Sermon: To Keep or to Remember: Which Shabbat, UK?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 24 October 2015

I am not a massive lover, or user, of Twitter.  I am a passive twitterer – I follow a select few people, and like to see what they write.  But, as a rule, I don’t feel I have the time or brain space for most of what is there, and even less to add my own two-pennies.

What I am interested in, though, is the concept of hashtags.  They are a very clever idea – they enable the creation of a broad conversation, and wide interaction about a particular subject.  Allowing us to see themes, and to create memes.  And while normally the choice of a hashtag can be deeply mundane, they can also be very funny too.

The thing about hashtags is that they also, sometimes inadvertently, articulate the essence of something – what is really going on.  They narrow in on what is really being expressed.
And this is definitely true of the “Chief Rabbi’s Shabbat UK”.
Before I go on, I must say that much about Shabbat UK is very, very impressive indeed.

The clear articulation that as Jews Shabbat can be, should be, important in our lives, and reaching out with that idea beyond those who already live it.  This is hugely welcome.

The focus, particularly for this year’s event, on the invasion of technology into every aspect of our lives, especially the mobile telephone, is truly great.  I know that for many members of this congregation, the sense that here on Shabbat should be, can be, a place where that can be escaped is very important… hence the emphasis on that in our shul sheet, and our request that phones not be used in Alyth on Shabbat.

There is also, in Shabbat UK, a very welcome sense of pluralism and choice.  Shabbat UK is one of the few places where mainstream UK Orthodoxy actually, if grudgingly, recognises the existence of choice, of option, of personal autonomy: a message that says you may choose to do this, or do that, it states.  The possibility of us expressing options in our Jewish lives, especially around Shabbat, is not something normally associated with this part of our community.   It is true – it is just a reality of our lives – but not acknowledged.  So, that Shabbat UK says this is surprising, and excellent.   It is, in fact, hugely important, because otherwise we risk a polarisation of experience of Shabbat, one we see in Israel, where, to quote Amos Oz, ruefully: “The Israeli Shabbat nowadays is either a religious one in synagogues or spent in shopping centres”.

Because of all this, Shabbat UK is genuinely admirable.  I really mean it.  I’m actually a bit jealous.  And more than a little miffed that we are not part of it.
With that jealousy comes some sadness, too.
Because Shabbat UK was, briefly, one of those spaces where there maybe, maybe, could have been room for a genuine nationwide, cross-communal message and event.
But that was not the choice that the Office of the Chief Rabbi made.
When we expressed our willingness and desire to come together in a broader celebration of Shabbat, this was not well received.

And the reason is revealed in the hashtag – #ShabbatUK #keepingittogether

It may seem quite neutral, but actually it is pretty loaded.
Not the ‘together’ bit.  The together bit is fine…
Together is part of our brand: “Alyth. To pray, to learn, to live, together”.
In fact ‘together’ is part of Judaism’s brand.  Together is the special thing about our religious life, our desire to come together in community, our ability to come together as a people across national borders, our sharing of heritage and values.  Together is fine.

But in the ‘Keeping’ and in the ‘It’ there is something else.

The ‘it’ because Shabbat UK treats Shabbat as an ‘it’ – as a defined thing that we experience, that we do (or not), not as an evolving, dynamic organism in which we are in constant relationship.  The German Jewish thinker of the early twentieth century, Martin Buber, argued that we can describe our relationships as either ‘I-it’ or ‘I-thou’.  ‘I-it’ relationships are ones that are with something discrete and separate, they are experiential relationships of the other.  ‘I-thou’ relationships are ones that are not between subject and object, but living, interactive relationships.  And this is what Shabbat should be, and can be.  An evolving, dynamic part of our lives – a question for us, a challenge to us, a changing pattern of interaction with a constantly dynamic other.  Not a thing to do.  There is something of this in Ahad Ha-Am’s famous quote, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews” – we are in an ever evolving relationship with an ever evolving thou of Shabbat.

Of course, I get that ‘it’ is also just a third-person, singular neuter pronoun.
And that keepingthoutogether would’ve made no sense.

But when you put the ‘it’ with the ‘keeping’, this expresses a vision of what our relationship with Shabbat should be like.
Keeping Shabbat – not celebrating, not enjoying, not sanctifying… Keeping.

Underlying this word, ‘keeping’, is a model of Shabbat which explains why this could never be a real cross-communal event.  ‘Keeping’ explains why on the Shabbat UK literature, with its almost pluralistic text and vision of what Shabbat can be, it also contains the line “You may be keeping a full Shabbat”… with its implied hierarchy of observance.

Keeping is about a paradigm of law.
Keeping is about a model in which we have this hierarchy of Shabbat observance in which the ideal is keeping to a full, specific and detailed set of laws, deviation from which is lesser.

Keeping is about turning off our mobile phones because using them is breaking Shabbat the ‘it’, that is given to us… not because the ‘thou’ of Shabbat demands that we create a separate space and time which is distinctive and special, and we exist in our own context and must constantly be in a dialogue with Shabbat in which we find what holy can mean for us.

Keeping is actually what creates the very dichotomy that Amos Oz described, in which one either keeps or does not keep – there is a good ‘full Shabbat’ and a lesser other.

You may think that I am reading a little too much into it.  This is not impossible.  It has been known.
But there is a reason that I don’t think I am.
Ours is a world in which words mean a lot.  A world in which every choice of language is powerful and meaningful.  A world in which every phrase alludes to its use in millennia of tradition and literature.
In this world, ‘to keep’ Shabbat means this concept of observance, the negative keeping, not the positive creating.

In the Torah we find two different versions of the commandment of Shabbat.  In the Deuteronomy version of the Ten Commandments we read: “Shamor et yom hashabbat l’kadsho” – keep Shabbat to make it holy.  The rabbis understand this to mean the negative aspect of Shabbat – the commandment not to do things, not to work
In the Exodus version we read “Zachor et yom hashabbat l’kadsho” – remember Shabbat to keep it holy, which the rabbis understand to mean the positive activities of Shabbat – making Kiddush and Havdalah, oneg Shabbat – making Shabbat a delight.
A meaningful Shabbat, of course, has to have an element of both, but we do have two different paradigms of what Shabbat is about.  The ‘keep’ paradigm becomes the very specific, detailed set of instructions about how ‘not to break’ the Shabbat rules.  And it is that Shabbat to which the Shabbat UK hashtag knowingly refers.  Not, as it could have been #RememberingShabbattogether.

Let me stress – this is not meant to bash the Shabbat UK model.  There is much there to admire.  More people enjoying Jewish life is a good thing.  The majority of the Shabbat UK brand is ‘Zachor’ Judaism.  It is the positive, that which all Jews in all denominations share – the desire to create a special, distinctive, time, informed by Jewish heritage.  And as such, it can and should have been shared throughout the whole community.  The Chief Rabbi should have been delighted to share this Shabbat with us.

But if a hashtag articulates the essence of something, then #Keepingittogether reveals an aspect to Shabbat UK which we cannot all share: one that treats Shabbat as a defined it, as a set of rules to keep ‘in full’; not as an ever-evolving, dynamic thou, a source of enriching peaceful delight.
The Shabbat that I cherish is the latter.  #Zachoretyomhashabbat.
It is in that sense that I wish you all… Shabbat shalom.