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Plugging in Differently on Shabbat

As we enter the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah and hope for peace, I’m reminded of a Union for Reform Judaism blog post of a few weeks ago, Our Plugged in Shabbat. In the piece, the author, Rabbi Victor Appell, a Hebrew Union College-trained rabbi (the rabbinical school of the Reform movement) and the URJ’s Congregational Marketing Director, discussed how feeble Shabbat had started to feel for his family (rabbi, life partner, and two adopted school-age kids.) The problem? Too many sports practices and games, friend visits, and other extra-curricular activities scheduled on Fridays and Saturdays. The solution? Let his school-age kids watch TV and play video games only on Shabbat.

Ouch. How do you even begin to unpack that? The rabbi says his family feeels happier now on Shabbat, but is that because Shabbat feels more like Shabbat, or because Shabbat has been completely beaten into submission?

Reading the post (and please do!), it’s clear the problem is not Shabbat–it’s the many activities scheduled over Shabbat for the rabbi and his family. If you’re feeling that you’re missing Shabbat and that your family is as well (must I really write, “and you’re a rabbi”?), wouldn’t you try to instill a little bit more of, frankly, Shabbat into Shabbat?

How about uncrowding the weekend? Taking a pass of some of those extra-curricular activities? Making quiet time to bond with each other and your Jewish heritage just little bit more from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday? If your family weekend Shabbat is too plugged in already, why not unplug it and see what happens?

Of course Rabbi Appell’s solution makes his kids feel happy on Shabbat. Force your kids to turn off their TVs and Xboxes all week and only let them take them out on Shabbat and I guarantee they’ll look forward to Shabbat too. But I’ll also guarantee you they sure won’t be looking forward to Shabbat because it’s the Jewish Sabbath.

Kids whine. Sports coaches complain. Sometimes there’s just too much to do in one day or one weekend. We can’t do everything we want to. Sometimes we have to let some things go. That’s the way that life is. We do the best we can, make the best decisions we know how to make, and hope they work out well, and keep moving forward.

As Jews, we make those decisions informed by God, tradition, and Jewish values proven by polishing against daily life over more than 3,000 years. Given that, I would be lying if I didn’t say I find it heartbreaking for anyone looking to increase their family’s sense of Shabbat to do that by enabling behavior that makes Shabbat even more secular, more tenuous, and less Jewish.

As a Jew who davens in a Reform synagogue, however, for a Reform rabbi and URJ official to publicly celebrate letting their kids check out even further on Shabbat is something I find embarrassing for the movement. Is completely checking out of a Jewishly-inspired Shabbat really the message the URJ wants to send in this era of a “New Paradigm”? Is this really what new URJ President Rick Jacobs had in mind in all that talk about reinvigorating Reform Judaism and re-engaging with our Jewish youth?

Actually, of course not. I’m happy that Rabbi Appell has peace on Friday and Saturday in his family now. Being together as happy family is wonderful. But stripped of the meaning of the Jewish Sabbath, his solution is not a Jewish one. There are ways to find peace and harmony as a Jewish family on the weekend that don’t throw Shabbat out with the kiddush wine. How I wish Rabbi Appell had chosen a solution like that.

If anyone out there is trying to explore a greater sense of Shabbat with their Jewish families, I ask you to do two things. First, read Rabbi Appel’s post. And then do the opposite. We have a rich and wonderful tradition.  Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is quiet down our lives in order to hear the still, small voice. Neither God–nor Shabbat–was in the fire. May you be brave enough to sit still long enough to find the Jewish inspiration you seek.

Shabbat Shalom.

Categories: JEWISH OBSERVANCE Reform Judaism

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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2 replies

  1. For better or worse, when you choose non-Orthodox/Progressive Judaism you have to accept that people will do things differently from you, sometimes (as here) even seeming to do things “in reverse”. Who knows, maybe out there somewhere there’s a Reform Jew who gave up every meat BUT pork. This is probably why the most oft-cited reason I’ve heard from the not-totally-observant Orthodox “laity” is because in Orthodoxy, “you know what you’re doing wrong”. Equally, anyone in PJ who goes about doing things in an “Orthodox” manner is, as I think you know well, laying themself open to criticism, either from the less observant who will think you’re being fundamentalist or ostentatious, or from the Orthodox (or anyone else), who will think you are picking and choosing or faking it. (Just in the last week, I have twice been (half-?)jokingly labelled a “fake” Jew by well-intentioned non-Jewish friends as I have started to dress indistinguishably from the Orthodox barring the pink, and other colourful, shirts, and matching kippot and ties.) As a fellow convert who also finds himself adopting (increasingly) “Orthodox” practices (though I haven’t yet graduated to laying tefillin), I know where you’re coming from. But in defence of the rabbi, I think we can establish he’s doing the following three Jewish things:

    1. Establishing a separation between Shabbat and the rest of the week;

    2. Creating shalom ha-bayit (peace in the home), both on Shabbat and the rest of the week (though I am slightly astonished that he managed to get the kids to agree to no tv or video games any day BUT Shabbat, as this means most of the week they are without them whereas Shabbat, even if followed to the letter of the law, is only 25 hours.) In his place, maybe I would have said “no tv, no video games on Shabbat, but ball games and swimming lessons are ok” (even many Orthodox shomrei Shabbat apparently play ball games on Shabbat, presumably only if there’s an eruv). But since I’m not Orthodox, not a rabbi and not part of his family, IMHO I don’t get to comment.

    3. He’s attempting to engage with the difficulty of observing Shabbat in a (necessarily) non-fundamentalist way, which, even if his solution is not to my taste, again IMHO is infinitely better (especially for a rabbi) than not bothering to keep Shabbat at all, which, in turn, and again in my perhaps increasingly less HO, is infinitely better than keeping up the pretence of keeping Shabbat whilst not actually doing it. In my case, if anyone asks whether I’m Orthodox, I answer, truthfully, “no,” whilst anyone who doesn’t ask is no more left in the dark than those who would assume, if I wore jeans, a t-shirt, no beard and no kippah, that I’m not Jewish. I’m also stuck with “looking Jewish” due to my physical appearance, despite the fact that I wasn’t “born that way”.

    Suppose this rabbi is a pulpit rabbi (one who leads services, which historically wasn’t necessarily the case). Suppose also that he’s a particularly lazy, shomer Shabbat Reform rabbi who does the minimum required of him, ie leads services but doesn’t visit the sick or give advice on observance. Like any rabbi, by Reform standards he “works” on Shabbat, but he hasn’t given any indication that either he and his partner (who could be a rabbi, a banker or a shop assistant for all we know) or his kids (who could have “Saturday jobs”), have ever expressed a wish to work (by the Reform definition) on Shabbat. Shabbat shalom!

    1. Hi, Jeffrey, and thanks for your comment. I do agree with these three points. Like you, I take issue with the rabbi’s response to the third point. My disappointment is not simply that one Jew makes such a decision. It’s that a Reform movement leader makes such a decision and then the movement promotes that decision without comment. Remembering the Sabbath and Shalom Ha-Bayit are good things. But just because we have peace on Shabbat doesn’t mean we’re truly marking Shabbat. That’s the slippery slope with Reform–because we don’t consider the halacha binding, some RJs would say we can call anything observance. I disagree. Reform still has standards, and I don’t see how these particular practices on Shabbat qualify as actually observing the Sabbath. I think our rabbis can and should do better.

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