Sermon – To keep Shabbat as a Reform Jew

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 5 March 2010

I have absolutely no idea what anyone in this room will be doing after we finish Kiddush today. I can make a guess for some of you – those I know well.  I’m pretty sure that both Arsenal and West Ham are at home today, so I know that some Alyth members will be aiming to be at the Emirates or Upton Park by 3.00.  For others, perhaps a trip to Brent Cross, or out for lunch.  Maybe just home to stick on the radio or TV, or do some writing – maybe the crossword But truthfully, I have no real idea.  And nor do you know what my plans are for the rest of the day.

In the big picture of Jewish life, this is really quite interesting.  It would certainly not have been the case 200 years ago.  And it would not be the case if this were a different kind of synagogue today; if I were a rabbi in a different section of the Jewish world. If I were a rabbi in a strictly Orthodox community, I would know exactly what the next few hours would involve for you – and you would know for me.  A walk home, lunch, maybe some zemirot – some Sabbath songs at the dinner table, probably an afternoon schluff, maybe some study, then seudah shlishit – afternoon tea – before concluding with Havdalah – at which point the TV or radio can come back on.  No TV till then.  No going to Brent Cross.  Certainly no trip to the Emirates or to Upton Park

They are two very different models of Shabbat.  So it is worth asking the question.  Of which model can we say that this is keeping the Mitzvah, the commandment to keep Shabbat which we read in today’s portion?

Now don’t rush in – it might be a trick question.

Because of course, the first model, our model (though it is worth noting that there are members of this community for whom the other is a pretty accurate description of their Shabbat), that first model includes all sorts of things that are generally understood as ‘breaking Shabbat’ – driving, spending money, turning on TV, writing – all we might think of as contravening the law for the Sabbath day.

But look again at what we read.  Here is what the Torah actually says:  Six days may work be done, but on the seventh there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal. No mention of what that might mean – no definition of work, no definition of rest.

So if we think of ourselves as breaking Shabbat, we do so because we are treating as authoritative a definition of work not found in Torah but found within rabbinic literature.  The prohibitions on carrying or writing are not in the Torah but are among what are known as the 39 melachot, the 39 areas of work outlined in the Mishnah, the compilation of Jewish legal traditions put down in about 200CE.

And as such they come out of an act of interpretation.  As those of you who joined me for the shiur this morning will have seen, the 39 melachot, are actually based on a juxtaposition found within a verse in Leviticus – you shall keep my Sabbaths and venerate my sanctuary – and especially in this morning’s Torah portion where the instruction not to work on Shabbat is found alongside the building of the Mishkan in the wilderness.  From this the rabbis deduced that the types of work associated with the building of the sanctuary are also the types of work from which we should refrain on Shabbat.

Now this is a leap that demonstrates the great interpretative genius of the rabbinic exercise.  Yet ultimately the love and fear with which they approached Torah led them to create a legal edifice on the basis of a literary feature.  Indeed even the rabbis of the Mishnaic period were themselves aware of the arbitrariness of the Sabbath laws they described.  The Mishnah describes the laws of Shabbat as like a mountain suspended from a hair, “for the Scripture for them is scanty and the laws are many”.  It is a wonderful image that reflects the reality of how the Shabbat laws came about.

So how authoritative should we consider not Shabbat itself but the way in which it has traditionally been observed?  We might choose to understand Torah in a different way.  In linking the building of the Mishkan with the importance of Shabbat, the Torah may have been pointing to another, more profound truth.  That what is important on Shabbat is not, truthfully, the legal definition of work but the nature of the human exercise.  Ours is a world in which we are constantly striving to build and create, as our ancestors built and created.  Rarely, in truth, do we do so for the sake of heaven, but more often for our own ends.  In such a world, a true day of rest, one which truly reflects God’s cessation from work following the Creation, is one in which we cease from aspiration and ambition, from striving and over-reaching, one on which we are at peace with ourselves.   As the twentieth century psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in his work ‘To Have or to Be?’  Is the Shabbat nothing but a day of rest in the mundane sense of freeing people… from the burden of work? [Rather] it is rest in the sense of the reestablishment of complete harmony between human beings and between them and nature.  Nothing must be destroyed and nothing built…  On Shabbat one lives as if one has nothing, pursuing no aim except being.

If this is true, then on Shabbat perhaps more than anywhere else in our ritual what is key it not the detail of our observance but the quality of the experience.  We may choose to express our Shabbat by becoming classically ‘shomrei Shabbat’.  In so doing we would certainly honour our formative tradition, and we would create a model for ourselves which does create a very different type of day, one in which nothing is destroyed and nothing built – not even a flower picked, or a picture painted.

Yet if we were to experience this form of Shabbat as an imposition rather than as a liberation, if in so doing our experience actually felt more like work than rest, then in so doing we could not say that we reflect the meaning of Torah.  I have lived a shomrei Shabbat life and have found it in parts rewarding.  Yet it has also at times felt arbitrary and unfulfilling.  There is nothing guaranteed about the quality of that experience.  By contrast, there are colleagues and congregants who can honestly say that they experience the type of Shabbat which Fromm describes without strict adherence to Halachah.

So what is the answer to the question of which model keeps Shabbat? The answer, I hope, should be both of us.  If Shabbat is best understood as a day of difference, as a day of rest, rather than as a legal structure, then this can surely be expressed in different ways.  What is crucial is not the nature of the activity that we engage in, but the intent and the quality of the experience for us.  And that we approach it with integrity informed by the core value expressed in the mitzvah:  that we should have a day different from all others to concentrate on that which is really important in our lives. I don’t know what you will all be doing this afternoon – and that is as it should be.  For there is no longer a single model of how Shabbat should be experienced To recognise this is not to devalue Shabbat but to see it its true importance – not as a list of laws, as a mountain suspended by a hair, but as one of the greatest gifts of our tradition. Shabbat Shalom