Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Shabbat and the Shul

Twice in the last two parshiot the Torah (Shemot 31:13 and 35:2-3) enjoins us to keep the Shabbat. In each of these instances Rashi notes the proximity between the commandment to keep the Shabbat and to build the Mishkan as a lesson that the building of the Mishkan does not supersede the laws of resting on the Shabbat. In fact, the template for the laws of Shabbat is based on its juxtaposition to the Mishkan. The Gemara in Shabbat (97b) derives the 39 categories of forbidden work on Shabbat from the work that was done in the construction of  the Mishkan. Why is there this apparent fixation in connecting the work of the Mishkan to the Shabbat? Furthermore, why does the Shabbat override the work of the Mishkan and not vice verse? 


Nehama Leibowitz cites the classic book, The Sabbath by Professor A.J. Heschel to answer these questions. Heschel notes that Man is bent on conquering space and increasing the number of things under his control. This is the first commandment G-d gives to Man in the very first chapter of Bereishit, "Fill the Land and Conquer It." Similarly, The Rav in Lonely Man of Faith observed that this is the goal of Adam I, Technological Man. However, in his desire to collect things, man can become enslaved to these very things. It is for this reason that G-d in the culmination to the creation of the world did not make a Holy Space but a Holy Time. The Sabbath is the first thing described by the Torah as being Holy. 


This is radically different from other religious world-views which focus on holiness in space, a Mountain or Temple for G-d. Judaism focuses on holiness in Time. The Sabbath, our palace in Time, is created first and overrides any holy space. In fact, the creation of a Holy Space, first the Mishkan and then the Beit Hamikdash, seems to be only a concession to the needs of Man. Only after Benay Yisrael sinned with the Golden Calf did Moshe command them to build a Holy Space for G-d, the Mishkan. Even then, Moshe emphasizes again and again that this Holy Space is superseded by the even holier palace in Time, the Shabbat.


This lesson still resonates with us today. It is ironic that A.J Heschel who so eloquently argued for G-d's Palace in Time as overriding any Holy Space is associated with the Conservative movement which did the opposite as it abrogated various areas of Shabbat in favor of the centrality of the Synagogue. Ismar Schorsch, the previous chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, noted that the big mistake of the Conservative movement was when it ruled half a century ago to allow Jews to drive to Shul on Shabbat. His reason was not because of the blatant disregard of Halakha that this ruling entailed but rather because the Conservative movement "“gave up on the desirability of living close to the synagogue and creating a Shabbos community.”

It is interesting to examine what he is saying in light of A.J. Heschel's elegant rhetoric. By allowing the Holy Space, the Synagogue, to supersede the Holy Time, the Shabbat, the Conservative movement ultimately failed to create "Shabbos communities", holy spaces where Jews can live and socialize together in close proximity to each other. Today, we talk often about various Orthodox Jewish communities where everyone lives within a 2-mile radius of an Orthodox shul which they can walk to on Shabbat. These people not only meet in shul but socialize together by eating at each other's houses, inviting each other's children for play dates etc. as they all live in the same neighborhood. We rarely discuss similar Conservative or Reformed Jewish communities because people tend to live within a 20 mile radius of each other and therefore have little interaction except in the Synagogue.

Another point made by Heschel which is especially relevant today is his message about Man's desire to use technology or "things" to conquer the world and the need to desist from it one day a week, on the Shabbat. In many discussions that I have had with my students and my colleagues in Jewish education this theme comes up again and again.

Technology such as computers and cell phones were created by Man to make our lives easier. We often can communicate messages more efficiently with a text than with a phone conversation. We can reach a much wider audience on a blog, Facebook account, or Twitter feed than we could ever hope to reach through face-to-face discussions. However, how many of us feel that instead of controlling these technologies, these technologies control us? If the first thing we do when we wake up and the last thing we do before we go to sleep is check our smartphone then the technology is controlling us. Shabbat is our special gift from G-d, our Palace in Time, when we take a step back and regain control over our own lives by giving up on our drive to use technology to control our world.

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