Shabbat and the Law of Unintended Consequences
Arguably, the most important step the Reformers took in bringing Judaism into modernity was the institution of egalitarianism, never reckoning with the grave damage they were inflicting on our greatest treasure, the Shabbat.
By creating the expectation that women would join their husbands at Shabbat services, the focus of celebrating Shabbat moved from the home into the synagogue, including even the lighting of candles. This limited the opportunity for personalizing the Shabbat experience and creating spiritually meaningful memories like those so eloquently described a few weeks ago by Deborah Rood Goldman. The traditional leisurely dinner, complete with motzi, kiddush, extolling the matriarch as eshet chayil (a woman of valor), and blessing the children, was telescoped under the pressure of getting to the temple by 8:00. More recently, associating the advent of Shabbat with the clock instead of with the sun, the now widespread practice of a 6:30 service, preceded by wine and cheese, further erodes the opportunity for Shabbat observance at the family table.
Egalitarianism brought with it another positive step that back-fired – the elimination of the bar mitzvah, in favor of the deferred co-ed ceremony of confirmation. (I doubt the concept of a bat mitzvah ever entered the minds of those pre-Kaplanian Reformers.) But bar mitzvah refused to die. The upside of its return was that it led to holding Shabbat morning services in congregations where they had not previously been held. The unintended consequence in congregations that regularly held Shabbat morning services was that the bar mitzvah took over, driving away the Shabbat morning “regulars” both by making them feel like party-crashers and by making the service about the kid and the family.
The Reformers did well by putting a positive spin on the Sabbath as a day of rest and spiritual refreshment, rather than a day characterized by petty restrictions that actually create work in the supposed interest of banning it. But in eliminating the “Thou shalt nots,” the only effective “Thou shalt” has been, “Thou shalt attend services at the synagogue.” Comes Saturday noon, you’re free to go do… what? If – and only if – there is a program planned for Saturday night, we make havdalah, marking a 7:00 end for a Shabbat we otherwise let depart at noon. We’ve let slip the opportunity to use the afternoon for Shabbat appropriate activities, whether in the synagogue or elsewhere; nor have we defined what are appropriate and inappropriate Shabbat afternoon activities for Reform Jews outside of the synagogue.
Many of my Shabbat-observant Reform friends mark the Shabbat by “unplugging,” but Rabbi Victor Appell recently described how his family makes Shabbat special by making it the day when the children may plug into the electronics that have been taboo all week. Reform Judaism gives us the freedom to make our own choices of how to observe Shabbat but has inadequately reminded us that it is more than a day off – that is is a day not to be treated like any other. Rabbi Mark Washofsky in “Jewish Living” suggests observing Shabbat as a day of freedom from devotion to necessity, such as household chores or things related to our working lives. Helping Reform Jews frame how those broad prohibitions play out in their actual lives represents an unrealized opportunity for congregations to make an impact on the spiritual fulfillment of congregants.
Now, having inadvertently grown some lemons, how do we make lemonade?
First, let’s put our Friday night emphasis back in the home. Limit Kabbalat Shabbat in the synagogue to the basic liturgy – no sermon, no Torah service, no food service. In by 6pm, out by 6:30, and if it’s mostly men because mama stays home to fix dinner, as in days of yore, so be it. The Movement has been lamenting the disappearance of men and boys, so an intended consequence of the new Reform Shabbat could be to give the guys something that is predominantly theirs.
Forty-some years ago, someone observed to me that Shabbat would thrive better if it had a Haggadah that spelled out the procedures, rituals, and liturgies as our Passover Haggadah does. The URJ has stepped up to the plate, and today supplies that Haggadah, as it were, on its Shabbat page and with blog posts like the recent “Shabbat Observance: Books to Get You Started.” Now any household, no matter how meager their previous exposure, can follow the rituals that help make Shabbat special. Each family can decide for itself whether Shabbat works better for them as an intimate celebration for the nuclear family, or whether it will be improved by the extra ingredient of guests.
Second, let’s give Shabbat morning back to those who want to worship by eliminating the Shabbat morning bar mitzvah. Instead, make Shabbat mincha (afternoon service) the normative time for the bar mitzvah. Families will love it because it eliminates downtime between the service and the party and will not interfere with guests’ normal routines. In addition, because the early evening service means keeping the building open, it becomes easier to offer more Shabbat programming to the congregation and get extra use of the facility as beth midrash (house of study) and beth k’nesset (house of assembly) on a day when it is otherwise primarily beth t’filah (house of prayer).
The intended consequences of these modest proposals are the rejuvenation of erev Shabbat in the home, the revitalization of Shabbat morning worship in the synagogue by serving “bar mitzvah customers” later in the day, and the enrichment of Shabbat afternoon, whether with activity in the temple or with providing guidance on what’s shabbosdik and appropriate, in a Reform context, to help Reform Jews fulfill the mitzvah of remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy. As for the unintended consequences? We’ll never know if we don’t try!