Shabbat Is Not Orthodox

We are a diverse Jewish community. We hold different views on Israel. We have different understandings of Torah. There are a multitude of Jewish cultures. A bagel is no more universal a Jewish food than malawach. We also approach Shabbat in our own unique ways. Some of us, myself included, adhere to the traditional definitions of Shabbat observance marked by an abstention from 39 prohibited categories of labor as defined in the Talmud and their subcategories. While others celebrate Shabbat in less traditional ways.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote beautifully in The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man that:

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals…

We all construct different Sabbath cathedrals. A pluralistic Jewish community coupled with theological humility teaches us that we cannot proclaim another person’s Shabbat any less meaningful, impactful or valid for her or him. The institutions of Jewish communal life that strive to be conveners of broad Jewish discourse must broaden their own definitions of what it means to be Sabbath Observant. This has broad ramifications for not only the professionals and lay leaders who inhabit these spaces but it could positively reverberate throughout the Jewish communal world.

A concrete example: Let’s say the Shabbat policy at a particular Jewish communal organization is that those who keep a traditional Shabbat can leave work early on Fridays. What would it say to all the people who interact with that organization if the policy was that all those who celebrate Shabbat in their own unique ways can go home early on Fridays to prepare? What does the original policy say to all the Jews who do not keep a traditional Shabbat ordered by halakha (Jewish law) about who Shabbat is for? Shabbat is not only the inheritance and treasure of the Orthodox and other halakha observing Jews. Shabbat is the jewel of the entire Jewish people. A truly pluralistic understanding of what it means to celebrate Shabbat would invite all Jews to consider what this precious gift of time could mean to their lives.

Let us invite all Jews to become builders of cathedrals of sacred time. Let each Jew be the architect of their Sabbath. Jewish communal organizations through the policies they implement on who counts as Sabbath Observant can be harbingers of a new era of embrace of the treasure that is the Sabbath.

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