Wednesday, September 21, 2011
A Reform Rabbi Defends the Sabbath
Rabbi Isaac Schwab (1840-1907) was a student of Rabbi Abraham Samuel Benjamin Sofer (Ktav Sofer) at the Yeshiva of Pressburg in Hungry before getting a doctoral degree in Germany and becoming a Reform rabbi in the United States. He served in Portland OR, Evansville IN and Williamsburg NY (long before it was a hotbed for Satmar) before becoming rabbi in St. Joseph MO. His introduction to The Sabbath in History testifies to the lack of Sabbath observance among nineteenth century American Jews, something that Schwab laments.
The Sabbat, most sacred as it is in its significance, and as yet theoretically planted hard and fast in the consciousness of the generality of Israel as the "perpetual sign between them and God," has yet practically lost in modern days much of its pristine awfulness, and even of the fervid reverence paid to it in ages not so long gone by. Notwithstanding that it is yet generally exalted as a prominently distinctive mark of Judaism, and valued as one of the few remaining bonds of Israel's union, it is alas! too often made to yield to the so-called pressure of modern business relations, and thus compromised as to its sanctity and validity; or it is paltered with and bartered away on various grounds of expediency. On these painful issues of modern Judaism we cannot here dwell. It lies moreover beyond the purpose of these prefatory lines to find fault and point out the different manifest decrease of true attachment for the Sabbath in our day.
The writer is, on the whole, aiming at and inspired by the hope of quickening again, by the light of historical data witnessing to an incomparable self-devotion and loyalty of Israel in the past to the royal bride Sabbath, that sense of superior estimation of this sacred day, which should be the pride and glory of our people at the present, no less than it was in previous times. He aims to rekindle, by the various illustrations put forth in his work, a zealous concern for the Sabbath of the Decalogue in the minds of those, with whom it has slacked through an undue addiction to worldly things and business advantages, and to possibly arrest the Neshamah yetherah "additional soul," formerly sorrowful flight from those too deeply immersed in their temproal pursuits and the material strifes of our racing age, or those too flightily temporizing in their attitude towards the "sign" that is to be "perpetual," and on the perpetuity of which our forefathers, as well of the middle ages as of antiquity (Jewish new-Christians of Spain, who would continue to observe the Sabbath secretly despite the baptism forced on them, were by the inquisitors singled out by the ovservation, from elevated places, that no smoke came out of their houses on the Sabbath, even in rigorous winter; see 'Shebhet Jehudah,' pg. 96) staked their lives from their spontaneous piety and faithfulness to the Law. (Pg. 5-6.)
What I find interesting about this defense of Sabbath observance is that in the end he does not condemn those masses of American Jews no longer keeping the Sabbath even by Reform standards. Instead he turns to history as if to say "The Sabbath has served as a cornerstone of the Jewish people throughout its history. It is not being kept today, which is pity, but far be it from me as to actually talk about it or God forbid make anyone feel guilty."