Monday, September 12, 2005

Shabbos: Do/Don't Extinguish All Smoking Materials

"In the name of R'Yose bar Yehuda they said: One may employ a subterfuge." (117b1).

As previously noted, on 115a, Rabbah fabricated a ruling in the name of R'Yochanan to build a higher fence around the Torah. But here we see R'Yose bar Yehuda say "One may employ a subterfuge" to save one's property from fire on Shabbat, seemingly lowering the fence. The observance of Shabbat, it seems, is less critical than the awareness of Shabbat and the absence of the appearance of desecrating Shabbat. (Although ArtScroll [fn13] cautions, "Even those who permit the employment of a subterfuge do so only when the subterfuge is credible." Who do we think we're fooling?)

The fire burns but some refuse to even look upon it: R'Yose says, "I performed five marital acts . . . and never gazed at my circumcised member." [118 b]. Others depend on the kindness of strangers: "A gentile who comes to extinguish a fire . . . his resting is not their responsibility." [122a].

But enough about fire! Let's get back to R'Yose's circumcised member, or to circumcised members in general. "Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Any commandments for which the Jewish people gave themselves over to death at a time of a government edict directed at that commandment such as an edict to perform idolatry or to refrain from performing circumcision is still firmly held in their hands. And any commandment for which the Jewish people did not give themselves over to death at a time of government edict directed at the commandment such as the wearing of tefillen is still held weakly in their hands." [130a].

It's a powerful text, but is it still true? Is the Holocaust unique in simultaneously influencing many of us to fiercely affirm our Jewish identity while abandoning our belief and practice? As the Forward noted in their July 8 editorial, "In today's world, every Jew is a Jew by choice. Most Jews know this; it's only the leadership of the community's institutions that hasn't come to terms with it." Can both these text be true in the same time and place? Is there any subterfuge we might employ credible enough to allow it?