Shabbat wars are nasty. The latest battleground is Tel Aviv where stores flout the law by trading on Shabbat. In a radical attempt to regulate the situation, the Tel Aviv Municipality tried to legalize trade on Shabbat, but so far the interior minister has not recognized it. Meanwhile other store owners whose businesses close on Shabbat have taken up their cudgels. Complaining of unfair competition, they too have gone to court contesting the municipality’s failure to uphold the law. And so it goes on.
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The battle lines are drawn, and everyone is zealous in defending their turf. Observant Jews argue that they came to a Jewish country to live traditional Jewish lives without the ubiquitous assault of commercialism, while secular Jews protest their right to enjoy one day of relaxation without religious interference.
Some, like Rabbi Yaakov Medan and Ruth Gavison, have courageously sought compromise; searching for a way to make the day palatable for religious and secular. After long discussions, they formulated a covenant which neither saw as ideal, but both recognized would cease the endless clashes. Their agreement suggested that sufficient places of entertainment would open on Shabbat to satisfy the secular majority, but there would be a cap on commercialism in public spaces.
My teacher Rabbi Shlomo Riskin took a different line on these issues. When riots broke out in Petah Tikva protesting the opening of cinemas on Friday nights there, he argued, in the spirit of liberty, that every cinema should remain open on Shabbat, but he also advocated for them all to be empty because traditional Jews would open their homes to their secular neighbors and everyone would realize that the warm, family Shabbat atmosphere beat any of the alternatives.
In a sense, that is the philosophy behind The Shabbos Project. It was pioneered in South Africa by Rabbi Warren Goldstein, and now it's been taken to Britain by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, it’s gone down under to Australia and in Israel it is being championed by the Modern Orthodox rabbis of the Beit Hillel movement. Jewish leaders everywhere are facing off against the pull of commercialism and proudly taking a stand for one of the oldest Jewish values; a day of family, tranquility and spirituality.
The idea of attracting millions of Jews to Sabbath observance may sound outlandish, but even non-Jews are now drawing inspiration from Shabbat. Across the world, an annual day of unplugging invites people to imitate Jewish tradition and unplug their phones and gadgets for 24 hours.
This weekend, it's our turn. Across the word, Jewish communities will be baking challahs, attending concerts and celebrating Shabbat together in their synagogues, community centers and homes. The project brings together the most Orthodox and the least affiliated Jews in celebration of Shabbat and in the strengthening of our communities.
The Talmud teaches that if every Jew kept just one Shabbat, the messiah would come (Shemot Rabbah 25). This may seem improbable and outlandish. But if we could all usher the tranquility, warmth and calmness of Shabbat into our homes, we would have a tremendous impact on our families and friends. If we could ensure that each week our Shabbat table included not only elderly grandparents and young children in conversation, but people who are alone or lonely, we would enhance our society. If we could limit the pollution caused by our cars by leaving them in our garages for one day a week, it would have a positive impact on our planet. Particularly in our stressful age Shabbat has much to offer.
Religion should not be coerced; that is always a recipe for disaster. Tel Aviv will have to sort out its legal wrangles, and secular and religious Israelis will need to find a common ground. But if we could turn Shabbat everywhere into day of community, then we would move closer to Judaism's greatest vision: achieving an age of justice, peace, loving-kindness and spirituality.
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and the Senior Rabbinic Educator for T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He writes in a personal capacity.