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.