhood. Cinema City’s location – close to government buildings not apartments – makes it ideally suited to operate freely.
This approach makes me a Jeffersonian Jew, not a Hobbesian Jew. Thomas Hobbes was the 17th-century philosopher who viewed the state of nature as “a war of all against all,” defining life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A Hobbesian Jew takes a zero-sum approach to Judaism, relying on force, not choice, and fearing that what one person enjoys detracts from the other. In fairness, Hobbes offered the social contract as a counter, wherein we enter society, sacrificing certain individual rights in return for collective protections. The notion evolved into John Locke’s “life, liberty and property,” which Thomas Jefferson updated to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
“Happiness” is an expansive term. Maximizing happiness involves indulging the other, tolerating difference, accepting diversity – be it accepting certain street closures in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods on Shabbat, or accepting open cinemas away from said neighborhoods.
I love Jerusalem’s Shabbat atmosphere. I enjoy living in a Jewish space on Jewish time. I delight in the city’s languor on Friday afternoons and the soul-restoring hush that descends on Saturday mornings. As we build from Purim to Pesach, it’s fun living in a Jewish state where the majority mobbed costume stores, toy stores and bakeries for Purim, and will now start its pre-Passover cleaning, cooking and shopping frenzy.
Our individual and family Jewish experiences are enhanced by doing them in common with the majority.
There is a force-multiplier effect when the streets throb with Purim joy or reinforce Yom Kippur’s quiet contemplation.
Still, I appreciate that this Jerusalem Sabbath is more cultural than legal, more reflecting Israelis’ lifestyles than resulting from municipal bans on driving. Modern rabbis should learn the Zen lesson that, especially when you have power, less can be more; enabling freedom can strengthen Judaism and the state’s Jewish character, not weaken it.
Unfortunately, partisans are marking the Cinema City struggle a zero-sum, lose-lose battle. Either Orthodoxy will “lose” by having this pagan center open on the holy day or freedom will “lose” by having the state’s power mobilized to prevent harmless activities non-religious people indulge in anyway – while threatening the economic viability of an exciting new project benefiting everyone (although they could use another “up” escalator and staircase for the hundreds exiting at the same time when movies end).
I would rather seek the kind of win-win occurring across town at the Tachana Rishona, the First Train Station.
At the Tachanah, some restaurants operate on Shabbat and kosher restaurants don’t. On Shabbat, non-religious Israelis and Arabs mingle, enjoying themselves, disproving the myths that Jerusalem has become a religious ghetto. Moreover, on Friday afternoons in the summer a religious-secular Oneg Shabbat welcomes the Sabbath; on many Saturday nights non-religious and religious Jews bid farewell to the Sabbath Queen with a modern Melava Malka, and on Hanukkah many join in a mass candle lighting.
The Tachana has become a place to enjoy as well as a space to do Jewish. It shows that Judaism is often about the Thou Shalts not just the Thou Shalt Nots. The model is more welcoming, more empowering, less alienating.
That this struggle is occurring when many (not all) ultra-Orthodox Jews are refusing to serve in the Israeli army and resisting the basic democratic bargain whereby draft evaders can be arrested, is galling. That this struggle is occurring after decades of having Israel’s established, state-funded Orthodox rabbinate – not all Orthodox rabbis – alienate one generation after another of non-Orthodox Israelis with its heavy-handed, coercive, medieval approach to Judaism, is depressing.
And that this struggle is occurring when we need a big, broad centrist coalition to jumpstart a Jewish values and rituals revival in Israel is distracting.
Let’s learn from the Tachana. The municipality should open Cinema City on Shabbat. The owners should sponsor Jewish-content activities in their new culture palace – public ceremonies, film festivals, lectures. Let’s create a Cinema City win-win – and build a Jeffersonian Jewish identity based on voluntary embraces not coercive strangleholds, a Judaism of open arms not locked handcuffs, a Judaism that invites rather than imposes. Shabbat’s power is great enough to resist a culture palace serving others – as Jews it should take a lot more to hurt us or diminish our experiences.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and the author, most recently, of, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press.
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