The good news is that more Americans are learning about Orthodox Jews and their laws of Sabbath observance than ever before.
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The bad news is the reason. It appears to be a growing problem that the White House adviser most capable of moderating the behavior of U.S. President Donald Trump, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is off-duty for a day every week, restricted by the limitations of Shabbat - unable to work, ride in a car, or use electronic devices from sundown on Friday through the fall of darkness on Saturday.
Certainly no one can prove that if Kushner had not already left Trump’s side on Friday afternoon, the president wouldn’t have made the controversial chaos-inducing move of signing the executive order that temporarily stopped immigration from Libya, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan, and halted U.S.-bound refugees in their tracks.
But it couldn’t help but be noticed: the signing took place at 4:42 pm - Shabbat began shortly afterwards, at 5:08. Kushner was already home when the deed was done, helping his wife Ivanka prepare for their Friday night Shabbat dinner where the guests of honor were members of the Trump cabinet. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told reporters on Tuesday he knew of plans to sign the immigration order on Thursday. But who knows how many other members of Trump's entourage were aware.
It’s not the first time there has been a national conversation about Orthodox Jews at the highest levels of government. When Senator Joseph Lieberman was nominated as a candidate for Vice President, there was debate over whether his religious observance would prove a hindrance in emergency situations, both as vice president and in the eventuality that something happened to the president and he would have to become commander in chief.
While Lieberman, of course, was never tested, and Kushner is an adviser, not an office-holder, the conversation has been revived.
The timing of the executive order signing and the Sabbath was bantered about on a CNN roundtable after it was reported in Vanity Fair, which observed that “a little more than a week into the Trump presidency, the timing of the Friday sunset seems to be growing increasingly important” due to the fact that Kushner who is “positioned as something of a mollifying presence upon his mercurial boss” is absent.
In winter months, this means Kushner’s checkout time on Fridays is extremely early - in summer, Shabbat often begins hours later.
The previous week, immediately following his inauguration, Trump spent Friday and Saturday settling scores over reports that the size of his swearing-in crowd was smaller than Barack Obama, delivering a rambling off-message speech at the CIA, and ordered an uncomfortable-looking press secretary, Sean Spicer, in the White House briefing room to deliver “alternative facts” about inauguration attendance and lambaste the press for its coverage.
The Vanity Fair article quoted an insider source saying that the fact that all of this troublesome behavior played out when Kushner wasn’t around “was not a coincidence."
It isn’t the first time that Trump has been observed going rogue while Ivanka and Jared were worshipping and spending time with their three children. During his presidential campaign, some of Trump’s most ill-advised Twitter forays were observed to have taken place on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
Included on the list of toxic Shabbat social media gaffes was the infamous meme featuring Hillary Clinton on a pile of cash next to a six-pointed star, and Trump’s insensitive reaction to the Orlando nightclub killing, in which he tweeted: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”
In a September profile of Ivanka in the Huffington Post, the future First Daughter was described as acting “like the parent with her inexhaustible patience for cleaning up messes, while Donald acts like a rebellious child constantly testing the limits of how far he can go.” The article quoted an unnamed friend of the couple as saying “some of Donald’s worst tweets of the campaign” took place on Jewish holidays when Ivanka and Jared were “off the grid.”
The friend proved prophetic when they said “It could be a big problem if the people who make our president not crazy aren’t available one day a week.”
At least on one occasion, Kushner seemed willing to bend religious rules to put out a political fire. In October, after the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape where the future president was caught bragging about groping and propositioning women, the press took note that Kushner, then a campaign adviser, “broke his usual Shabbat routine” and joined the huddle at Trump Tower to help the candidate’s team strategize their way through the crisis.
It’s not easy to be a high-profile Orthodox Jew in the media fishbowl. Tongues wagged when Jared and Ivanka broke Shabbat strictures when they travelled by car to participate in an Inaugural Ball and Saturday morning church service. The violation took place after they reportedly found an unnamed rabbi who deemed their secured travel excusable under the Jewish principle of “pikuach nefesh” - permission to violate Shabbat rules in order to save lives.
Hopefully, the anonymous rabbi will be close at hand the next time Trump is on the brink of doing something ill-advised with serious consequences late on Friday - and Jared or Ivanka need to be on hand to stop him.
Pikuach nefesh would surely apply - not only lives could be at stake, but the future of a country.