Speaking before his colleagues in 1965, Rabbi Gunther Plaut argued in favor of a Reform movement restoration of the Sabbath that, forty years later, has yet to be achieved. This probably comes as no surprise to people, given the Reform movement’s location on the most permissive end of the Jewish religious spectrum. After all, with no “law” obligating one to observe Shabbat, one simply “chooses” whether or not to observe it among a variety of choices one has for spending time between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.
That was the case forty, fifty and one hundred years ago as well, though exact circumstances varied from generation to generation–but generally, this was the case. In his talk, Plaut articulates the varieties of solutions offered to practicing Reform Jews, including Isaac Mayer Wise’s “invention” of the Friday evening service, the decision to read Torah on Friday nights (since a growing, assimilating Jewish population would be at work on Saturdays) as well as, in some instances, Sabbath services on Sunday (a kind of early German Jewish attempt in some cities to keep up with the Joneses.
Plaut decried his colleagues having given up on the idea of returning Shabbat to Saturday morning, to pushing for a greater centrality of its observance in the life of liberal Jews. We do any manner of programs on Friday nights to lure people into the synagogue, depriving them of the one proven enduring manifestation of Shabbat that has sustained us for over two thousand years: the songs and ritual of the Shabbat table at home on Friday night–only then to be followed the next day with attendance and participation at synagogue on Saturday morning.
Saturday morning? Am I nuts?
Farmers Market at Grand Army Plaza; yoga studios to the north and south; Park Slope Food Co-Op shifts to work; Little League; soccer; the week’s chores, like shopping & housekeeping; and, still for some (though certainly fewer than one or two generations ago) work.
This is the reality I face while allowing myself to feel very adequately worked in the job. There are still an average of 70-90 people in attendance most Friday nights; a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service on Saturday mornings; and, another 15-20 people in a separate Shabbat morning minyan ( so as not to be overwhelmed in their own prayer experience by the new Bar/Bat Mitzvah guests each week).
But beneath the surface is another reality. There are virtually no kids and families on Friday nights; the twenty to thirty somethings are seeking an altogether different expression of Friday evening spirituality than what we currently “officially offer;” and, if you take away the Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, you’re left with 15-20 adults in synagogue on Saturday mornings.
So I ask Rabbi Plaut’s question that he put to his colleagues forty years ago:
Is Shabbat, he asked, “beyond our power of confrontation?”
I intend to devote the next few posts to this topic and will make Rabbi Plaut’s talk available to anyone who wants to pick it up at shul in the days ahead. If you want me to send you a copy, just let me know.
In the meantime, let’s start confronting.