In my family, we have a ritual on Saturday morning. Max and I are usually the first ones up, so I take him downstairs and let the girls sleep. And by the time they are up, I’m doing actual cooking for breakfast, which we don’t do any other day of the week. At one point, challah french toast was the favorite; more recently, it’s been pancakes or banana muffins or even vegan double-chocolate waffles and pumpkin scones.
Saturday, of course, is also the Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat. Shabbat should be about resting and recharging and spending peaceful time together as a family, and my ritual fits nicely with this. Waking up early, rushing out the door after a bowl of cereal and stopping to buy coffee on the way to where we’re going would not be in the spirit of Shabbat. The only problem is that cooking breakfast isn’t really in the spirit of Shabbat, either; cooking itself is a type of work that traditional Jews don’t do on the Sabbath at all.
This past week I did something different. Every Saturday at 8:30 a.m. our rabbi holds a study session. He e-mails the congregation the day before with the topic. It’s always an interesting topic, but not usually reason enough to leave my wife with both children on her hands on the one day she can stay in bed a little late. This week, however, the topic was so personally compelling that I put a batch of banana muffins in the oven, kissed the family goodbye, and went to learn about why Jacob Neusner, a prominent academic Conservative Rabbi who was raised Reform (like I was) was is returning to reform.
The interesting topic is not Neusner’s choice per se, but what differentiates two denominations that, in real ways, are competing and converging. Our rabbi said that he and a colleague in the Reform movement he is friends with both describe their jobs as encouraging congregants to “make Jewish choices,” and if that meant they are much the same, so what?
Having been fairly involved myself in both movements for different parts of my life I have my own ideas about the differences, and think that when lifelong Conservative Jews call our left-of-center (using “left” colloquially in a non-political sense) Conservative synagogue “like Reform” it’s because they don’t really know the Reform movement. It’s like when people say France is Americanized because of McDonald’s and a Disney park, ignoring the system of laws, work ethic, decentralized public education, religious history, etc. that make America unique.
The next day, I recalled a conversation that made the difference crystal clear. A couple years ago, I had the chance to talk to a local Reform rabbi about my Shabbat observance as a participant in CJP’s Ikkarim program. I asked him specifically about my pancakes-on-Saturday-morning conundrum: how it felt appropriate for my young family, but wasn’t the highest level of observance that I hoped to eventually (like, when the kids went off to college) achieve. His answer was that if cooking breakfast is the Shabbat practice that works for me, I should do it. From the Reform perspective, making a Jewish choice was not about making a choice guided by Jewish law, and there was no “credit” given to a choice that was not meaningful just because it honored Jewish law. This appeals to a lot of people, but it left me unsatisfied. And that’s why even though I agree with Jabob Neusner’s platform, I’m still not a Reform Jew.
Michael Chabon, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (admittedly a novel, not religious teaching) writes about the “shortfall…. Between commandment and observance, heaven and earth, husband and wife, Zion and Jew. They called the shortfall ‘the world.’” Pancakes on Shabbat are part of “the world.” Figuring out how to live in the world is the challenge.