Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
January 27, 2017 by Beth Kissileff
Sometimes, it is not hard to figure out the right thing to do. When a tyrant tells you to do something wrong, resist.
The midwives did it, refusing to kill Hebrew babies. Why? Because they feared God (Exodus 1:17). Regardless of your theological stance, one has to acknowledge that one path to bravery is the understanding that there is something larger and broader beyond whatever a human tyrant demands that commands respect for values that go beyond the mere will of a despot.
This is the text that I have in mind in wondering why Jared and Ivanka could not have just stood up to the president and told him that the Sabbath starts at sundown and their Jewish values are always primary in their lives. Of course, we now know that if Trump throws tantrums at his staffers, he probably reserves worse for his offspring.
Shabbat enables us as Jews to say no to things that are not in our value system, to carve out time for ourselves and our community that is sacrosanct.
Shabbat is enables Jews to stop, to rest. To realize that there is something beyond this present world and moment and to access a bit of eternity, olam ha’ba. To be aware that though the world is not perfected, if we enable ourselves to step back from it for 25 hours, we may have more energy and ability to do the work needed to perfect it during the week to come.
So that is why I see Jared and Ivanka’s decision to drive on Shabbat—not just to an inauguration party, but to a Saturday morning church service—as a perversion of Jewish values that they can and should be called out on. No rabbi has publicly offered himself (we will assume this is a him though there are Orthodox women who are qualified decisors of Jewish law both in America and in Israel) as the author of the leniency enabling the Kushner-Trumps to so publicly violate Shabbat. We are left to assume that whoever has declared this is too embarrassed to admit so. I have seen the argument by Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, spiritual leader of Young Israel of Oceanside, a Modern Orthodox congregation on Long Island that there is a category in Jewish law for those who are Karov L’malchut, close to the government. Debra Nussbaum Cohen in Haaretz reports Muskat has explained that these individuals ”potentially by having a relationship with the government can be involved in saving the lives of Jewish people.” To me, this seems a category that had important implications in the Middle Ages when pogroms were a constant threat. The existence of a category of “court Jews” close to a ruler could potentially avert mass slaughter. However, in an American democracy, there has not been any demonstration of a concerted threat to Jewish lives under Trump or any other US president.
In other words, I see this as yet another way that a Trump family member is claiming something untrue as true. The Sabbath may be desecrated to save a life that is endangered, not because someone wants to attend a great party and remain secure. I am also not sure how the United States Secret Service would have any difficulty ensuring the safety of Sabbath observers for a 45 minute walk; Joe Lieberman seemed to do just fine observing the Sabbath when he was a Vice Presidential candidate and presumably under the protection of said agency.
Using a legal analogy, here is why what has been called “frum shaming”—calling out the public behavior as observant Jews of Jared and Ivanka—is not just relevant but necessary. A lawyer friend explained to me that in a courtroom, there is direct examination and cross examination. A lawyer presents on direct what he or she wants to enter into evidence and the opposing side is free to cross examine only on what is presented in direct. In short, if one side raises it, the topic is fair game.
Jared and Ivanka and their family have presented themselves to the world as observant Jews who hold wholesome family values. Their image has helped to counteract the truth of Donald Trump as a serial sexual assaulter who has partaken of multiple relationships both in and out of marriage. Had Ivanka and Jared not made these claims for themselves as Jews so publicly, there would be no need for cross examination.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary has put out a tweet that clarifies what a fact is: “a piece of information presented as having objective reality.” The fact is that driving on the Sabbath is forbidden in Jewish law except in cases where a danger to a life is presented that could be overcome by transporting that body to a life-saving facility.
Clearly the Sabbath to them, is just something else that can conveniently be made into an “alternative fact” as Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway declared. To the Trump family it appears, both facts and the Sabbath can be overthrown at their convenience.
Judaism is a religion of law and it is quite clear that no one is above the law, not even the king. See Deuteronomy 17:14-20 which commands the king to write a copy of the Torah for himself so that he is completely familiar with its statutes. In fact, in the act of copying the law he is incorporating it into himself, absorbing it.
This is why I did not march in Washington or elsewhere, last Shabbat. I resisted by continuing to observe the Sabbath and putting the values of a higher power above those of this world. I felt free by knowing that, like the midwives, I too could say no a ruler. I can and do protest the other six days of the week; I am not denying the necessity of these actions but I will not break Shabbat for them. I believe fervently that Shabbat is the best form of protest and my most fervent hope is that Jared and Ivanka can eventually say that too, and not give in to demands that they break Shabbat for the president or anyone else.
Beth Kissileff is the author of the novel Questioning Return and editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. She has taught Bible and English literature and has a PhD in comparative literature;visit her on line at www.bethkissileff.com.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.