Sunday, June 17, 2007

Pop Quiz!!!

What do these two celebs (hell, icons) have in common?

(it reeeally isn't what you might be thinking...)

Friday night, I put in my last performance as an interim cantor. The new full-time cantor begins his work this coming week in the service of our synagogue, so this past Friday was a bit of a last hurrah for me...and a milestone for my husband, as Dan had a liturgical melody of his performed that night by myself and our synagogue choir. The service went well, Dan's music sounded glorious, and it was a good night and a good time.
Afterwards, we talked with a woman who was brought in to help beef up the alto section of the choir (occasionally, paid members join the volunteers for special occasions). We talked of the service and then discussed dinner plans. Ms Alto asked us if it was okay by Jewish law to be going out to dinner on Shabbat, and Dan said, "Yes, but you can't handle money when you're there."
"Ohhh, that's why, when I was growing up, my Jewish friend would go out with me on a Friday night and hint at me to take the wallet out of her pocket to pay!" Ms Alto said. She elaborated on her background: her family was the lone Catholic family in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, so a number of her neighborhood friends were Jewish. Then it hit me...
"Hah! You were her shabbos goy!" I exclaimed, a grin on my face. "Did they need you to flip their light switches?"
"You're not allowed to do that on Shabbat?" she said, surprised. "And what is a shabbos goy, anyhow?"
And thus we ambled into a discussion of one of the more controversial figures in the Jewish experience.
"Honey," I said, putting my hand on her shoulder, "Elvis was a shabbos goy. He did tasks on Shabbat for a Jewish family that lived in the same building where he and his family lived when he was growing up in Memphis."
"And it's said that Louis Armstrong was one, too, " Dan chimed in. "The family he helped loaned him the money to get him his first trumpet."
Now, Dan and I are secular Jews. We flip our own light switches on Shabbat, thank you. We do handle money on Shabbat. We handle major appliances on Shabbat as well. For a long time, I had to work on Saturday. We were both raised with a good understanding and knowledge of what Shabbat should be, however: a day set apart from all the rest. A vision of what a perfect world would be like, where we wouldn't have to lift a finger to do any kind of work, where we could rest all the time, and study the Torah. The way "work" has been interpreted by many centuries of arguing rabbis has encompassed everything from hard labor to turning an ignition key to start a car to locking your front door to paying for public transportation to pushing buttons on a microwave to...yeah...flipping a light switch. And the orthodox sects of Judaism hold very fast to these interpretations. BUT...
...they found a loophole.
Which is where the shabbos goy comes in.
The trick is in not asking a non-Jewish person outright to do something for you. And that is also where the controversy comes in. Well, actually, the controversy always comes whenever a loophole is exploited, and the contortions that people do to keep their weekday luxuries without lifting a finger on Shabbat become downright outrageous, it's true. There is also a fine line between Jewish law and exploitation, between a mitzvah in action and name-calling with a hurtful intent.
Lordy, one conversation got me thinking and websurfing about something that I always thought of as a joke, if I thought about it at all. I'm not laughing anymore...much. My brain is simply reeling from having been wrapped around this loophole for a little bit. Jewish law does that to me...which is probably why I'm an interim cantor, not a full-time one.
Hey, it was fun while it lasted...


Marco said...

Louis flips my music switch a lot more than Elvis does. Don't get me wrong, I like some of Elvis' stuff, but in terms of musicianship, not many can touch Louis.

Leigh C. said...

I agree with you there, Marco. But I am simply recognizing that Satchmo and the King could take a hint on occasion... ;-)

saintseester said...

Now this was a very interesting and informative post to wake up to. People and their loopholes, gotta love it! We Catholics have our share, too.