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Is Sabbath Observance Enough?

I would love to consider all people who observe Shabbos as observant. That was once the case.
An Israeli family welcome the entrance shabbat in a bomb shelter in the southern city of Ashkelon.

An Israeli family welcome the entrance shabbat in a bomb shelter in the southern city of Ashkelon.
Photo Credit: Edi Israel/Flash90

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The David Brooks article in the New York Times about Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn has stirred up a lot of controversy. This time it is a complaint in the Forward from an unlikely source – Jordana Horn, an observant Conservative Jew. I say unlikely – not because it is unlikely that she would complain, but because of her identification as an observant Conservative Jew. And by observant, I mean Shomer Shabbos. It is that particular Mitzvah that has in the past always been definitive of observance. At least in America I suppose that’s because it was so difficult to keep Shabbos during the great influx of European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There were plenty of Jews that immigrated to this country then who were observant in Europe and wished to stay observant. But because of the work ethic of the times, many of them succumbed to the pressure of working on Shabbos – even while keeping the other Miztvos (like Kashrus)to the best of their abilities. Many Jews felt that it was either working on Shabbos or starving.

That concession cost them greatly in their children. In many if not most cases their children abandoned the ritual observances of their parents in part because of the melting pot spirit of the times… but perhaps equally as important, because they saw their fathers working on Shabbos. They considered it hypocritical of their fathers to insist on their children keeping Shabbos when their fathers worked on that day.

I am not judging that generation. Times were tough. These are just the sad facts of reality. We lost a lot of Jews of the subsequent generation to assimilation back then. Of course this is not the only reason we lost them. The utter lack of any meaningful Jewish education in those days had something to do with it too.

On the other hand there were a lot of Jews who toughed it out and did not work on Shabbos. They kept getting fired from their jobs when they didn’t show up for work. Or they somehow found jobs that did not require working on Shabbos even when it meant lesser pay. They were in the minority. But their kids for the most art stayed Shomer Shabbos too – as well observant of other Mitzvos.

Others may differ but this is why I think Shabbos is the defining characteristic of observant Judaism. Which brings me back to Ms. Horn. She is observant. She is Shomeres Shabbos. She admits that this is a relative rarity in the Conservative movement and although there are more than a few like her – I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of Jews in the Conservative movement are not Shomer Shabbos.

She complains that Mr. Brooks ‘waxed rhapsodic’ only about Orthodox Jews. …that her observance of Judaism is just as legitimate as in that of Orthodox Jewry.

The obvious question is, what makes her Conservative if she observes Shabbos? That is a very good question. In fact, if there were no labels like Orthodox and Conservative… we would all just be Jews with different levels of observance. (This is the way Sephardim live. This is one of the things I am envious of about them.)

Alas, there are labels. Labels that identify ideologies. In some cases those ideologies contradict Halacha and Mesorah. The problem I have with Ms. Horn is that she sees egalitarianism as an essential feature of her life. So much so apparently that she cannot imagine Judaism without it. She believes that equality of the sexes in all areas of life including religion is so important that Halacha can be changed to accommodate it. And she has found a movement that agrees with her and even encourages that kind of thinking.

The Conservative movement has done away with all Halacha that does not bow to egalitarianism. They have changed the entire nature of the Halachic process from one of adhering to Halacha as laid down before us by the sages as recorded in the Talmud and finalized in the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries… to one of changing it to fit with the spirit of the times. Egalitarianism drives Halacha in the Conservative Movement – instead of Halacha driving egalitarianism.

The claim by Conservative thinkers is that if Chazal were alive today, they would see what we see and respond along the same lines they do. Thus they do away with Halachos they see as being influenced by the ‘incorrect’ spirit of Chazal’s times. Wouldn’t Chazal do that too if they lived today?

Well intentioned though they were – even the walls of Shmiras Shabbos were breached by the Conservative movement. By their own admission that has led to disastrous results. The permit they gave to driving only to Shul (if they were already driving) has morphed into driving anywhere they want. Their intention of keeping their flock observant by guiding them into shuls has by their own admission been a massive failure. Which they say is the primary cause of their attrition problem.

They believe that the breakdown of cohesive religious neighborhoods that are characteristic of Orthodox Jews are the result of the driving permit. Conservative Jews no longer had to live together in order to be close to a Shul. They could live wherever they wanted and drive there.

These problems do not even address the difficulties with some of their theology that allows for a denial of the events at Sinai. Or the exodus from Egypt. Or even the divinity of the Torah!

It is one thing if an individual thinks this way. But when a movement does, it gives cover to anyone who does so bolstering their ranks with believers in heresy.

As an individual Ms. Horn’s her egalitarian ideas would probably not have stood in the way of full acceptance as an observant Jew. In any case she would not have any way to put her theories into practice. But when an entire movement justifies it and offers ways to facilitate those beliefs that is a horse of an entirely different color. Furthermore belonging to Conservative movement means not only accepting the ritual changes, it means accepting the movement’s theology as well.

This is very sad and troubles me greatly. Ms. Horn is a sincere Jew who truly believes that her observance is in concert with authentic Judaism. Most of her observances probably are. I would love to consider all people who observe Shabbos as observant. That was once the case. It truly grieves me to say this but through no fault of her own she is mistaken in her belief that buying into the doctrines and practices of the Conservative Movement are in concert with authentic Judaism. They are not.

This does not mean that I do not fully accept her as a Jew or respect her any less. I do. Especially her commitment to Shabbos. But as a believer in Emes, this is the way I see her state of observance.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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18 Responses to “Is Sabbath Observance Enough?”

  1. I'm not a conservative Jew (not any more) and I don't attach the same significance to egalitarianism that Ms. Horn does. But I don't feel the need to judge her method of religious observance (and if I did, frankly, I'd have to say I very much admire her commitment, even if I don't agree with it). I do not understand why Mr. Maryles feels the need to judge Ms. Horn and her religious observance. What business is Ms. Horn's observance to Mr. Maryles?

  2. Lu Da says:

    I write from Italy, so sorry for my English but let me say this:…is your job about deciding about who is a first class Jew and who is not? is this what your job is about? do you know the meaning of the word RESPECT? Does it really matter that much if this fantastic lady is a Conservative a Reform or an Orthodox? Who are the Orthodoxs by the way….is it up to them to decide who is a first class Jew? Here in Italy we have a new Pope….I thought Judaism had no Pope at all and that was great in my opinion but now I get the impression that Orthodox Jews , or some of them, like the idea of being the Popes of judaism….you should respect this woman and you should stop considering non orthodox jews as second rate individuls or even worse half jewish….some day you might stumble into someone who could be MORE orthodox then you and I guess you would not like being considered the way you consider Conservative, Reformed or any non Orthodox Jew. Think about that. Arrivederci.

  3. Chaiya Eitan says:

    Bravo!

  4. Ruth Ben-Or says:

    I'm sure she much gives a hoot about what some columnist who doesn't share her theology thinks of her practice, I certainly don't.

  5. Dan Silagi says:

    Did you, Maryles, appoint yourself Pope? At least the real Pope was elected. Who are you to say that someone who's an observant Jew is a better person than one who isn't? Yes, I drive on Shabbat, and sometimes I drive to Mickey D's and order myself a Big Mac or a quarter-pounder with cheese. Got a problem with that, Harry? I have less than zero respect for those Orthodox Jews who believe that adhering to laws which make little sense other than to self-segregate Jews from gentiles makes them better people than those who don't.

  6. Dan Silagi says:

    Did you, Maryles, appoint yourself Pope? At least the real Pope was elected. Who are you to say that someone who's an observant Jew is a better person than one who isn't? Yes, I drive on Shabbat, and sometimes I drive to Mickey D's and order myself a Big Mac or a quarter-pounder with cheese. Got a problem with that, Harry? I have less than zero respect for those Orthodox Jews who believe that adhering to laws which make little sense other than to self-segregate Jews from gentiles makes them better people than those who don't.

  7. Dan Silagi says:

    I thought Ms. Horn wrote an outstanding article, by the way.

  8. Phillip Campbell says:

    How Goodly is my Jewish Atheist Tent.

  9. Where can I find the article of Mrs horn?

  10. Lu Da says:

    I agree 100%.

  11. Lu Da says:

    I think the article Dan was talking about is this one:

    There's Jewish Life Outside the Orthodox, David Brooks!

    There Are Many Ways To Live a Meaningful Jewish Life

    getty images

    By Jordana Horn

    Published March 14, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.

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    Multiple Pages

    Related •What David Brooks Didn't Say About the Orthodox

    In early March, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column titled “The Orthodox Surge.” In it, he detailed his visit to Brooklyn’s fancy kosher supermarket Pomegranate. He waxed rhapsodic over everything from “dairy-free cheese puffs” to “a long aisle bursting with little bags of chips and pretzels, suitable for putting into school lunch boxes.”

    One could easily wonder if Brooks had ever set foot in any supermarket before. He soon segued into waxing rhapsodic over Orthodox Jews — who are apparently the only people he can conceive of having a need or desire to shop at a kosher supermarket.

    This is where I, a kosher-keeping, Sabbath-synagogue-going, sukkah-building Conservative Jew, started getting a little angry.

    “For the people who shop at Pomegranate, the collective covenant with God is the primary reality and obedience to the laws is the primary obligation,” Brooks writes. “They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order. The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality.”

    I have heard of these laws. In fact, I observe them. I was educated by my Conservative Jewish parents, and at my Conservative synagogue. I went to Jewish summer camps and summer study programs in Israel. The Jewish calendar governs my life, from Rosh Hashanah all the way through the year.

    I am not Orthodox.

    I realize that I am a minority, but I exist. And my Jewish observance is just as legitimate as Orthodoxy. It also infuses my everyday reality no less than theirs. My Jewish observance, though, is one in which values of egalitarianism exist. It is one in which I am seen as an equal, countable member of the congregation. It is one in which I can read Torah to a mixed audience and can teach my daughters how to read Torah. It is one in which my voice is not only allowed to be heard, but also actually matters, beyond the perimeters of my own home.

    Pieces like Brooks’s column, however, make it seem as though one cannot have a meaningful, multifaceted Jewish life outside Orthodoxy.

    I believe that my family and others like mine are living proof that it is possible to live a highly Jewish life, with community and kavana in a non-Orthodox context. It’s certainly more prevalent in Orthodoxy, but I don’t like the tone of Brooks’s piece, which sets up an either-or proposition. As it is, I’m already worried enough about the potential demise of my chosen Jewish path. Because it all boils down to numbers.

    I’ve had four kids so far, but try as I might, I can’t single-handedly repopulate non-Orthodox Judaism. I fear that when my children grow up, they will encounter a world in which they will have to choose to be Orthodox or secular, and that no other options will exist — that while Conservative and Reform Jews were busy building gorgeous edifices of synagogues, they will have neglected to build communities that ensure their survival.

    I long for someone to stand up in Conservative and Reform synagogues and say, “Hey — if we want our egalitarian models of Judaism to have a fighting chance in the future, we need to think out of the box.

    “We need to put our money where our mouths are when it comes to ensuring a Jewish future. We need to make sure our young congregants are on JDate. We need to make sure to reach out to and include Jewish singles and young families as much as we do senior citizens.

    “We need to have a financial plan for making Jewish nursery school the best possible option, and an accessible one, for Jewish parents. We need Jewish day care in our synagogues for working parents so that the synagogue is seen as an indispensable part of life. We need to have infant and child care in every single service and program we offer.”

    Five years ago I interviewed Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, for a feature article timed to his assuming leadership of the seminary. When we discussed the dwindling numbers in Conservative Judaism, Eisen pointed out that an increase in the “quality” of involved congregants could compensate for the decline in quantity. In other words, the glass may well be half-empty, but what’s left in the glass is top-shelf champagne.

    I think we should aim for our cups to be full instead.

    “All of us navigate certain tensions, between community and mobility, autonomy and moral order,” Brooks writes. “Mainstream Americans have gravitated toward one set of solutions. The families stuffing their groceries into their Honda Odyssey minivans in the Pomegranate parking lot represent a challenging counterculture. Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.”

    I hope Orthodox Jews are the future, but that they are only part of a larger future in which American Judaism has many different vibrant, living movements and traditions, not just one.

    Jordana Horn is the former New York bureau chief of The Jerusalem Post and is a contributing editor to the parenting website Kveller.com.

    Read more: http://forward.com/articles/172869/theres-jewish-life-outside-the-orthodox-david-broo/?p=all#ixzz2NyDJQF4O

  12. Ruth Ben-Or says:

    Phillip Campbell I won't interfere with you but they would like to!

  13. Dan Silagi says:

    It's interesting that a former Chabadnik named Shmarya Rosenberg, who has a well-read blog called "Failed Messiah" took Brooks to task. Why? For not mentioning all the child molestation cases, financial fraud, etc. that he says is endemic in the ultra-orthodox community. Therefore, says Rosenberg, Brooks was "immoral."

    The vast majority of Orthodox Jews aren't child molesters, nor are they criminals. While I hate it when some ultra-orthodox hypocrite calls out secular Jews such as myself and makes himself out to be superior to me because he won't eat a lobster, Rosenberg's stereotyping and vendetta is far worse.

  14. Lu Da says:

    I don't know much about Chabad and other stuff like that because here in Italy they are very small…but I do know the attitude a large portion of Orthodoxs have , in my country too, toward other Jews. I had to go through that attitude myself, first of all because I am not a Jew by birth…..and secondly because I chose to affiliate myself to a non Orthodox congregation…….in their eyes this is a mortal sin!!!! like driving to a shul on Shabbat….I respect who decides not to drive on Shabbat but honestly I can't feel this is a solid reason to call those who do drive on Shabbat as heretics!!!!……this seems to me a Taliban approach to religion.

  15. Lu Da says:

    I don't know much about Chabad and other stuff like that because here in Italy they are very small…but I do know the attitude a large portion of Orthodoxs have , in my country too, toward other Jews. I had to go through that attitude myself, first of all because I am not a Jew by birth…..and secondly because I chose to affiliate myself to a non Orthodox congregation…….in their eyes this is a mortal sin!!!! like driving to a shul on Shabbat….I respect who decides not to drive on Shabbat but honestly I can't feel this is a solid reason to call those who do drive on Shabbat as heretics!!!!……this seems to me a Taliban approach to religion.

  16. Thanks Lu Da fore more information :)

  17. Phillip Campbell says:

    My tent-flap is always open .

  18. Lu Da says:

    bevakasha'!

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