When I was serving as a congregational rabbi, I was occasionally challenged by individual members about the decisions I made regarding my Jewish diligence. For example, one might say to me, “How can you turn on your lights on Friday night? That’s a violation of Shabbat!”
Never mind that the person implying that I was a sinner and a hypocrite would likely get into a car on that same Friday night to go to dinner and the theater.
I would sometimes thank such folks for being so strict about my observance.
And then, of course, there were those people who complained that I put the specifics of ritual observance over and above the spirit of the tradition and its higher values. Often that came about regarding school attendance on Jewish holidays like Shavu’ot, two forlorn festival days that occur near the end of the school year. “Jews value education!” they would protest. “Isn’t it more authentic for our children to be learning something so close to finals than to be sitting through lengthy services?”
Not everyone contended with the gap between their principles and my conduct, but my experience was that the more strenuous the objection, the wider the breach.
It seems to be the case now that two groups of Jews are criticizing Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who identify as orthodox, for traveling in a car on the Shabbat immediately following her father’s inauguration. What rabbi gave them permission, inquiring minds want to know. How can they call themselves orthodox if they eat food not prepared under strict rabbinic supervision? An adviser to the president with an office in the White House will necessarily compromise the spirit of the holidays and Shabbat, even if the letter of the law is upheld.
The one group I might call the chnyok-ish cohort – the people so deeply involved in the strictures of Jewish law and observance that any other consideration is ridiculously irrelevant. The law allows for exceptions, they will rightly claim, when life or well-being is in immediate danger. Otherwise…not.
The other group I might call the frum patrol – the people with a flexitarian relationship to Jewish life who know just enough to hold others accountable when they fall short of an academic standard.
Both groups are busy dissecting the Jewish life of President Trump’s daughter and son-in-law. For the cohort, no orthodox rabbi worthy of respect would allow a Jew to get into an automobile on Shabbat to go to a party or a church, no matter what. Therefore, the Jewishness of the Kushners may be called into question – Jared’s claim to orthodoxy and Ivanka’s claim to Jewishness itself – because they are willing to toss aside the sanctity of religious life for secular (or other religious) purposes.
For the patrol, the Kushners’ decision to compromise is just another example of the hypocrisy of the entire inner circle of the president. Mind you, it is hypocrisy only because of their claim to orthodoxy. No such outrage was expressed over Bernie Sanders’s visit to Liberty University to address chapel services on Rosh HaShanah. Joe Lieberman was never taken to task for his willingness to eat “cooked dairy” in non-kosher restaurants before, during and after his campaign for vice-president. And it was not lost on me that some of this criticism came from people who very publicly traveled on Shabbat after the inauguration to participate in the protest march.
Let me suggest that wise Jews approach Jewish observance an appreciation of paradox. Law, by its nature, is clearly delineated but unable to anticipate every extenuating circumstance. Mostly, the law applies. It may be technically correct that we must not extinguish a fire on Shabbat, but only a callous and foolish person would not call the fire department if a blaze broke out on Shabbat. It may be technically correct that we must always tell the truth, but the Talmud insists that “every bride is beautiful,” a dubious claim. It may be technically correct that a very traditional Jew would not enter a church, let alone on Shabbat, but when the Chief Rabbi of England was expected at the royal wedding, there he was.
So let’s give Jared and Ivanka a break. I am certain their detractors can find plenty of things to criticize. I won’t list them here, any more than I will list the many merits that offset their shortcomings. This game-playing about their Jewish integrity is inconsistent with the reality of the chnyok-ish cohort and the frum patrol alike. They struggle like all of us with maintaining the standards of their better inclinations in the face of the challenges that they face from living in a world that overwhelmingly ignores the demands of a traditional Jewish life.
Using Jewish observance as a political weapon is as wrong as using political weapons against Jewish observance.