Thursday, May 3, 2012

Two-minute Torah: Conflict of Laws

What does one do if two different authorities give you conflicting orders? For example, during Prohibition the manufacture and sale of wine was prohibited. But according to some understandings of Jewish law, wine (as opposed to grape juice) MUST be used for Friday night Kiddush and the four cups during the Passover Seder. What to do?

As it happens, the Prohibition legislation allowed for a "sacramental exemption" and both synagogues and Catholic churches were able to obtain wine under it. But what if such an exemption had not been allowed?

This week's Torah reading contains a curious line. Lev. 19:3 says "Everyone shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall observe My sabbaths, I am the LORD." Why are the two combined in this one verse?

It should be noted, of course, that both observing the Sabbath and honoring our parents had already been commanded in the Ten Commandments. So we already know that we are supposed to do these things. What new knowledge does this particular verse impart to us?

Rashi says that the verse is specifically addressing a situation where one's parent tells him or her to violate Shabbat. Yes, in general we are supposed to obey our parents, but in this particular case, the verse is clarifying that at least as far as Shabbat goes, our obligation to God outweighs our obligation to our parents. In other words, the letter "vav" in the verse really means "nevertheless", not simply "and."

I don't know whether this was a common issue in Rashi's day but it is not uncommon today. In sociology, "Hansen's Law" tells us that in immigrant societies, the third generation often seeks to reclaim what the second generation discarded. And thus it is not uncommon for American Jews who are grandchildren of immigrants (as I am) to be more observant than their parents. And with the growth in the number of Jews by Choice, it is also not uncommon for observant Jews to have non-Jewish parents. And so our parents may schedule a family reunion on Shabbat, or expect us to attend some other type of event on Shabbat. We feel a tension because we know we are supposed to honor our parents, but we also have Shabbat norms that we should not violate.

This verse gives us guidance. If it is possible to honor our parents' wishes without violating Shabbat (or eating non-kosher food), we should do so. Hopefully, our non-Jewish or non-observant parents will meet us halfway and seek to accommodate our needs. But if it is impossible to do both, Shabbat takes precedence. And it stands to reason -- we are obligated to honor our parents, but both us and our parents are obligated to honor God.

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