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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Gifts of Time: Special Moments with my Eldest (and Youngest) Daughter

"Now how am I going to return the shirt?" queried my eldest daughter, holding up the beautiful white shirt, belonging to her friend from down the block, and looking out the window at the pouring rain.

Well, the choices seemed pretty clear to me. Either she would have to wait to return the shirt, or she would get wet (horror of horrors!).

It was minutes before Shabbat, and there was no time to drive her.

I thought she would choose to wait, but she did not.

Ten minutes later she burst through the door.

"That was fun!" she exclaimed, shirking off her rain slicker.

Her clothes were soaked, but she was smiling, confirming my belief that a walk in the rain is good for the soul. (if you have not read it yet, see one of my favorite posts: Playing in the Rain)


I woke up late (10:00) Shabbat (Saturday) morning. By the time I put the food on the plata* (hot plate), it was 10:30, and there was really no point in going to shul (synagogue).

So I hung out with my parents until Y woke up and joined us.

"Why can't we use an umbrella on Shabbat?" She asked, challenging.

(And I thought she had fun walking in the rain!)

This is an excellent question, and one that does not have a simple answer. The prohibition of using umbrellas on Shabbat is not simple and straightforward, and has a strong social element to it. The rabbis don't all agree, on the reasons for the prohibition, and some base their prohibition on social practices ("it is not done, therefore we do not do it"). (for more details, see here)

I tried to explain the reasoning, and arguments, to my daughter, but she challenged me. The halakha did not make sense to her. Perhaps I did not make a convincing argument, because elements of the halakha do not make sense to me.

If Moshe were awake, I would have called in the "reserves." But Moshe was still fast asleep.

So, in order to explain why we do things that do not always make sense, I tried to explain the halakhic (Jewish legal) process, how halakha (Jewish law) evolves over time, who has halakhic authority, and even when advocates of change overstep halakhic boundaries, etc.

I embarked on my explanation, beginning with how our adherance to the halakhic process sustained Judaism for the past 2000 years, giving an overview of modern Orthodoxy, explaining the emergence and downfall of the Reform movement, the emergence and downfall of the Conservative movement, examples of g'dolim (great Rabbis) and how it is their responsibility to evaluate the long term ramifications of halakhic decisions, and examples of changes within modern Orthodoxy (such as the women's tefillah movement**).

Ultimately, I was trying to explain why we, as individuals, can't just decide what to do, on our own, based on what seems logical to us.

"I got it," said Y, suddenly, as I made my final point.

Just like that? Was she really satisfied. I was not sure. Then she summarized in a sentance of two, what I had just spent so much time trying to explain.

She got it.

Just like that.

Without further ado, we segued into a story about Y, when she was a year and a half, and spit up all over a Rav's Shabbat Table.

What was the connection? Well, in our previous discussion, I mentioned an interesting conversation I had with this Rav, about women's tefillah groups. As an aside, I mentioned that I had a funny story to tell about Y and this Rav.

So, of course, as soon as we finished our serious conversation, Y (and A, who had joined us, somewhere along the way), and my mom, wanted to hear the funny story!

So, I told the story, in all its glorious detail!

By the time I finished telling the story, it was really late. Most of our neighbors had finished their Shabbat lunch by then, and we had not even started! We laughed at ourselves, for getting such a late start!

It was a wonderful, relaxed morning, filled with talking, and sharing, and laughing.

I hugged my girls, and we began our day...

Please daven (or send happy, healing thoughts) for RivkA bat Teirtzel.

With love and optimism,

* Religous Jews don't cook on Shabbat, so many use a plata (a modified hot plate, with only one setting) to warm up food on Shabbat. Some Jews use a blech for warming food; this is more common in the US. Most Jews in Israel use a plata, or an oven with a special Shabbat setting.

** The women's tefillah movement is still not "mainstream," but it is has been growing steadily for over 30 years. Today, there are women's tefillah groups throughout Israel, and the rest of the world. (see here, for an impressive list of women's tefillah groups worldwide)


Batya said...

lovely post
My kids are all grown up, and since my "job" is to teach English to the grandkids, the conversations are peculiar. I understand them, but they don't always understand me.

Anonymous said...

Now I know why you were missing from shul Shabbat morning..How fun!

Anonymous said...

"Ultimately, I was trying to explain why we, as individuals, can't just decide what to do, on our own, based on what seems logical to us."

Let me preface what I'm about to ask with this caveat: I don't mean to make trouble. :)

What confuses me, though, is that the rabbis who have made these decisions over the centuries are still human beings and still fallible.

Therefore, if I were well-versed in Jewish texts, I couldn't go back to a piece of original text, and then to all of the various commentaries on it, and decide that I think that what has become "standard" practice surrounding it doesn't seem right to me?

Or did I misunderstand your point?

Ilana said...

I wish I had been there for that conversation -- I have been puzzling over these questions for some time (as you know). Can you share Y's summary of your lecture?

A Soldier's Mother said...

Some of our most precious moments are the ones where you just sit with your kids and talk. The real gift is recognizing that you've just been lucky enough to have that moment, where you aren't in a rush to go somewhere else, eat lunch, or whatever - just enjoy that moment. I had a couple of those over the chag as well - we went to the Kinneret for one day...and I just enjoyed watching my kids. Glad you had time to do what you wanted over chag...and were able to see your daughter "get" your ideas. It's especially challenging when you have kids living in bilingual settings.

RivkA with a capital A said...

Muse -- well, you are a step ahead of me!

Jackie -- busted! ;-)

Lena -- no trouble! But I'm not sure I understand your question. Could you please rephrase?

Squarepeg613 -- I wish I could remember exactly what she said!! It was classic, but too quick for me! I had barely finished my sentance when... "swish, swish!" She shot out her comment and moved on. She was done, and we were moving forward! Do not stop, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Soldier's Mother -- that's one of the best things about this blog.... it has helped me to stop, look, and listen. And also to write it down... because I forget things!

Ilana said...

I'm also bothered by what I think Lena brought up. On the one hand, the Rabbanim were human, made mistakes, and were subject to biases that affected their decisions. (Even though they may genuinely have sought the Truth). And on the other hand, it seems we can't much go back and change anything they've already decided.

So there seems to be a contradiction here. If they made mistakes, then we should be able to change things. If we can't much change things, then this should indicate that things are pretty much perfect the way they are. But it's not so clear that things actually *are* perfect the way they are!

Oh, and since you can't remember what Y said, can you summarize it yourself?

RivkA with a capital A said...

SquarePeg613 & Lena --

Two things.

1. When in doubt, go to the source.

Y said: "the Gadol Hador (leading Torah authority) said that we cannot use umbrellas because we cannot build them. And today, even though we don't have to build them anymore, we don't really have a Gadol Hador who has the proper authority to cancel the takanah (decision)"

2. What I explained to Y, which I think is the same answer for you, is that the halakha does change (adapt) over time, but it changes slowly.

As individuals, we do not have the authority to reverse, or reform, halakhic decisions. Judaism would not remain coherent, if everyone did his/her own thing, based on his/her own judgement. A certain amount of uniformity is paramount to our survival.

Umbrellas are a good example of this. There are one or two prominent rabbis who might have permitted the use of umbrellas, but did not because it was not acceptable in the greater community. (check out the link in my post).

It certainly seems as if these rabbis placed greater value in communal harmony, than in an individual preference.

We, as individuals, evaluate the ramifications of any given halakha based on our own, often limited view. Hopefully, our Gedolim have a wider view.

With time, things change, but we are not in a hurry to change things.

It might be frustrating to the individual. But, the system has worked for 2,000 years. And no other culture in the world can claim that level of continuity.

Anonymous said...

So, if I understood you correctly:

We can't use umbrellas on Shabbat because we cannot build them, based on a halakhic decision once made by a rabbi.

However, we no longer have to build umbrellas for ourselves; and as such, using an umbrella on Shabbat no longer requires what might be termed as "work" (I'm guessing this was the original spirit behind the decision?).

Yet, we still may not use umbrellas on Shabbat because we don't have a rabbinic figure with enough authority (what does this mean?) to reverse this decision.

I guess that my problem is that it seems to me that what I assume is the original spirit of the law seems to me nowadays irrelevant.

I don't think, though, that my theoretical decision to use an umbrella on Shabbat, due to the fact that I don't have to build it, threatens the continuity of the Jewish people. I think there are plenty of rituals/practices/ideas that are out there to hold the Jewish people together.

Ilana said...

You said that Halacha does change, slowly. If we don't have anyone with authority to change things, then how does Halacha change at all?

Also, what do you mean "we are not in a hurry to change things"? There may not be any really pressing reason to change Halachot about umbrellas on Shabbat. But, I suspect that there are Halachot that you *would* be in a hurry to change. So when is it legitimate and when not? When are you in a hurry to change things and when not?

RivkA with a capital A said...

Lena -- read the link. Decisions are not made by some lone rabbi. There are many prominent rabbis who have written about this issue.

The main issue, if I understand correctly, is whether opening an umbrella is like building a tent. There are other issues besides the question of construction.

The issue is not one of "work," which is an inaccurate translation of the term melakha.

There is no prohibition against work -- in fact, most homemakers (read: moms) work very hard on Shabbat. ;-)

The way I see it, Judaism is very Kantian. Kant posits that we can evaluate the effects of an action, by expanding upon the theoretical ramifications of the action. For example, if an action is such that all members of the community can take it, then it is good/right for an individual to take that action. However, the action is such that it would be bad if all members of the community took it, then it is bad/wrong for the individual to take that action.

Thus, while it is true that Judaism would not fall apart if an indidual made his/her own halakhic decisions, and changed an existing action, based on his/her own logic/morals. If all individuals acted in this fashion, then Judaism, as a cohesive community, would break apart. Therefore, it would be wrong for an individual to act that way, since it would be devastating to Judaism if all individuals acted that way.

SqaurePeg613 -- the best way to answer your questions, is to look at changes that have already occurred over time. Take, for example the way we warm up our food on Shabbat. Or the way we refrigerate food on Shabbat. These methods did not exist 100 years ago! We are not Karraites. The way we practice Judaism is derived from the Torah of our forefathers, but it looks very different.

Another good example is to look at the role of women. 100 years ago, Jewish girls were not even receiving an Jewish education! (see here). Now, girls are expected to continue on to higher Jewish education. Just look how many seminaries there are!! Compare that to how many seminaries there were just 15 years ago! 50 years ago, there were NONE. Oops, sorry, EXACTLY 50 years ago, in 1958, the first Orthodox girl's seminary, Machon Gold, was founded. (Btw, it was Moshe's grandfather vision and dream to create a girl's seminary. He advocated and campaigned for it with great determination. Unfortunately, he passed away before the seminary doors opened. Machon Gold, was named in honor of Moshe's grandfather, Rabbi Ze'ev (Wolf) Gold y'hi zichro baruch (may his memory be a blessing))

Anyway, what I am saying is that even if I am in a rush, I have to be patient. I can work towards change within the system, but not without.

Let's be honest, these questions are not new. There were people who chose a different way, and formed movement that were committed to change. Those movements have FAILED. The children, and grandchildren of their members, including their founders, are completely assimilated. Even the elite are virtually alone in their commitment to Torah and Mitzvot.