Torah from around the world #207


Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan

, Congregation Shaare Shalom, Kingston, Jamaica

The observance and remembrance of Shabbat is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. It is a perpetual covenant between God and the Israelites (Exodus 31:13–17). As Jews, we know this and we respect this. As Progressive Jews, we believe that we have the intellectual right and indeed the religious obligation to interpret this commandment in the light of modernity.

Because of this assumption, we might expect to see Shabbat described in exclusively spiritual terms in the Torah. But this is not so. In fact, we find what appears – to modern eyes – to be a shocking statement in the Book of Exodus. In this week’s parsha, Yayakel, chapter 31, verse 14, it is written, “You shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin.” (JPS new translation). This is, of course, only one of several capital crimes for the violation of ritual commandments. But somehow it strikes us as much more jarring than the same punishment for encroaching on the sanctuary or Mount Sinai, to bring two other examples.

It strikes moderns as so shocking because it insists on a criminal punishment – the ultimate punishment in fact – on what we see as a personal religious observance. And religious observances, we instinctually feel, are matters of the heart. As a Progressive Rabbi, I want people to observe Shabbat. But I want them to do so because they want to do so, not because I want them to do so and certainly not because they are afraid of criminal penalties.

I point this out precisely because I worry that others do not do so. We want to be devoted to our religion and not just a vague sense of Jewish culture or Jewish peoplehood. It is therefore so important for us to understand what it means to be a Progressive Jew in terms of how we understand the Bible and what the implications of that approach are. Otherwise we should not complain when Reform Jews resign from our congregations to join Chabad. It’s just another form of Judaism and if they find it more meaningful or more convenient, then what is the harm?

There is no harm if the person is a fundamentalist but it is certainly unfortunate if it is a Jew who is open to scholarship but has not been taught what the scholarly consensus is concerning the Bible and how those theories can be molded into a modern religious perspective. This is the key intellectual insight which characterizes a Progressive Jew.

But let us turn to the subject at hand. What does the Torah say about the Sabbath? Shabbat is first mentioned in the creation narrative, where the seventh day is set aside as a day of rest. The day was made holy by God (Genesis 2:2–3). Later, it is explained as a sign representing two separate events.

First, the seventh day on which God rested after having completed the Creation in six days. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.” And what is the reason given? “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:8–11).

The second reason given is that it is the day to remember the Israelites’ deliverance from the Land of Egypt. Although it begins with a different verb, the passage begins with much of the same information given above. “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work –you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do.” But then it gives an entirely different explanation from the one offered in Exodus. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12–15).

These texts are ancient and they have sanctity and holiness because they have been studied lovingly by many generations of Jews. But the words are not literally word for word and letter for letter from God and they are therefore not sacrosanct. Even if they were, we are not Karaites and we do not believe that the Torah must be observed literally.

So we face the daunting task of building a religiously inspiring theology of the Sabbath and a method of applying that theology in a practical workable manner. This is indeed the challenge of our generation. Without a compelling religious reason to observe Shabbat in a serious manner, Judaism has no chance of survival in a society with so many other options.

The various Progressive movements around the world have attempted to explain why we need to observe Shabbat. Certainly, we remember Shabbat through our prayers in the synagogue. On both Friday night and Saturday morning, we read tefillot in both Hebrew and English that provide theological justification for our observances. We read how God has commanded us to abstain from work on the Sabbath day and we do so, not because we fear punishment, but in order to take delight in the blessings that pour forth from the divine presence. But our efforts are by no means complete. We struggle to convince our fellow Progressive Jews to both remember and observe Shabbat – not just once in a while, but every week. And not just for one hour on Friday night, but for the entire Shabbat.

That is the religious challenge facing our generation. Nothing less than the future of Progressive Judaism hangs in the balance.

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