Sunday, December 22, 2013

Would I Turn on Electricity for Warmth on Shabbat? In a Heartbeat!

There's a story which recently made the rounds here (see an English recap here) about Rabbi Yoni Rosenzweig, who talks about why on the Shabbat before last he decided to turn on the electricity. It was the middle of the night, and he woke up - it was snowing and the house was freezing, and he realized the main circuit breaker had tripped. He had little kids there and was concerned about staying in the house as well as about the prospect of finding another house to go to at 3am or whatever time it was. So he thought through the halacha for a few moments and decided he had a heter (leniency) to turn on the electricity.

I'm not going to address the soundness of his decision from a halachic perspective. I just want to speak about how I tend to handle these situations and ask you the same.

To put it simply - without question, without even thinking about any halachic back-and-forth, I'd turn on the heat on a freezing night. In fact I imagine that if I started to hem and haw, my wife would yell out from under the covers, "Are you nuts?! Just turn it on already!"

For me, the thought of not turning it on would be something like waiting at a long red light at 3am with no cars around and my wife in labor. Yes, I do respect the law. I understand that it serves an important function. But sometimes you've just got to do what you gotta do. And yes, I fully acknowledge that the reason I can say that (unlike normative believers) is that don't see halacha as affecting any metaphysical realities, nor do I believe it's "commanded" or "enforced" from On High. So like I say, to me it's not even a question.

Now with such a position, I know I could get it from both sides. Whether atheist or theist, frum or non-frum, a person might reasonably ask: If breaking halacha is no different than going through a red light at 3am, what does it matter whether it's freezing outside or just a touch uncomfortable? Why keep it any halacha if it's "inconvenient" for you? And then what makes you any different from a Conservative Jew?

First off, to go with the traffic analogy, even if there were no police (i.e. no concerns about fines/punishment) and no traffic (i.e. no public safety concerns), a red light at 3am isn't the same thing as a red light at 10am, when there are people around. Because law is more than just a series of "do's" and "don'ts" - it's part of the fabric of society. It gives the society a certain feel, which people identify with. If I ran a red light at 10am for no good reason, that would A) upset a lot of people, and B) it would disconnect me from the society (I'd be "cut off from my people"), both because I'd be rejected by them for flagrantly breaking the law, and also on a purely internal level I'd be dis-identifying with the society.

So here's a question: What if I just lived two lives - my "3am" life and my "10am" life? Meaning, what if I stopped keeping halacha behind closed doors and only kept it publicly? Wouldn't that also be "dis-identifying" with the society?

It seems pretty clear that most people (frum and non-frum alike) live double-lives to certain degrees, have a public face and a separate private life which they don't tell everyone about. And while "purists" may criticize such people for lack of integrity, personally I don't see a problem with it if it improves the person's quality of life (e.g. by "rounding out" a person's life, helping them to be more multidimensional, or by allowing a person to enjoy the benefits of public life while also not giving up individual choice and preferences). But when public and private life become so different that it involves undue secrecy, paranoia, fear, great efforts to hide activities, etc., that's not much of a quality of life, and I wouldn't recommend it.

As for me, I would say I wish I had less of a double-life, but I've positioned myself such that the tension isn't so bad. I have enough friends who I can be myself around (intellectually-speaking) that I don't mind staying "low-key" and not showing all my cards where it comes to the general frum society. Like I say, I don't "love" doing that, but it's sustainable, and the alternative if I would show all my cards is that I wouldn't be able to participate in the society. Not believing that halacha has a Commander is looked upon as "flouting" the law just like going through a red light. Actually it's far worse than that - it's seen as a "threat" to the society as a whole because it seems to question the very basis for the society and its laws.

And then of course one might fairly ask: So why do you want to "identify" with this society if you think the whole thing is made up, and if you think they'd reject you if they knew the truth about you?

So let me go back and answer the previous questions (where do I draw the line, doesn't that make me Conservative, etc.), and that will bring us back to the question of "why" do it at all.

The truth is, I don't have a hard and fast rule as to when I would or wouldn't break a halacha. There are certain things I'm more careful about than others, just like any frum person. But I have no compunction about doing whatever I feel I need to do on a private basis. Which doesn't mean I'm constantly breaking halacha, but it wouldn't take potentially "freezing" before I turned on the heat. If you want to call that "Conservative", fine. But Conservative Jews generally speaking aren't keeping halacha, nor are they learning Torah, nor are they living in frum communities where Shabbat observance is the norm. And that's the community I call home.

Which brings us to the "why" question: Why would I want to call this community home? Because for all the problems of the frum community, my quality of life is outstanding. It's as simple as that. You make choices in life, and you live with your choices, including the stuff you don't like. Or to put it another way - you live the best as you can, as productively and happily as you can, with your choices. And even though I can't say I have zero misgivings about the choices I've made, all in all I have a very blessed life. I'm grateful for all the "good" and wouldn't want to give that up.

There's something else though. It's not just the immediate "benefits" of frum life which keep me observant. There's also a sense of caring about the whole enterprise of the Jewish people, our existence and survival, and what we bring to the world. Even though like I've posted about before, it seems fairly clear that our contribution to the world as a people (at least in more recent centuries) has been made overwhelmingly by non-observant Jews than by observant Jews, still there is a "Jewishness" which (I strongly believe) is adding to the ethos and fuel for that contribution, and that Jewishness wouldn't be there were it not for Jewish observance. There are no Jews (eventually, after X number of generations) without observance. And I respect that, and want to contribute to that as well.

So that's my approach in a nutshell. Thoughts? Do you cut corners? If so, how do you feel about that? Do you have a "policy" about it? How do you deal with public vs. private observance?


  1. “Because for all the problems of the frum community, my quality of life is outstanding.”

    We hear about so much misery, poverty, OTD, orthoprax, kids at risk, shidduch crisis, etc – and then you come along and tell us it really is so great. Are you unique in this regard? Are the other blog commentators just neglecting to mention that, with all of its problems, the frum world is simply amazing?

    If you could flesh this out, I would be interested in your answer.


    1. Tuvia, I chose my words carefully - I'm specifically talking here about "my quality of life", not the "frum world" per se. But I'm also far from unique. Yes, all the things you mention - and more - are going on in the frum world. There's a lot of "dishealth" on various fronts. And bloggers write about it because it needs to be discussed and addressed. I'm also doing that, albeit mostly on the "ideas" front. But that doesn't mean "issues" or "ideas" dominate people's daily lives. For some it no doubt does, but most are in an "everyday life" space - relationships, work, health, making ends meet, parenting, getting stuff done, doing things you enjoy, etc. And if you can find a friendly and supportive community to go through this "life stuff" with, which makes the hard times more bearable and the good times more enjoyable, that's a major blessing. So... No, everyday experience doesn't negate the very real problems out there, but those problems don't have to negate/overshadow everyday experience either.

      I hope that spoke to your question! - AJ

    2. A productive, happy daily life is important, but ideas and issues are important too. Don't you ever regret that you've thrown your lot in with homophobes and xenophobes? More to the point, isn't it problematic to have to give your kids that kind of education? Raising kids is one of the most important thing we do, and how well are we doing it if we have to raise them to believe things we think are totally untrue?

    3. I wouldn't call it "regret" but yes I do often have serious misgivings about it. But then again, I think I would have equal or greater misgivings about any number of other educational, communal or cultural contexts I'd subject my kids to. And so yes, there are things I completely object to which are taught in schools and commonplace in people's attitudes. But my wife and I are VERY clear how we stand about them, and we aren't shy in expressing it. Our kids are growing up with OUR values, and so far I'm very pleased with how that's turned out.

  2. kind of. why do others (blog commenters especially) seem so...dissatisfied? What's your secret?

    1. It's better not to focus on the dissatisfaction. Probably constantly blogging about dissatisfaction makes it worse, not better.

    2. I wouldn't be writing this blog and commenting on others if I weren't also dissatisfied. Why am I so darn positive sometimes? Part is probably personality. I'm not a cranky, ornery type. And part is actually a sort of rebellion against those who would do nothing but insult and critique. Because as you know from my writing I'm a person who values truth, and to only speak about the problems without recognizing the immense good is a false depiction of reality. To be exposed to views which paint an utterly bleak picture of the frum world is a false depiction of what's actually going on - no less false than those who would candy-coat the frum world and pretend there are no problems.