Statement about the Kushners and the Sabbath

TORA, the umbrella group of Traditional Orthodox Rabbis of America, voices its concern that misunderstanding of the activities of the Kushners could lead to an erosion of the historic responsibility of employers to accommodate individual religious beliefs.

For generations, observant Jews all too often heard the refrain from their employers: If you do not show up to work on Saturday, don’t come back on Monday. Consequently, religious Jews would seek a new job every week until they found an employer who respected their religious conviction. Eventually laws were passed to protect the religious rights of all workers. Today, observant Jews can work in most fields without fear of having to choose between earning a living and observing a biblical tradition. For example, in advance of the presidential trip to Saudi Arabia, advisor Jason Greenblatt flew to Riyadh early and observed the Sabbath there, without participating in any meetings on the holy day.

The media was awash with reports of Jared and Ivanka Kushner flying on Air Force One to Saudi Arabia on the Jewish Sabbath, reportedly after securing rabbinic sanction. This leads to the question: if the Kushners could obtain rabbinic permission for their actions, why can’t all serious professionals do the same?

Many of our fellow citizens do not understand that Jewish law, like all Western law systems, is complex and nuanced. Rabbis do not rule permissively because they are licensed to suspend the law, or issue dispensations and indulgences. Rather, the various laws are of different levels of gravity, much as first-degree murder is a graver offense than manslaughter, which is more serious than jay-walking. On the Sabbath, these begin the most fundamental laws that prohibit 39 types of creative activity (which demonstrate Man’s mastery of the world), emphasizing one day out of seven that true creativity and mastery belong to G-d. Depending on the gravity of the particular Sabbath provision, some situations are deemed by the Law itself as important enough – usually when there is immediate concern for life or health – to override the ordinary practice. Determining this requires in all cases careful deliberation of a rabbi who is expert in Jewish tradition.

We state unequivocally that whatever such arguments may have been in the case of the Kushners, they do not remotely apply to the hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews whose jobs are quite different.