Shelves in my local library are filled with fictional books set in Amish communities. Considering that there are only about 250,000 Amish in North America, they are way over represented in current literature. I confess to enjoying many of these books. I am obviously not the only one to feel that way. Why are so many of us fascinated by foreign cultures?
Partially because we enjoy peering into the lives of people who live among us but who follow intriguingly different paths.
I am far more cautious about non-fiction. Once, while traveling through Utah, I noticed a book written by a woman who grew up in the Latter Day Saint community but was no longer a part of it. Before purchasing it, I checked with the store owner that it was a loving and respectful depiction rather than a vengeful attack. It was. Every community has its warts, but there is a difference between acknowledging those and distorting the truth in a mission to magnify the negatives of a lifestyle that is a blessing to many.
Books abound about the Orthodox Jewish community. Since I know this community rather well, I am more critical about these books. Actually Orthodox Jews comprise a broadly defined group consisting of dozens of sub-communities, all of which enjoy their own small theological and behavioral distinctions. Sometimes I spot foolish inaccuracies by authors whose research was inadequate; other times the author has a hostile agenda. Many of these books do not accurately depict my life but nonetheless are authentic expressions of the author’s community, with its own unique blessings and challenges.
This brings me to Ivanka and Jared (Trump) Kushner. They are conspicuously visible while openly identifying as Orthodox Jews. The few times that they have traveled with the President by car or plane on the Sabbath has made national news in a way that I find misleading and confusing. Within the larger Jewish community, their actions spark loud controversy. Since many of my readers are interested in Jewish life, I thought you might enjoy getting a bit of an inside look as to what is actually taking place.
First, the confusing terminology: I’m reading in the press is that the couple got a ‘dispensation’ to travel by car or plane, an activity that is forbidden on Shabbat. That language makes me smile. I grew up a block from a convent, a Catholic Church, and a Catholic school. To my understanding, dispensation is a Catholic term. There is no such thing in Judaism.
There is also no pope in Judaism. There is no single ultimate Jewish authority who has the universally accepted final word. Broadly speaking, Orthodox Jews voluntarily choose to align with a specific stream of Orthodoxy, each of which has its own leaders. On broad issues these leading rabbis often make decisive statements. On most questions individual rabbis have tremendous autonomy and people have the choice whether or not to follow their views. Jews whose spiritual roots are in one Orthodox community would not rely on a ruling by a rabbi from another branch and vice-versa.
Ideally we each accept one leader as our own rabbi and when questions arise, this is the figure to whom we turn and whose guidance we accept. The relationship is by necessity a personal one as many questions can only be answered on a personal level – one can never apply an answer given to one specific person to any other person. For example, while there is no question that pork is not kosher, questions arise all the time about more nuanced kosher questions. Many factors are taken into account when answering these questions including how much of a financial loss is entailed if the item isn’t kosher, quantities of ingredients involved and the chemical composition of the utensils used in cooking. The more unique and personal the question is, the more individually nuanced is the answer. I have watched my husband and father-in-law spend innumerable anguished hours trying to find the correct conclusion to a difficult question that was posed to them.
Ivanka and Jared, like all Jews, have the option to choose the rabbi they want to follow. Once they ask him a question, they not only may listen to him but they should listen to him. They have the responsibility of asking someone whose authority they verify and trust and he has the responsibility of doing all the necessary research, consulting with those more learned than he, and reaching a conclusion on whatever question he was asked. Another rabbi may indeed have come to a different conclusion. God is the final judge. It is in His hands to react in this world or the next one. There is no room for human backseat driving by those who don’t know all the facts.
Sabbath observance is a basic tenet of the Torah. It is the 4th Commandment and a huge deal. However, there are sometimes competing obligations. For example, our son was born on the Sabbath. We drove to the hospital because from the moment I went into labor I was in a special category. Since the chances of having a baby on Shabbat are pretty high, my husband and I had, in advance, asked our rabbi all sorts of questions including things such as whether we should be driven by a non-Jew and how to handle documents the hospital would require us to sign. The Israeli military deals with questions of Shabbat all the time as do many Jewish medical professionals.
Jared and Ivanka’s situation is unusual. The president of the United States whose actions could have enormous impact, depends upon them. It appears that they asked a certain rabbi for guidance and were told that the competing obligations in their case indicated that they should prioritize the need to drive or fly above Orthodox Shabbat observance. They would probably also have been advised on how to do what they had to do in ways that minimized the extent of Sabbath violation. There is no assurance that another rabbi would have responded in the same way but since only their rabbi was in possession of all the facts, anyone else’s view is largely irrelevant. In following their rabbi’s guidance, they have acted in accordance with Orthodox Jewish tradition. Furthermore, it is nobody else’s business.
Except that it is. Since Sinai, Jews have made huge sacrifices to observe Shabbat. During the first part of the 20th century, Jews were routinely fired from their jobs for not showing up on Saturday. The accepted work week for those with limited English, no connections and poor or uncredentialed skills was Monday through Saturday. For Sabbath observant Jews, losing job after job sometimes meant watching their children not have enough to eat. Sadly, they sometimes were even fired by secular Jewish employers and pressured to lower their standards by relatives struggling to survive.
Even today, observing Shabbat often comes with professional and financial sacrifice. Yes, God is the final arbiter of success and amazingly frequently people overtly see the ‘payback,’ but in our human terms there is a cost. Exceptionally faithful Jews struggled mightily to observe Shabbat to the best of their ability in Nazi concentration camps and in the Soviet Gulag. Stories of Shabbat loyalty under punitively oppressive circumstances have been passed down from one generation to the next for many centuries.
For this reason, the Kushners’ behavior has evoked an emotional reaction from some Jews. Much of this has come from Jews who ignore Shabbat and who hate President Trump and everything about him. No attention ought to be paid to these individuals. There are others who are Shabbat observant but who care more about hating the president than about Torah values. Their criticisms of the Kushners should also be ignored. Finally, there are those who try mightily to observe the Shabbat and holy days and who have endured excruciatingly difficult conversations with and/or repercussions from bosses, clients, teachers and non-religious family members who object to their religious commitment. These Jews feel that Jared and Ivanka betrayed them by not using their unusual public platform to demonstrate the inviolability of Shabbat. They worry that they too will be directed to seek a “dispensation” just like the Kushners.
Knowing many people who have experienced emotionally intense encounters with family, friends and business associates over the Sabbath, I empathize with this concern. Perhaps sharing the above information might help. What do you think?