Earlier this week, I posted something on Twitter about an upcoming event at Temple Israel, which was to take place on 6:30pm on a Saturday evening. Unexpectedly, I received a “reply” Tweet from someone I did not know, who saw our event, and asked “How can you have this event when the Sabbath has not ended?” In other words, the person was asking how we could be driving to Temple, turning on our lights, cooking and serving food, etc when Shabbat would end at sunset. These are delicate conversations and I enter into it respectfully, trying to let the person (who I assume looked at Shabbat in an Orthodox interpretation) that there are other interpretations. My first response to him was a quote from a CCAR Responsa, meaning a rabbinic interpretation from our wisest Reform scholars about the issue of doing “work” on Shabbat:
“Our [meaning Reform Jew’s] list of ‘forbidden activities’ may differ from and be markedly smaller than that maintained by the traditional halakhah, but the spirit behind these prohibitions demonstrates that we regard the issue of Shabbat observance with the utmost seriousness.”
This is essentially what Reform Judaism is, understanding the spirit of a tradition [meaning the interpretation of law], taking it seriously, and then molding it to 21st century tradition [another interpretation of law]. Not unexpectedly, the person “tweeted” a reply to my response wherein he invoked the “39 melachot” (the 39 acts of work) which are, according to traditional halacha, prohibited on Shabbat. However, in so doing, he made an egregious error. Instead of discussing the importance of this interpretation, that the 39 melachot originate from the rabbis, not from the Torah, the person stated that these 39 melachot dated back to the times of the tabernacle, since Sinai, and that “all Jews” should abide by them.
Tweets only provide a certain number of characters, which were not enough to explain that the understanding that Talmud, the Oral Torah, comes from Sinai (whispered into Moses’ ear) is an invention, a theology, held only by certain denominations, mostly on the Orthodox scale. The more progressive Jewish denominations understand that the Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud, came to be between the 2nd and 5th century and were interpretations of the law, that hold value, but are not divine. I was also struck by the person’s view that “All Jews” should abide by them, meaning Orthodox interpretations.
As I continued to converse via tweets with this individual, I was reminded of how different our theological foundations can be within different denominations of Judaism. It can be confusing, even for a Rabbi, when a fellow Jew tells me I am not acting “Jewish.” I can only imagine, then, how it might feel for Jews without a seminary background, for Jews who have not had a chance to engage and wrestle with the Talmud, Midrash, or Mishnah, to understand why we do or do not wrap tefliiln, or where the idea of a mehitza or kashrut come from. This led me to think that perhaps next Fall, when we begin a new year of Adult Education classes, it might be helpful to study how and where these different interpretations of Judaic law come from. After all, if we are going to make informed choices about what defines us as Jews, we need to make sure we are informed.
I know it might seem like I’m getting ahead of myself, especially since we still have two more months of this year’s curriculum, but it’s never too early for a rabbi to start planning his post High Holy Day work! I’m already looking forward to the discussion and insight these conversations will bring!