Kavod Shabbat in COVID
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Yes, we have enlarged the boundaries of Shabbat engagement, but in doing so we have also stretched well beyond the boundaries of Shabbat observance, beyond anything that my colleagues and I ever imagined we would do. In the years to come there will be dissertations written as to how Jewish law and leadership responded to the challenges of this past year. Fascinating as those dissertations will be to read, truth be told it has not been easy for those of us living the subject in real time. The texts, the teleprompters, the technology – none of it falls under any normative definition of halakhah (Jewish law). I remember with great clarity the first time, following the Pittsburgh shooting, that I decided to carry a cell phone to shul on Shabbat. In retrospect, given where we are today, that decision feels positively quaint. In the past year I have often wondered to myself, and today I wonder aloud, if in our efforts to keep Shabbat, Shabbat has in fact been kept? Will the decisions we have made this past year be remembered as our people’s finest hour? Or will history hold us accountable for having inflicted irreparable harm upon our tradition? The job of the synagogue is both to spread the sanctity of Shabbat far and wide and to uphold the very laws by which Shabbat is constructed. The uncomfortable fact of the year gone by is that we have had choose between the two. If we uphold the letter of law, fewer people will share in the spirit of Shabbat. And the more we leverage technology on Shabbat, the looser is our hold on Jewish law.
Uncomfortable as the choices of this past year may have been, it is a tension that sits at the very foundation of the institution of Shabbat itself. The rabbis of old well understood the paradox that in one’s very efforts to create the sacred, one may find oneself engaged in activities by which the sacred is violated. In our foundational code of Jewish law, the Mishnah, the rabbis enumerate thirty-nine categories of labor, melakhah, prohibited on Shabbat: sowing, plowing, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, and so on and so forth. Why these activities and not others? What, if any, is the internal logic to these thirty-nine melakhot? All questions deserving of exploration. But the most interesting question, in my mind, is why the rabbis anchored these thirty-nine prohibitions in the construction of the mishkan, the Israelites’ portable desert sanctuary whose construction we read about this morning. Paradoxically, the thirty-nine labors – every melakhah involved in the construction of the sacred space meant to house God’s presence – are precisely the same thirty-nine labors prohibited on our most sacred day. “They sowed, therefore you must not sow. . . . They reaped, therefore you must not reap. . . . They carried, therefore you must not carry.”
The linking of prohibited Shabbat labor and the creation of sacred space is more than just a window into the interpretive imagination of the rabbis and the circuitous manner by which they deduce Shabbat law. By rendering taboo on Shabbat the very activities by which God’s sanctuary is established, a metaphysical connection is established between the two: human creation juxtaposed with divine creation. The nineteenth-century rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch commented on the verse lo t’varu esh, the prohibition against kindling fire:
“On Shabbat the cessation of work is the belief and acknowledgment that the ability to ‘master matter,’ the creative productive power that man has, is lent to him by God, and is only to be used in God’s service. . . . The idea of Shabbat is to be understood, not so much as laying our world at the Feet of God, but as laying our relation to our world at God’s Feet. (SRH on Exodus 35:3)
For Hirsch, for Heschel, and for so many others, there is a profound theological calculus at play in connecting the thirty-nine forbidden labors with the building of the Tabernacle. The Shabbat prohibitions are intended not as acts of submission but of liberation, or, more precisely, a submission that is a liberation: We are reminded that it is tradition, not technology, that anchors us; each other, not email, that sustain us; and our Creator in heaven, not commerce, that we have been put on this earth to serve. Of all the choices available to the rabbis, why did they derive the Shabbat laws from the construction of the desert Tabernacle? Because the rabbis understood that in our refraining from labor, a far greater spiritual gain was to be had – the opportunity to enter what Heschel called a palace in time, to experience what the ancient mystics described as a taste of the world to come.
Looking back on this year gone by, looking at where we are today, I feel the intergenerational “I told you so” of my rabbinic predecessors, their prescient warning that the very labors we deploy to create space for God could paradoxically be the selfsame labors by which Shabbat is breached. I struggle as a rabbi, who, if nothing else, is called on to lead by example. By livestreaming on Shabbat, by teaching Torah classes on Shabbat in virtual settings, by asking people to text Shabbat shalom to loved ones after L’kha Dodi, have I stepped onto a slippery slope from which there is no escape? Befuddled as I am by Orthodoxy’s inability to see our unprecedented state of affairs as a justification for halakhic change, I am not quite sure, what, if anything, differentiates me from a Reform rabbi on this particular subject. What are my redlines as a Conservative rabbi regarding technology use on Shabbat? I have read the halakhic literature, the debates as to whether one may Zoom a seder, whether kaddish may be recited in an online minyan, and whether it is preferred to open Zoom before Shabbat begins, but an honest assessment of my approach to such questions is best summarized as “In for a penny, in for a pound.” Questions such as whether one holds according to the Hazon Ish or according to Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach as to whether flipping an electrical switch constitutes a breach of a biblically prohibited labor, are questions that have not, quite frankly, informed my decision-making this past year. I did my job; I’d do it again. But for better or for worse, I have chosen to go beyond the law in order to uphold the law, to break an aspect of Shabbat in order that many Shabbatot can be upheld into the future.
But more than my struggle as a rabbi, more than any nuanced discussion of Jewish law, more than theological concern if Hashem actually cares about me using an iPad on Shabbat, and beyond considering that yet again, I will be passed over for halakhic “Man of the Year,” it is the personal toll I feel. COVID has tethered us all to technology in ways that we never dreamed possible, and we all find ourselves in desperate need of spiritual sanctuary. Looking back at this past year, I feel myself akin to the man described by Rav Huna in the Talmud, who travels through the wilderness for so long that he loses track of when Shabbat actually falls. As Jews, our spiritual lives have atrophied this past year on account of so many reasons. We have lost the joys that Shabbat brings – Shabbat tables filled with friends, sanctuaries overflowing with communal prayer, kiddushes buzzing with kibbitz and high carb cookies. We have also lost the boundaries that Shabbat brings, the cessation in work and technology that differentiate Shabbat and carry us, or at least me, through the other six days of the week. I mourn the erosion of the distinction between the Shabbat and the workweek. I own the choices I have made, and I believe them to be justified. But I also feel the costs incurred, spiritually speaking. If nothing else, this year gone by serves as an unsolicited endorsement for the wisdom and power of our tradition. I pray that when the times comes – please God soon – to safely return, we remember the thirst we feel right now for the rituals and rhythms of our people and we recommit ourselves with a fervor that reflects our present longing.
Indeed, far more interesting than thinking about where we were last March as compared to this March, is to think about where we will be next March as compared to this March. Are the decisions we have made this year temporary measures for times of crisis, or is the proverbial toothpaste out of the tube and there is no turning back? These are good questions that cannot be avoided and for which, truth be told, I have no answers – certainly not today. That said, I offer the following final three thoughts as comfort for myself and hopefully for you.
First: Keynehore, it should be God’s will that we are, soon enough, at a place of public health where we can vigorously debate such questions. We should all be so lucky. We are still very much in the midst of sha·at ha-d’hak, an emergency situation. Call me superstitious, but it strikes me as tempting fate, an invitation to the evil eye, to start debating halakhic positions prematurely. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that none of us can see as far into the future as we would like to think.
Second: To the degree that I can make a binding declarative statement, any future of Park Avenue Synagogue will be a future that includes online Shabbat services. What the platform will be, how you will access it, how we are going to integrate our in-person and on-line communities, and a million other questions – we haven’t quite figured out. We are actively working on it; you actually received a survey about it. Park Avenue Synagogue has always pushed the envelope; we have historically been early adopters on these questions. It was under my predecessors that services were first recorded; our decision to livestream to the homebound elderly and infirm long preceded COVID. I may not always respond, but I do read your letters and emails and it is affirming to know how appreciated our efforts are and how so many of you have stepped up to support the synagogue and join as non-resident members. We will, assuredly, continue to serve searching souls – virtually – wherever they may be.
Third and finally: I promise faithfully that we will continue to struggle. We will face the paradox of Shabbat head-on, committed to sharing its spirit, committed to affirming its boundaries. This is the balancing act upon which a self-respecting Conservative synagogue should define its mission; this is the path that has guided and will continue to inform our communal mission. The strength of our community lies not so much in finding a neat resolution, but in a thoughtful and transparent embrace of the tensions, as I hope I have modeled this morning. Difficult as it is, it is a struggle well worth having. It has sustained our people for generations. May it continue to do so for generations to come.