This Sunday, Jews everywhere read the Purim tale of Mordecai and Esther’s heroism through their proximity to the king. The Biblical story will have new resonance now that America’s First Family includes Orthodox Jews. The religious observance of First Daughter Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner has drawn both fascination and scorn. For example, their attendance at inaugural events on Shabbat, depending on whom you ask, was anything from a beautiful example of Jewish law meeting extraordinary circumstances to what one liberal feminist called “a perversion of Jewish values.”
Then there’s the striking number of poor decisions by President Trump on Friday nights and Saturdays, suggesting Kushner is a moderating influence on his father-in law. They include Trump’s Tweets about Obama’s supposed wiretapping, the “so-called judge,” and the Orlando nightclub shooting. So too the first travel ban, the CIA speech, the inauguration crowd brouhaha, and the attack on former POW Sen. John McCain.
The half-joke is that the Kushner/Trump family’s Shabbat observance is putting the nation at risk by loosening the safeguards on their out-of-control pater familias. For example, in a Tweet, Jewish journalist Ron Kampeas’s evoked living “in terror” that Kushner will be out of commission for 72 hours this September, when Rosh Hashanah runs directly into Shabbat and puts Orthodox Jews out of circulation for three days straight.
So maybe it’s wrong for Jared and Ivanka to prioritize Shabbat observance over the administration’s needs, since even major violations can be sanctioned in unusual circumstances.
Or maybe it’s wrong for them to ever violate Shabbat – either because the Sabbath is inviolable and sacrosanct, or because breaking it would reveal them as hypocrites and poseurs.
Members of the First Family aren’t talking – and good for them.
Orthodox Jews have a specific procedure for complicated situations of Jewish law – a person goes to his rabbi and asks a “shayla,” a Jewish legal query. The rabbi will probably ask questions about the situation, do some research using various Jewish sources, and give an answer – and then the person follows it. There’s no “appeal process,” and the answer is not transferable to other people, because different people may get different answers (the classic example is the very same chicken that is kosher for a poor Jew but forbidden to a rich one).
I presume that as Orthodox Jews, Jared and Ivanka are following that procedure. Their rabbi needn’t send out a press release identifying himself and explaining his rulings. There have been and probably will be times when the two violate Shabbat, as Kushner did during the campaign after the release of Trump’s vulgar Trump tape about groping women.
More prominently, Jared and Ivanka reportedly asked a shayla before riding to the Inaugural Ball, though the sole evidence in the media was weak – a talk-show statement by Israeli Republican Party chair Marc Zell, who named neither the rabbi nor his source.
Zell claimed the Inauguration permission was based on safety concerns under the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) should someone want to hurt them during their public participation, though that seems inadequate. They didn’t have to attend at all. Still, there are many concepts in Jewish law that could have legitimized a permissive stance, such as “honoring the kingdom” (and that includes democracies), “recognizing the good,” and “honoring parents.”
But pikuach nefesh itself could surely be a reason for future rabbinic permission to violate Shabbat when the job is as high stakes as advising the most powerful man in the world. Observant Jewish doctors and Israeli soldiers violate Shabbat all the time, albeit while minimizing their infractions, because of the life-and-death nature of their jobs. Politically, former Senator Joe Lieberman wrote an entire book about the balance involved in this topic, and there are many actions politicians have done and will do that are usually not appropriate on Shabbat but are acceptable or even necessary in their situations.
So if Jared and Ivanka violate Shabbat over the next four to eight years in a surprising situation – or keep Shabbat despite urgent matters – it certainly will be interesting to watch. But how they came to those decisions is none of our business. The most respected rabbinic minds in the country would gladly help them navigate these waters – and maybe they already have. Or maybe the couple has chosen a more modest rabbi they admire from their shul (synagogue). Absent contrary evidence, we can assume their actions have rabbinic guidance because that’s what Orthodox Jews do.
Purim celebrates Jewish men and women in a unique situation to do good because of their access to the seat of power. If Jared and Ivanka are to be this era’s Mordecai and Esther (God, are you listening?), the last thing they need is a million American Jews and non-Jews pretending to be their rabbi. They already have a rabbi. Leave them alone.