I Don’t Troll on Shabbos

Aron: Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time bashing: we ruined Hanukah, rejected our major communal institutions, and pointed why the High Holidays are boring. I took the time to look back at our “About” section and remembered that we had promised to talk about the things in Judaism we find inspiring. Granted, it’s harder to get a provocative headline out of inspiration, but I think it’s worth a pivot.

So: Shabbat. You keep it, I used to. What about it is meaningful to you? I remember reading Heschel’s The Sabbath around the time I returned to being shomer Shabbat (before later stopping again), and was struck by his words:

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

You’ve called me out for saying things like this before, but I can’t help but feel that Heschel is saying something “true,” even if I probably don’t believe in God the way he did. How do you think about your Shabbat observance? Do you have a clear theology underlying it, or are you moved by it, like Heschel, without necessarily knowing why? Neither? Both?

Allen: My beef with Heschel is simple. He doesn’t write clearly. Try paraphrasing the above passage into plain English, and you immediately realize the problem. For all the beauty of his prose, it’s not at all clear what he’s actually saying. Take Heschel’s stance on the revelation at Mount Sinai. Did it happen, or didn’t it? As a theologian, he owes it to us to state his position; but instead he waffles two contradictory answers at two different points in the same book. Studied ambiguity is a virtue in poets, but not philosophers. Rigorous thought ought to clear the waters, not muddy them. I’m looking for a theology we can sink our teeth into. That’s why my favorite American Jewish thinkers are Milton Steinberg and Richard Rubenstein. I disagree with both of them on key points; but at least I can be sure of what it is I’m disagreeing with.

On to the task at hand: justifying Shabbat observance. What’s called for here is a more general explanation why anyone ought to live a Jewish way of life, of which Shabbat makes up a small part. That’s obviously beyond the scope of a few paragraphs, so I’ll only offer a rough sketch. The short answer: Shabbat gives me a tool for living a more thoughtful and ethical life, and Shabbat places me inside of a story that’s larger than myself.

The long answer: There are at least two ways to justify any particular communal practice. Those are the demands of the moral life and the good life. By “moral life” I mean the obligations laid upon us by our relationships with other human beings. For example, I might make a New Year’s resolution to volunteer at least once a week. If you were to ask me why, I’d say: “This practice helps me pay back the claims I owe to other people,” and that explanation ought to satisfy anyone who goes by some form of the Golden Rule.

Many Jewish practices fall squarely under this heading. (Think of what we’ve been studying in Nezikin.) Dvarim quite explicitly states an ethical reason for the day of rest:

On Shabbat you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant […] so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt […] Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

The author links the past servitude of the Israelites with the present servitude of their households. Freedom from slavery confers obligations on oneself and one’s community. Shabbat and similar practices can turn abstract moral commitments into concrete realities. We don’t just think about slavery; we let our househ0ld rest — and in case we forget the moral of the story, the day’s restrictions remind us every time we’re tempted to check our phone, cook a meal, or hop on a train. This tendency toward the nitty-gritty, the tachlis, helps explain why there are practicing Shabbat communities but no practicing Kantian communities, say. I can observe a holiday; I can’t observe a philosophy.

I mentioned earlier that there were two types of justification for living out a practice: the moral life and the good life. To illustrate the distinction, take a look at the dispute between Kant and Aristotle. Kant thinks the ultimate goal of human beings is obedience to the Golden Rule. Aristotle takes a broader view; what makes life worth living isn’t just ethics, but eudaemonia — “human flourishing.” The many projects within our lives fit within a common narrative, and we achieve happiness by living out that narrative to the best of our ability. MacIntyre, Aristotle’s preeminent modern interpreter, puts it this way. He’s worth quoting at some length:

“Man is in his actions and practices, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”

This is a profound truth: we live through the stories we find ourselves in. Just like a wave requires a medium through which to flow, we need a background, a “tradition” in the broadest sense of the term, through which to live out our identities in all their richness.

Take wedding rings, for example. From a moral standpoint, that tradition doesn’t seem to serve a real purpose; it’s not as if many flawed marriages hang together on the strength of a few ounces of metal. But imagine suggesting to couples that they throw their rings away. Most, I think, would call you crazy. The ring is part of a story with a logic of its own– the story of the life in which friends and partners find themselves.

I’ve laid out the above argument in secular language, but Jewish sources could make the same case. We’re not alone, of course, in attempting to justify Jewish practice; the rabbis call this enterprise taamei Torah or taamei ha-mitzvot, the search for “the reasons for the commandments.” The tenth-century philosopher Saadya formalizes a distinction between mishpatim and chukim, rational commandments promoting the well-being of society, and non-rational commandments promoting proper worship. Maimonides takes the view in his Guide to the Perplexed that “the general object of the Torah is twofold: the well-being of the body and the well-being of the soul” (3:29). Similarly, I’m suggesting here that the general object of the Torah can be twofold: living a “moral life” (mishpat, the well-being of the body) and a “good life” (chok, the well-being of the soul).

One personal anecdote to close. I remember the first time I took the stairs instead of the elevator on Shabbat– frankly, to fit in with the observant crowd hosting me for lunch. In the moment, the whole thing seemed absurd to me. There’s no clear moral benefit to shlepping extra flights of steps; and besides, isn’t it more true to the restful spirit of Shabbat to move in and out the lobby without straining a muscle? I still don’t think that taking the stairs helps me live a moral life. But it does help me live a good life. Because between all those flights, I started to meet people to sweat and gasp for breath and laugh with — moving forward together, round and round, one story after another.

Go ahead– your turn. Thoughtful critiques? Ill-considered tirades?

Aron: Your story about the stairs sounds nice, but what if no one else had been on the stairs — would there have been any meaning for you in walking up instead of taking the elevator? What if the apartment had been ten floors higher? Did anyone else walking up the stairs share your Aristotelian understanding of Jewish praxis? While I like what you said about “the good life,” there seem to be some holes in your explanation.

First, you say that we need a “background… through which to express our identities in all their fullness.” This is begging the question. Judaism isn’t a background that allows us to fully explore some innate, exogenous identity. Judaism is a constructed identity, and ritual allows us to explore that construction because ritual is a built-in component of it. Ritual gives us an identity; it doesn’t reveal one.

Second, I think your argument falls prey to the same issue as Judaism as a Civilization: it’s overly theoretical. When you’re praying on Yom Kippur, are you thinking to yourself, “I am achieving happiness by living out that narrative to the best of my ability”? On Sukkot, when you’re waving your palm branch and citrus fruit, are you saying in your head, “I am both participating in and enacting an identity-constructing story”? Where is the sacredness?

This is the problem with abandoning Heschel. His writing is often circuitous and circular, but in being so it alludes to a central argument: we can platonify God and rationalize practice, but there are some parts of religious experience that feel “true,” even if we can’t justify them or express them clearly. Religion isn’t philosophy; it’s poetry.

You criticized me last week for saying I believed the axiom, “God exists wherever people let God in” without knowing necessarily whether I believe in God. I’d shoot back that requiring a theological framework before talking about God and holiness is backwards. We can’t theorize about God: we have no premises from which to begin. I can’t come up with a definition for sacredness generally; I can only experience a sacred moment. Ritual, at its best, pushes us to search for, embrace, and create those sacred moments. Tachlis isn’t just about concretizing a constructed identity through the medium with which it was constructed; it’s about making space for holiness, whether or not it exists.

Allen: Aron, thanks for the thoughtful critiques- some spot-on, others misplaced. I’ll make one general point before taking them one by one. Your main complaint against my account is that it’s “overly theoretical.” I disagree. Everything I wrote above boils down to two points: 1) Jewish practice can help us live more thoughtful and ethical lives, and 2) Jewish practice places us within a story that’s larger than ourselves. Neither of those claims are especially abstract, nor are they beyond the intellectual grasp of most Jews. But if I’d left my response at that, you would have rightly asked for more substance– so I provided it. I’m happy to swap mystical quotes with you, but at some point it’s worth taking a more rigorous look at our core beliefs.

To your specific points:

  • What if no one else had been on the stairs — would there have been any meaning for you in walking up instead of taking the elevator? Yes, because I can be part of a community even when not all of its members are immediately present.
  • What if the apartment had been ten floors higher? Irrelevant.
  • Did anyone else walking up the stairs share your Aristotelian understanding of Jewish praxis? No, in the sense that everyone justifies his or her own Jewish practice differently. Yes, in the sense that most practicing modern Jews feel on some level Shabbat adds something to their identity (a neshamah yeterah, as it were) that wouldn’t be there otherwise. I’m just trying be a bit more specific about that what that “something” means.
  • Judaism isn’t a background that allows us to fully explore some innate, exogenous identity. Judaism is a constructed identity, and ritual allows us to explore that construction because ritual is a built-in component of it. I disagree. I don’t buy this myth of identity as a total blank slate. Neither of us chose to get circumcised, or go to shul on the High Holidays as kids, or learn the story of Masada. We didn’t construct that identity. We inherited it. Resist it as we will, it will always shape our horizons. For all your talk of internalized anti-Semitism, I thought you’d be with me on this one.
  •  On Sukkot, when you’re waving your palm branch and citrus fruit, are you saying in your head, “I am both participating in and enacting an identity-constructing story”? This is a caricature of my argument. When MacIntyre calls human beings “story-telling animals”, he’s not saying that human beings walk around paraphrasing Aristotle. He’s saying that all of us already think of our lives as stories. There’s a beginning (birth), an ending (death), a cast of characters (our families and communities). That’s how we’ve always experienced the world, and that’s where we find meaning. Again: no one puts on a wedding ring for the first time while saying, “I’m now living out my part in a larger story.” No one needs to. The act speaks for itself.
  • Religion isn’t philosophy; it’s poetry. Not entirely true. Poetry describes; philosophy asserts. At the core of religion lies a set of assertions about our place in the universe: e.g. Human experience has value. We have obligations toward other people. “Thou shalt not murder” isn’t poetry. So any account of Jewish practice needs to make room for both genres: poetry and philosophy, Yitro and Mishpatim, ibn Gabirol and Rambam.
  • It’s about making space for holiness, whether or not it exists. I still can’t make sense of this statement. To see why, substitute in the word “Santa Claus” for “holiness.” Why would you bother making room for something that doesn’t exist? You’re going to have to do a better job of explaining what you mean by “holiness.”

That leads neatly into my last point. I’ve now laid out my own reasons for observance in some detail. Now it’s your turn to do your share of the heavy lifting. You read Jewish philosophy on the train; you push for serious Jewish engagement within IfNotNow; you consult the ArtScroll for kashrut advice. No judgment here — we’re all pluralists. But given that you and I both live serious Jewish lives, doesn’t at least some of the burden fall on you to justify your own rather (ahem) unconservative practice? How is it that you quote Heschel’s book on Shabbat while denying its central thesis — namely, that Jews should observe Shabbat? Expect to hear on this in the coming weeks.


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