A story from the Chasidic tradition….
A certain rabbi lived in a small village with his wife and children. One Shabbat his friend came to visit, but the rabbi was nowhere to be found. Suddenly the friend noticed that the rabbi was in the bedroom, tied up on his bed. Aghast, the man rushed over to the bed to help his friend. But the rabbi told him: “Every Erev Shabbat I tell my wife to tie a rope around my hands, and then tie another one around my feet. And I spend all of Shabbat tied up in bed.” The friend could hardly believe his ears. “Why on earth do you do that?” he asked in disbelief. “To make sure that I don’t do even the slightest thing that would violate the Halakha (Jewish Law) of observing Shabbat.” The friend shook his head in disgust and said: “My friend, forgive me, but you are an idiot. You go to such absurd lengths not to transgress the Halakha of Shabbat, and in so doing, you deprive yourself and your family of the joy of celebrating Shabbat! You have missed the point completely.” Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, the spiritual leader of Beit Tefila Yisraeli, told this story. And he reveled in the people all over Israel who are longing for the opportunity to celebrate the Oneg – the joy – of Shabbat, without feeling tied up by their hands and feet by the rigidity of the Ultra Orthodox Rabbinate. And indeed, they were there with us on the deck that evening – hundreds of them – singing and dancing, smiling and clapping. There were instruments, kids, ice cream cones, dogs and cameras – all reveling in Oneg Shabbat – the joy of Shabbat – in the spirit of Progressive Judaism.
I heard this story this past Friday from Rabbi Esteban Gottfried at the Kabbalat Shabbat celebration of Beit Tefilah Yisraeli. Beit Tefilah Yisraeli is a congregation that speaks to the needs of non-Orthodox Israelis, and operates in a distinctly Israeli idiom. It gathers every week during the summer months on the deck at the Namal – the Port of Tel Aviv – along with Israelis from all over the country, and visitors from abroad as well. During the colder months, it meets at Alma Hebrew College in Tel Aviv – the liberal, pluralistic yeshiva founded and directed by Former Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon.
Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, originally from Buenos Aires, is a 2012 graduate of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. To date, almost a hundred Israelis have been ordained at this campus. They have spread out all over Israel, and have helped to quadruple the number of Reform congregations and gatherings just within the past decade. The politics of Israel presents a formidable challenge to liberal Jews in Israel. Nevertheless, seeing is believing. While the Ultra Orthodox Rabbinate tries to tie the hands and feet of the country, many Israelis are clapping and dancing in the spirit of Oneg Shabbat. This past Friday, at the Port of Tel Aviv, Steve and I clapped and danced along with them, as we welcomed in Shabbat, and the sun set over the Mediterranean.