Talmud this Shabbat: Does God Really Care Whether We Observe Jewish Law?–The Voice of the Prophet Micah

Thirty years ago, a young Rabbi Brad Artson got to Congregation Eilat, a Conservative shul in Mission Viejo, California and discovered a cultural pattern that was both lovely and so troubling to him that he could not live with it as it was. Congregants would brew fresh pots of coffee and enjoy their coffee and bagels as part of Kiddush—the social encounters that we all today miss so much. The lovely part was friends coming together to pray and to schmooze. The part he could not live with was brewing fresh pots of coffee.

Jewish law (halakhah) prohibits cooking on Shabbat because we are not to perform melakhah, labor, on Shabbat. The Talmud lays out 39 forbidden labors, one of which is cooking. The rationale is that the Sabbath is a day to be, not to do; to leave the world as it is, not to change it. The other six days, we change it; on Shabbat we rest with it as it is. When we cook, we change the nature of the food from uncooked to cooked. Hence no cooking. According to Jewish law, while one cannot brew a fresh cup of coffee on the Sabbath day, one is allowed to put boiling water (from a hot water urn that is turned on before Shabbat) into freeze dried coffee. Freeze dried coffee is already cooked. There is a principle ein bishul achar bishul, you cannot cook something on Shabbat if it were already cooked before Shabbat.

In an article he wrote thirty years ago, Rabbi Artson argued that rabbis have to pick their spots when they are going to really fight for something they believe in, and when they will look the other way. This was something he really believed in. He could not be a rabbi at a Conservative shul where there was cooking done on Shabbat. He had to do training and education to get his congregants away from brewing pots of coffee to using freeze dried coffee. No fresh brewed coffee, no cooking on Shabbat, was a deal breaker for him.

Roll the film forward thirty years. This past December, Michelle and I had dinner with Rabbi Artson. I asked him did he still feel the same way about a Conservative shul not brewing coffee on Shabbat? Absolutely, he said. He still cares deeply about Jewish law, and not brewing coffee on Shabbat is an expression of that commitment.

Rabbi Artson still cares. But I have two questions for you. Do you care about Jewish law? And did the Biblical prophet Micah care about Jewish law?

Tomorrow we are going to encounter Micah’s most famous passage:

God has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your God. (6:8)
What does Micah think about religious rituals like using freeze dried coffee over fresh brewed coffee as an expression of fidelity to God?

What impact, if any, has the Covid-19 crisis, and the pandemic, and the suffering, and the loss of life and livelihoods, had on your own sense of the importance of religious ritual? Did you experience Passover cleaning differently this year? With so much suffering all around, do religious rituals still matter? With screens and technology so intertwined with our religious services, will not devices continue be a part of our services forever?

How should we be thinking about halakhah, and religious ritual, today? I am attaching the Micah texts as well as an important article authored by Rabbi Harold Kushner in 2007 entitled Conservative Judaism in the Age of Democracy, in which he argues that the Conservative movement is not (and never was) a halakhic movement, and that we should reconceive mitzvot as things we do not because we believe God commands us to do them, but because we believe that doing them adds meaning, purpose and holiness to our lives. If that is your lens, what’s in your cup of coffee this Shabbat morning?

See you Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.

Shabbat shalom,