As Winter Falls, a Time To Learn From the Orthodox

The Polymath

By Jay Michaelson

Published November 28, 2007, issue of November 30, 2007.
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As daylight-saving time ends and the winter approaches in earnest, Shabbat begins to be inconvenient again. In the northeastern United States, it now begins at four, even three in the afternoon Friday, early enough to encroach on the workday, and render the day a little bit useless. For families with children, the Sabbath now starts so early as to interfere with school — not to mention the ever-widening array of after-school activities, from test prep to tennis, tutoring to therapy.

No surprise, then, that in most congregations, Friday night services begin well after the onset of the Sabbath — just as, in the summer, they began well before it. In America, we need our prayer services to fit our schedules; it’s hard enough coordinating multiple iCals and Palm Pilots without religious observance being a temporal wildcard.

In Orthodox communities, however, people somehow seem to manage. There, because of the belief that the Sabbath, with its various restrictions on activity, begins and ends according to the sun, Shabbat really does begin at 4 p.m., or 8 p.m., or whenever the stars and sun do their daily dance. Orthodox Shabbat feels very different in the winter from the summer: In January, Saturday afternoon is abrupt, with barely enough time to nap and eat a “third meal,” which often consists of the bare minimum: bread. In June, the day lingers on, seeming never to end, and ruining any plans to go to the theater Saturday night. And yes, it messes with your schedule.

As the title of this column suggests, I think that’s a good thing. I think all of us who observe the Sabbath — not necessarily according to Jewish law, or Halacha, with no electricity or cooking, but in some way setting aside one day a week for being human beings instead of human doings — should learn from the Orthodox, and let our schedules be subject to the stars once a week.

To start with, I like that winter Shabbat feels different from summer Shabbat. The variation connects me to the cycles of the earth, reminds me that Judaism is an earth-based religion, tied not to urban convenience but to the rhythms of the seasons and the sun. Shabbat is meant to feel different at different times in the year — just as we are. We are earth-creatures (adam), made of and affected by the earth (adamah), and our religion knows that. If nothing else, the variation in tone also keeps the ritual fresh.

Second, and perhaps more important, letting Shabbat be Shabbat, instead of a schedule item to fit into the weekly grid, reorders priorities in a way that is spiritually and communally important. On an individual level, it forces me to set my own priorities straight. As readers of this column know, I work a lot, in several different fields, and without the forced interruption of the Sabbath, I might just work through the weekend, too. Surrendering to the schedule of Shabbat turns off the work machine, which is necessary for my better parts — the more loving, more human parts — to open. Jewish practice, whether religious or secular, isn’t meant to cater to our preferences; it’s meant to shape those preferences, educate us to be more ethical or more holy. It can’t do that when Judaism is itself molded around the whims and predilections of our agenda.

Communally, we’ve all seen how the de-prioritization of religion and/or Jewish culture devalues the thing itself. How seriously are children supposed to take Jewishness when Jewish observance is subordinated to convenience? And how is a community supposed to cohere when we are all on different schedules, sandwiching the Jewish bits in between divergent wants and needs that pull us in a hundred different directions? Sociologists have observed that the decline of Conservative Jewish community can in part be traced to that movement’s decision to allow driving on Shabbat — a decision that spelled the end of the “Jewish neighborhood” and the fragmenting of Jewish community in the suburbs. Well, neighborhoods are temporal as well as spatial. If Shabbat is, as Heschel said, a “cathedral in time,” it’s a community center, as well. We dismantle it at our peril.

Now, none of this is meant to deny the importance of summertime family services or wintertime davening, which starts a little bit later. The former lets families put their kids to bed on time, and the latter lets harried working people rest and shower before heading off to shul. These are good things. Judaism is all about meeting people where they are — it doesn’t reside in heaven, and doesn’t legislate for angels. The question, then, is one of extent: Are we accommodating, or are we bending over backward? Are we making life easier, or too easy?

But neither am I advocating an Orthodox, or even necessarily religious, lifestyle. While my own religious practice resembles an Orthodox one — except for an open celebration of sexuality, and a few compromises around the edges — my theology is extremely un-orthodox, and my affiliation is nondenominational. The title of this column is “learning from the Orthodox,” not “learning how to be Orthodox.”

Indeed, all the foregoing reasons and rationales are, to an Orthodox Jew, somewhat superfluous: If God commanded the Sabbath observance, then it’s not so important what costs or benefits we happen to perceive. Indeed, it can be counterproductive even to think this way, because what happens if the benefits don’t outweigh the costs? Personally, however, I’m interested in religion on functional, not mythical, terms: What does it do, how does it transform, in what ways does it loosen, and bind. If Shabbat works, in the ways I’ve described, I’m not so concerned with what God commanded and didn’t. If your Sabbath consists of reading a good book Friday evening, and it accomplishes the goals you’ve set for it, then I don’t care what Good Book you read, or whether you bless the kiddush wine afterward. What matters is the result.

Even if your practice is Orthodox in form, to me one of the great gifts of the Jewish tradition is how little it cares what you believe, in contrast with how you act. Today, under the influence of faith-based Christianity, many Orthodox rabbis suggest that certain beliefs — the divinity of the Torah, the election of the Jews — are litmus tests for whether you’re a kosher Jew or not. But this is an innovation. Opinions do matter a little bit, but talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words.

In fact, the classical distinction between “good” Jews and not-so-good Jews was not believer and heretic, but shomer shabbos (someone who keeps, literally “guards,” the Sabbath) and mechalel shabbos (someone who desecrates it). I won’t go so far as to suggest that when we “fit Shabbat in” and flatten its natural variations, we desecrate the Sabbath itself. But we’re not quite protecting it, either. More important, to paraphrase Ahad Ha’am, we’re not letting it protect us.

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