Shabbat’s Gray Area
by Rebecca Borison
Israeli President Shimon Peres recently announced that he has cancelled his trip to London for the Olympics’ opening ceremony. Why? When he discovered that the ceremony would be taking place on a Friday night, Peres, unable to find a hotel within walking distance of the Olympic grounds, decided to cancel the trip.
For most of the Shabbat-observant—those of us whose daily work doesn’t have an imminent impact on world matters—taking a break from technology for 25 hours is more of a personal challenge than a matter of political import. But what about those for whom it is? What if resting on Shabbat impacts a country or even the world? What happens when a Shabbat-observer enters into the realm of politics?
Judaism has a principle called pikuach nefesh, which means that in life-threatening situations, Jewish law can be somewhat altered. Many translate this into allowing doctors to work on Shabbat, for example. Their ability to save a life trumps the laws of Shabbat and the necessity to rest. The principle becomes a little murkier when applied to other realms of life, such as political issues, which may not be seen as equally life-threatening on an individual basis.
Can a politician employ pikuach nefesh to enable him to work on shabbat?
In his recent book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, Senator Joe Lieberman discusses the conflicts that arise as an observant Jew in Congress. In 1988, when Lieberman was nominated for Senate, he decided to pre-tape his acceptance speech rather than travel to the ceremony on Shabbat. In 2010, however, Lieberman decided to answer the phone on Shabbat in order to convince Senator Lindsey Graham not to withdraw his support for the American Energy Act.
For Lieberman, that was a case where he had to prioritize global climate change over the laws of Shabbat. Lieberman writes, “I understand that the privileges I’ve been given to be in public office also involve responsibilities that also sometimes conflict with Shabbat, so I’ve got to do the best I can to reconcile those conflicts.” In order to make the best decisions, Lieberman consults with Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel congregation on the guidelines he should keep in mind. One of the guidelines is a “hierarchy of ways” to get to Capitol Hill on Shabbat depending on the level of urgency.
Following in Lieberman’s footsteps, Jack Lew has returned Shabbat to the forefront of America’s political sphere. As the White House Chief of Staff, Lew is forced to balance the Jewish six-day work week with the White House seven-day work week.
JTA notes one particular intersection of the two worlds. Some years ago, Lew returned home from synagogue on Shabbat to hear his phone ringing. As he always did, he waited to hear the call on the answering machine to determine if it was urgent enough to pick up. It was someone from the White House calling to tell Lew to ignore a previous message from Bill Clinton. Clinton had been overseas and forgot that it was still Shabbat in Washington. The message was not urgent.
The fact that President Clinton now has Shabbat on his radar is a success in and of itself. Because Lew has made Shabbat a priority, the White House respects his decision and works with him to create the best possible balance. By bringing Jewish values into the public eye, Lew is epitomizing the value of Kiddush Hashem.
In Peres’s case, we can probably agree that going to the Olympics can in no way be considered a life-threatening situation. It probably falls pretty low on the hierarchy. While the Olympics are a big deal, Peres decided to choose Shabbat, making an even bigger statement. Peres upholding the importance of Shabbat is not only good PR for the Jews, but also a good lesson to the world about where we place our priorities. Yes, it would be great to go to the Olympics opening ceremony, but not at the cost of Jewish principles.
As Rabbi Ethan Tucker wrote in The Jewish Daily Forward, “The Torah intends for Jews–especially observant ones–to be visible, engaged in society and capable of taking on responsibility for others as opposed to just looking out for their parochial interests.” When that value conflicts with our other Torah obligations, we are forced into a gray area. But that should never stop us from being visible and engaged. It’s all about living in the gray.