Is Keeping Shabbat A Choice?

A version of this article originally appeared in the Texas Jewish Post.

I find Shabbat dinner to be the perfect setting for those deep philosophical conversations that happen so rarely these days. We’re all so busy with work, family, technology and never-ending errands that finding the time or space to have meaningful conversations is becoming more and more difficult.

For all of our modern distractions, Shabbat has the answer with its spirit of calm and quiet. The candle-lit, technology-free Shabbat dinner provides the perfect setting for people to come together and discuss issues of the day as well as matters of the spirit.

It was one such Friday night and the conversation at our Shabbat table turned toward the benefits of halacha, Jewish law.

“The Shabbat, with its many rejuvenating benefits to self, family and community might possibly be my favorite mitzvah (commandment) of the Torah,” I shared with my guests.

“That being said, and this might come as a surprise to you, but if not for the fact that halacha obligates me to keep Shabbat, I don’t know that I would chose to keep it each and every week.”

“There are times when I’m exhausted by the end of the week and, if given the choice, might take the weekend off instead of prepping and readying for Shabbat.”

“There are Shabbatot when my favorite sports team is playing in a pivotal playoff game and all I want to do is follow the action.”

“Essentially, it is the binding nature of halacha that compels me to always put the observance of Shabbat above everything else, and ultimately reap its rewards.”

My guests looked stunned.

Most were stunned by my admission that my personal will might not always echo halachic jurisprudence*. But one particular guest looked less stunned than genuinely confused.

“How can you say that you are not ‘choosing’ to keep Shabbat?” my bewildered guest inquired with more than a hint of disbelief in his voice. “No one is compelling you to keep it! You are choosing to keep it even as we sit here at this very moment!”

His question was so simple on the one hand and yet so complex on the other that I found myself at a sudden loss for words (something we rabbis aren’t used to!). You see, inasmuch as he’s technically right that I choose to observe Shabbat, this choice didn’t and doesn’t feel like other life choices.

Shnitzel or hamburger from the lunch menu certainly feels like a personal choice, as does electing to go with Cupcake Blue as the paint color for the living room. Embracing Shabbat observance, on the other hand, seems more like opting into a value system than anything else, and therefore functions as a choice of a wholly different sort.

To the halachically observant Jew, Shabbat observance is understood as part of G-d’s moral code. Do I choose, then, to observe the Shabbat, or do I more affirm its moral character and therefore feel myself compelled to its observance? It seems to me to be the latter, and the word “choose,” then, just seems out of place.

I found myself contemplating my guest’s question throughout the following week and troubled with why I had found it so difficult to piece together a cogent response at the Shabbat table.

Enter professor and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his revelatory The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt had discovered in his time in university that the modern Western student perceived morality almost entirely through the limited prisms of two principles, one relating to harming others and another relating to fairness. The outgrowth of this kind of thinking: if something is fair and does no harm it is morally permissible.

Haidt points out that there are at least three other dimensions of the moral life as understood in non-Western cultures. One is loyalty and its opposite, betrayal. Another is respect for authority and its opposite, subversion. The third is the need to establish protective walls around certain non-negotiable values. These are things we call sacred.

This, I came to understand, is why I had such difficulty explaining my thoughts to my guest. We truly come from two very different moral universes and speak two very different moral languages.

Through my friend’s Western eyes, Shabbat observance was a choice because it had nothing to do with fairness or harm. No one would be harmed if I took the Shabbat off, nor would it negatively tilt the scales of fairness. It therefore had nothing to do with morality per se. It was, rather, a choice, perhaps a good one at that, to practice Jewish ritual.

But in my moral universe, the Torah as my guide, the observance of the Shabbos was most certainly a moral commitment, rooted in my sense of loyalty and submission to G-d, and in the belief that I ought not profane that which is hallowed.

If I wanted to ever explain my point of view to my Shabbos guest, I would have to do much more than speak words. I would have to introduce my friend to a whole new way of thinking about morality.

I write all the above not to denigrate those who don’t observe the Shabbat fastidiously, nor to raise those who keep the Shabbat on high. We are all, hopefully, on our own paths up the holy mountain.

Rather, I feel it’s time that we reexamine our moral palates and make sure we’re sensitive to all of Judaism’s moral notes. We need those notes of fairness and harm, so esteemed in our times, and we need to take a second look at loyalty, respect for authority and the world of the sacred so revered in our time-honored tradition.

*It’s worth noting that the convergence of human and divine wills is considered a high spiritual plane that we should all aspire to. See Pirkei Avos 2:4: “Make His will your will.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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