Air Force One left Andrews Air Force Base on Friday afternoon for Saudi Arabia, and among those onboard were Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. The family belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and Ivanka was converted to Judaism by a well-respected Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. White House spokespeople apparently told the press that they had received a “rabbinic dispensation” to fly on Shabbat, something Orthodox Jews are normally not permitted to do. Rabbi Lookstein has denied giving the couple permission to fly on Shabbat, according to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, but the fact of the matter is that he was never identified as the rabbi who supposedly gave this permission.
Is there such a thing as a “rabbinic dispensation”? Did Jared and Ivanka violate halacha by flying in Air Force One on Shabbat? My answer to both questions is “no.”
First of all, there is no such thing as a “rabbinic dispensation.” In the Catholic church, the pope or a local bishop can grant a “dispensation” when in their opinion, following a specific law would create an undue hardship. The most famous recent dispensation came earlier this year when St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday during Lent, and many bishops relaxed the prohibition on eating meat on Friday in Lent so that Catholics could eat the traditional corned beef and cabbage. Rabbis have no such power; no rabbi can release a Jew from following Jewish law due to severe hardship.
Since we don’t know who the rabbi was that allegedly gave this “dispensation,” we can’t know the reasoning behind it. However, Rabbi Jeffrey Woolf, a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, with a Ph.D. from Harvard and ordination from Yeshiva University, wrote that in his opinion Jared and Ivanka’s plane flight was perfectly permissible. He writes: “there are times when the conflict between observance and public responsibility cannot be avoided. In cases of life or death, the Torah commands that Shabbat be set aside to the degree necessary to save lives. This is the guiding principle of the Israel Defense Forces, and the reason that ministers in the Israeli government sometimes violate Shabbat in an emergency. Most such cases, though, are far less dramatic and occur when pressing demands of the public welfare require the attention of the public servant who is also an Orthodox Jew. The individual is then allowed to violate rabbinically legislated restrictions. This is not because a ‘dispensation’ is given (a Catholic term that has no place in Judaism). Rather, Jewish Law maintains that when these rules were enacted, very limited exceptions were built in for extraordinary circumstances and/or persons.”
To understand Rabbi Woolf’s argument, it’s necessary to know that in halacha there are two types of laws: biblical and rabbinic. Biblical laws cannot be suspended except in cases of life and death, but rabbinical laws can be suspended “when pressing demands of the public welfare require the attention of the public servant who is also an Orthodox Jew,” in Rabbi Woolf’s words.
Without getting too technical, it seems to me that flying in Air Force One on Shabbat involves violation of rabbinic but not biblical laws. While operating a car or other conveyance such as an airplane would be a biblical violation, riding in one is only a rabbinic violation at best. The main violation of riding in a conveyance on Shabbat would be amira la-akum, asking a Gentile on Shabbat to perform forbidden labor on your behalf. If the conveyance is operating regardless of whether you are on it or not, technically there is no violation at all. (The main problem with riding the Metro on Shabbat would be carrying the Smartrip card and operating the fare gates.)
Air Force One took off before Shabbat, so getting to Andrews wouldn’t have involved any prohibitions, and it would have flown the same route regardless of whether or not they were on board. Of course, they landed in Saudi Arabia on Shabbat and then were driven in a car, but again the car wasn’t provided exclusively for them and at any rate they didn’t direct the driver, so I see no issue of amira la-akum here either.
It’s important to remember that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner didn’t go to Saudi Arabia on vacation or a private business trip. They both hold official, though unpaid, appointments as advisors to the President and as such are government officials. While I’ve seen suggestions that they should have flown a day earlier or a day later, I’m certain that meetings were held and speeches rewritten in the plane on the way over, and thus being on the flight was part of their governmental responsibilities.
They aren’t the first observant Jews to have to deal with tensions between Shabbat observance and their official duties. While Senator Joe Lieberman usually walked to the Capitol when important Senate business was conducted on Shabbat, there were times when he allowed himself to be driven there in an emergency or when the weather didn’t allow him to walk. He did this only for Senatorial duties, not for politics. He never campaigned on Shabbat and never attended the Connecticut State Democratic Conventions which nominated him, because they were held on Shabbat. Jack Lew -- someone I know personally and in whose house I have had Shabbat meals -- served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations as budget director and also served as both Chief of Staff and Treasury Secretary under President Obama. During both administrations, it was reported that he had a telephone number which was known only to the Oval Office, and which was used only in cases of emergency -- and when it rang, he picked it up.
During the course of my career I’ve met many Jews in government service who have had to make decisions about what they will or won’t do on Shabbat. I’ve spoken with career military officers who have seen their careers suffer because, while they will perform mission-sensitive work on Shabbat, they won’t attend purely social events. Unless we want to maintain that observant Jews can’t serve in crucial government or public safety roles, we ought to respect the decisions about Shabbat observance that others make in good faith, even if we think that in their place we would have decided differently. We also need to make sure that our evaluation of a decision another Jew makes about their observance isn’t clouded by our disapproval of the administration in which that person serves.
I don’t have any problem with the decision that Jared and Ivanka made. I am concerned about the way it was presented. There are valid worries that presenting this as a “rabbinic dispensation” rather than a legitimate setting aside of rabbinic prohibitions for public necessity may make it harder for other observant Jews in the future. “Jared and Ivanka got permission from their rabbi to fly on Air Force One, why can’t you get permission from your rabbi to make this presentation on Saturday?” We may need to explain the difference between government officials fulfilling their public responsibility on Shabbat on the one hand, and making a sales pitch or finishing an audit or a legal brief on the other It’s always an issue when observant Jews are perceived to be acting contrary to Jewish law, even when in fact they are not. It would be a public service for the rabbi who supposedly gave permission to step forward and explain his reasoning. I’m not an Orthodox rabbi, and there is no reason that the Kushner family would turn to me, but had they done so I would have advised them that it was proper for them to accompany the President in Air Force One on Shabbat. But I would have insisted that my reason for doing so be made public as well.