The Privacy and Publicity of Religion

Each religion, in its different ways, has both communal and private dimensions; its believers will have different proportions of the two tendencies. Some people take part in a religion primarily for the social aspects, some for the solitary. Judaism emphasizes the communal, but it is not only communal, just as some branches of Christianity, while placing great emphasis on solitude and privacy, do not live in these alone.

Degrees of privacy do not necessarily correspond with degrees of observance. A person can be highly private about religion but also highly observant, or highly private but barely observant at all. All of the combinations not only exist but are needed. In all the possible variety, the greatest danger comes from excessive certainty and self-pride, on both the believing and the nonbelieving ends. The variety helps to mitigate the certainty.

Do we know that God exists? We have no empirical proof of this; faith is different from knowledge. Do we know that sacred texts are true and divine? Again, we have no empirical proof. Yet we believe strongly, one way or another. Those on the opposite ends–those who say the Bible is perfect and divine, and those who say it’s a bunch of rubbish–will likely disparage each other. Those profane atheists who deny the True Way! Those wacky religious fundamentalists who don’t live in the actual world!

But all of us probably need people who are more observant (or believing), and people who are less so, than we ourselves are. (Not that it’s always a question of “more” or “less”–but this imperfect framework will do for now.) From those who are more observant, one can learn a great deal about centuries-old wisdom and practices; from those who are less so, flexibility and openness.

Once, in the U.S., I was in an awkward situation, in a Shavuot all-night study session. I was sitting next to someone who was at the synagogue for the first time, and new to Judaism. She was eager to start learning Hebrew and liturgy, and asked me if I could recommend any resources. I named a few, which she began to write down. Then I saw three rabbis looking intently at me.

It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening. It was a holiday; you aren’t supposed to write on certain holidays (including Shavuot and Shabbat), nor are you supposed to encourage it. They were looking at me because I was the one they knew. Then one of the rabbis approached the woman and gently asked her not to write.

In the moment, I was mortified, but I realized that the rabbis were not trying to embarrass either of us. They simply needed to maintain the expected practices in shul, for everyone’s sake. After that incident, I came to realize that this prohibition against writing on specific holidays is upheld by Orthodox and Conservative synagogues but not necessarily by Reform. In addition, I saw that even within Conservatism, individuals differ widely in their practices. Once in a while, on Shabbat, one person might give another a phone number, or an email address, and the other person would step outside, or at least out of the sight of others, to write it down. Some write on Shabbat and other holidays, but not when others are looking. Is this hypocrisy? Not necessarily; it can be seen simply as respect.

But then you have those who wouldn’t even consider writing on a holiday, and, on the other end, those who think it’s absurd not to write if you wish to do so. There’s a distinction, moreover, between private and public practice: there are those who justify writing in private, but not in public.

Why does Jewish rabbinic law prohibit writing on holidays? The reason is that writing constitutes a type of creation, which is a form of work. Torah explicitly and repeatedly prohibits work on Shabbat and specific other holidays; rabbinic tradition interprets writing as work. Creation is work in that it brings something into existence that was not there before. The holidays cannot allow for work; they are meant for worship and rest. This has profound meaning and challenge at once. It takes tremendous discipline, but it opens up into beauty. Honoring this in its fullness can be a lifelong project and more: the project of generation upon generation.

On the other hand, there are reasons to question this prohibition. In the case above, where a newcomer has come to the shul, it feels awkward to say, “Yes, I can give you resources, but you shouldn’t write them down.” Or: “If you come back next Shabbat, I’ll give you a list I have prepared in advance.” There are many other times when writing might be not only reasonable, but helpful. I was surprised, at my (European Progressive) shul here in Hungary, so see people taking notes during Shabbat study sessions. At a basic level, it makes sense; if you are studying something, don’t you want to try to remember it? And yes, some people remember better when they just listen (I am one of those), but others are greatly helped by being able to underline, jot down words, and so on.

Back to the question of stepping out of view to give someone a phone number: Doesn’t this obscure the situation? If people are actually writing, shouldn’t they do so openly, so that those who do write know they aren’t alone? Maybe it’s time for a reassessment of writing, especially in the internet era, and during Covid, when it’s a way for people not only to keep in touch, but to lay out their thoughts, to come to terms (or not) with the world.

On the other hand, the public and private questions are truly separate. What you do in public (at shul, for instance) must take into account the expectations and rules of that particular public or community. What you do in private has to do with your own conscience and standards. This is why the private aspect of religion is so important; it allows you to follow what you truly believe, while also participating in a larger whole.

My own beliefs are ambivalent. On the one hand, I see reasons, both sacred and practical, to refrain from writing, and from numerous other activities, at specified times. In our incessantly active world, where we’re expected to be doing, doing, doing, a sacred time for stopping can bring profound restoration. The fact that Judaism explicitly builds and protects this time is cause for awe. On the other hand, I am uneasy with the taboo and its effects: the guilt, the shame. Some of my best writing happens when I have a stretch of time before me, not when I am caught up in the rush of the week. For the first forty-nine years of my life, Shabbat wasn’t even a concept for me. Since my shul-going days began, I have sometimes written on Shabbat, when the ideas were there and I didn’t think they could wait; when I had a pressing deadline; when I wanted or needed to contact someone; or when I had so much teaching preparation to do (preparing lessons, commenting on students’ writing) that refraining would have put undue pressure on Sundays, leading to exhaustion at the start of the teaching week. That said, when I had left Columbia Secondary School to write my second book, I deliberately structured my writing week so that Shabbat could be dedicated to shul, reading, and relaxing. I loved that rhythm–and had plenty of time for writing, since the weekdays were devoted to it.

I do not think God, if there is one, would condemn me for writing on Shabbat or any other time, unless I were writing mean and vile things. Yet I also believe that the day of rest is an infinite gift that asks something of us not in return, but in response. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath comes to my memory again and again.

Back to the beginning: the public and the private, the greater and lesser degrees of observance, all offer something, for the simple reason that no one has the complete answer, not for others or for oneself. I brought in the example of writing because it affects us all and because it illustrates how perspectives and practices can differ, even among people together in a room. People inevitably judge each other to an extent; this results naturally from setting standards for oneself. But judgments can come with questions. In a world overfilled with certainties and dogma (just as it is overfilled with activity), perhaps the questions should come first: and first among these, the ones we ask inside the soul.

I made a few minor edits to this piece, in several stages, after posting it.

Were our mouths filled with song as the sea….

In all the world’s stress, danger, and fear, it is easy to lose sight of the extraordinary beauty in our lives: the things that rise up, against all expectation or dread, and show us a different way of perceiving and living. When I came to Szolnok at the end of October 2017, on my very first day, I walked to the synagogue (and also got a bike across the street). I knew that it was now a gallery; what I didn’t know was that there were people in Szolnok who treasured its history and worked to keep its heritage alive. Nor did I know that one day I would attend an event devoted to the synagogue’s history, and then, a few days later, hold an event there devoted to the sounds of Shabbat.

But yes, these things happened and are about to happen: On Sunday I attended a day-long event commemorating the synagogue’s 120th anniversary. The hall was packed; a warm and eager audience listened to speeches, presentations, and music (a chamber group from the Szolnok Symphony, and later a klezmer band, whose singer, Judit Klein, began with a solo rendition of “Szól a kakas már“).


The day was marked with festive and joyous moments: a champagne toast, a delicious kosher lunch, and a special visit to the little synagogue a few meters away, next to the Tisza Mozi movie theatre. (Szolnok once had three synagogues: these two and a third one where a memorial now stands.)

I was left with a desire to hear more: in particular, I hope to hear the rabbi and scholar Alfréd Schöner speak again.


Tomorrow evening I return to the synagogue, this time to lead an event. I will teach three “songs”–that is, one piyut, one psalm, and one zemer–that have a profound role in Shabbat: “Lecha Dodi,” Psalm 150, and “Eliyahu Hanavi.” The first two I will teach with more than one melody (three for the first and two for the second). I hope that this, too, will be a beginning–but of what, I do not yet know.


The title of this blog post is a quotation from the Nishmat.

Bicycling on Shabbat?


Students sometimes ask me questions about Judaism; while happy to answer, I recognize that my words will be incomplete and sometimes incorrect. Recently a student asked whether I ride my bicycle on Shabbat. I said yes and added that this was not prohibited. I later questioned the second part of my answer, looked into it, and found out that it is indeed prohibited in Orthodox Judaism and, for the most part, in Conservative Judaism as well. But the matter is complicated; there have been many disagreements over the centuries.

I continue to ride my bike on Shabbat (when I am not in Budapest), simply because it is a source of joy and because if I relegate it (along with other non-Shabbat things) to Sunday, I end up with great anxiety and pressure. At the end of my life, when I look back, I don’t think I will be sorry; there are worse ills than going out on the bike and enjoying nature.

I am nowhere near perfect in my observance, but I take the questions and traditions seriously. Also, I am still young in my Judaism; while Jewish by birth (on my mother’s side, and thus by Jewish law), I started practicing it just over five years ago. I expect that my practices and views will change over time. Maybe I will become stricter, maybe less so; in any case I hope to have more understanding.

Biking is prohibited on Shabbat (under Orthodox and Conservative Judaism) for several reasons. First of all, it is considered a form of carrying. Carrying is permitted on Shabbat only within an eruv (an enclosed private area, often an enclosed Jewish community) and then only when the particular thing being carried is not forbidden. It is permissible, for instance, to push a stroller on Shabbat within an eruv, but not outside. The bicycle, not being one of those permitted things, may not be transported even within the eruv.

Some argue, though, that if it allows a person to fulfill a mitzvah, such as leading a service or reading Torah, then it may be used for that purpose alone, even outside the eruv. Conservative Judaism permits driving to synagogue (and only synagogue) on Shabbat (see the 1950 “Responsum on the Sabbath“); some Conservative communities extend this to biking and see the latter as less problematic than the former.

There are other (more tenuous) reasons why riding a bicycle is forbidden on Shabbat. First, it is forbidden to fix things on Shabbat, and a bicycle might break on route, leaving you in a position of wanting to fix it. Second, bicycle riding is considered a weekday activity, and weekday activities are to be avoided. Third, when on a bicycle, you might find yourself leaving the eruv–whether intentionally or by mistake–or even the tehum, the 2000 cubits beyond the town’s last house. You are less likely to do this on foot. Fourth, the bike tires might make marks in the dirt, thereby violating the prohibition against plowing on Shabbat. Finally–and this comes up in many discussions–bicycle riding should be discouraged on Shabbat because many communities consider it wrong and will be upset if they see it happening. Some Orthodox communities are uneasy about bikes in general.

Part of me says, “This has no bearing on you; if you want to ride your bike, ride your bike! It brings you joy and rest, and you aren’t Orthodox anyhow!” Another part admires the precision and care of these considerations, a welcome contrast to a culture of “whatever.” It is possible, I think, to combine the independence and the precision: to follow my judgment while learning more about these questions and their intricacies.

The questions are far from settled. On the website of the Judaic Seminar (a project of the Sephardic Institute in Midwood, Brooklyn), I found a fascinating argument, by Rabbi Moshe Shamah, that bicycle riding should be permitted on those holidays when it is permitted to carry–that is, when the primary objection to bicycle riding does not apply. (Riding on Shabbat is still out of the question here.)

First of all, Rabbi Shamah quotes the Ben Ish Hai, who says that we should not make additional gezerot (enactments, prohibitions) but should rely on the ones already set down in Talmud. The arguments against bicycle riding (on days when carrying is permitted) are innovations and should be avoided for this reason.

From there, Rabbi Shamah makes the case that there are reasons to permit bicycle riding on holidays when carrying is allowed. One is that young people in Orthodox communities should not be made to feel that they are doing something wrong when they are not.

The many teenagers and young adults who inevitably will ride their bicycles on Yom Tob should not feel they are doing an issur [something prohibitedDS] when they are not. Some of them feel they cannot help but ride their bicycles on Yom Tob and, psychologically, thinking that they are doing an issur may prompt them to doing a true issur. `If I’m already doing a sin, what difference does it make if I commit another one?’. It’s a terrible way of looking at things, but unfortunately too common.

Also, by not heaping new restrictions and rules onto existing ones, rabbis in an Orthodox community can protect the people from Conservative enticement:

Our rabbis also worked long and hard to prevent the Conservative Movement from making inroads in our community. A major aspect of their success these past two generations has been their policy of not indiscriminately prohibiting what is basically permitted in areas that would make our people vulnerable to non-Orthodox enticement. Bicycle riding on Yom Tob falls into this category.

Finally, one should avoid an overly restrictive approach to Judaism, as this can turn many people away:

In our generation we have witnessed a miraculous renewal of interest in Judaism….However, we often encounter a somewhat questionable by-product of this renewed vigor, namely, halachic enthusiasm which breeds halachic competitiveness. This frequently results in an overly restrictive, inaccurate version of Judaism replete with unfounded halachic stringencies which may ironically deter others from seeking entrance into the majestic world of Torah Judaism. Often the `pleasant ways of the Torah’ seem to have become difficult to bear as a result of stringencies superimposed upon the truly pleasant ways of Torah Judaism.

These considerations apply not only to Orthodox Judaism but to other branches of Judaism and, more generally, to other religions. How do you maintain the integrity of a tradition while opening yourself to new possibilities and lessons?  Rabbi Shamah sympathizes with young people and with those who feel overwhelmed by the rules. Yes, he sees Conservatives as a threat, partly because they offer, relative to Orthodoxy, a less encumbered approach to Jewish law, an approach that he would like to emulate in part.

So, when looking into the issue of bicycling on Shabbat, I found much more than answers. I found a rabbi grappling not only with this particular question, but with the question of how to honor laws, humans, understanding–and, encompassing all of these, an essence that we only glimpse, in word, thought, and action, throughout our lives.

I took the photo in Szolnok on Friday.