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An Inaugural Dispensation

Why Jared and Ivanka’s anonymously granted Shabbat exemption is problematic

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
January 25, 2017
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Jared Kushner outside of Trump Tower in New York City, December 7, 2016. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Jared Kushner outside of Trump Tower in New York City, December 7, 2016. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Is Ivanka’s Shabbos observance anyone’s business? I think it is. Because it isn’t about Shabbos at all, it’s about Ivanka and Jared, who were given the green light from an anonymous rabbinical authority to use a car during President Trump’s inauguration.

What they did about Shabbos gives us a clue to how they think. This matters to the whole country because it may presage the way they counsel governance. They are, in effect, saying, “Trust us. Shabbos/the country is very important to us. We know what we are doing. We are good people, we are good Jews. Trust us. We got a dispensation, but no one will know from whom.”

If they had said, “Too bad, When it comes to Shabbos we will do as we will do, that’s one thing. But to have said they got a dispensation to do it, and that’s another thing entirely. It’s an official exemption. But an exemption from what? An exception to the rules of Shabbos, or are they themselves exceptions to the rule? And who might have given them such an exemption? It feels as though we are back in Nixonian times: The nation is in the hands of smart, wealthy white people (mostly men) who know what’s best for the country.

My father told me that when he was a very young boy in the Bronx of the 1930s, the hero among the Jewish kids in the neighborhood was Hank Greenberg, the famous Jewish outfielder for the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers had made it to the World Series one year, but one of the games fell on Rosh Hashanah. According to lore, a rabbi from Detroit gave him a heter to play. The Bronx boys were not particularly devout, but they were traditional Yiddish-speaking sons-of-immigrants and they said, “a rabbi who says it’s okay to play baseball on Rosh Hashanah? He has to be a phony.” (The identity of the rabbi has never been revealed.)

Oddly, Hank Greenberg became famous (like Sandy Koufax after him) for not playing on Yom Kippur. In later years he summed it up well. “I didn’t ever regret not playing,” he said. “I didn’t sit out Yom Kippur because I was religious; it was out of identity—my identity as a Jew.” For Greenberg, resting on Yom Kippur was about standing up. “I realize now,” he would write in his autobiography, “more than I used to, how important a part I played in the lives of a generation of Jewish kids who grew up in the thirties. I guess I was kind of a role model.

We are living with a president for whom words have an Orwellian feel. Truth is subverted for the aims of power and words no longer have unified meaning. For those who skeptical of the administration, Ivanka and Jared were antacid to the collective acid reflux of Trump. Fairly or not, the couple, an embodiment of the absolute demands of Orthodoxy were seen as a counterweight to his unending self-dealing, especially as they now have senior advisory positions.

Their decisions regarding Shabbos are as socially legitimate as those of anyone else. Live and let live, as the saying goes. After all, who are we to mix in? Who among us, has not bent the rules of the Sabbath in time of great distress or desire?

Yet, the actions of the Team Trump send profound messages. Unless the rabbi who gave the dispensation identifies him or herself, the sanctity of the Sabbath has been diminished and the couple have not inspired confidence. It seems as if the truth has been subverted by Trump—and now the truth of the Sabbath, too.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.