Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why observe Shabbat? (David)

"Why observe Shabbat?" seems an odd question considering the point of this blog. The obvious answer is that our reasons for observance will show in our practice.  Our practice, and our reasons will evolve over time. To put it Wittgenstein's way, the answer is to be shown, not said.  It is self-contained, in a way, a form of life.

I have a different interpretation of "Why observe Shabbat?" in mind. This interpretation relates to a question posed by Reb Zalman Shacter-Shalomi, the first Rabbi of the the Jewish Renewal movement, in his book Jewish With Feeling. Reb Zalman asks, in the final chapter, "Why Be Jewish?" He rejects Jewish triumphalism, the view that Jews are better, and Judaism is more correct, than everyone else and their religions, but that's barely notable. Many Jews, even Modern Orthodox Jews, have rejected triumphalism by buying into something similar to dual-covenant theology. That idea, I suppose, is that God made different covenants with different peoples, each of which may be valid for them. But Reb Zalman's rejection of triumphalism is different. He rejects both the relativism endorsed by dual-covenant thinkers, and their attendant tribalisms.

Only by rejecting tribalism can Reb Zalman state the question, "Why be Jewish?" in a way that can have an informative answer. The tribalist's answer is that one is Jewish because one is halachically Jewish, or underwent a halachic conversion process.  Reb Zalman doesn't give that answer.  Instead, he explains how features of Judaism, its ability to survive in the diaspora, its understanding of time, make indispensable contributions to humanity.  Part of his answer to that question is that one should be Jewish because of Shabbat.  Earlier in the book, he suggests that Shabbat forms the core of Jewish practice, especially for people who want to become more Jewish.  

This is an instance of Plato's Euthyphro dilemma.  Does one observe Shabbat because one is Jewish, or is one Jewish because one observes Shabbat (among other things)?  I don't mean to suggest a clear answer to this question, merely that there is value in, at least provisionally, embracing the view that one is Jewish because one observes Shabbat (among other things).  Only then can we ask the second question, "Why observe Shabbat?" and consider those answers as reasons for being Jewish.

It feels to me that Shabbat is something that I need, and needs are reasons.  I defy anyone who wants to call that self-theraputic.  So what if it is?  It's a way of life.  Punk Shabbat! 

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