Baby I will be your shabbos goy

Jesus said to his Jews: “The law was for servants—love God as I love him, as his son! What are morals to us sons of God!”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s no secret that I’m far from Christian, but if there’s anything that could make me appreciate the religion it’s Nietzsche’s interpretation. This post, coupled with my weakly expressed Jewish heritage, should explain why.

Recently I came across an interesting post about the amount of energy wasted using an elevator when stairs are available. Given the size and weight of elevators, I’ve always assumed elevators are massive energy hogs and take stairs when I can. In truth, thanks to the use of counterweights, elevators are actually very efficient. Many also employ regenerative braking that converts friction into usable electricity. All things considered, using elevators is actually pretty far down the list of environmental sins. But more interesting than this fact is the mention of a contrivance I’d never heard of: the Sabbath elevator.

Talmudic law prohibits the doing of useful work on the Sabbath. This has been interpreted to include the operation of electrical devices, making life particularly difficult for Jewish robots. It creates obstacles for real people too, leading to the invention of the Sabbath elevator.

Elevators are problematic because they require users to push buttons to operate them. To get around this need, areas with high Jewish populations have created Sabbath elevators programmed to run constantly, stopping on every floor on a preset schedule. This allows observant users to get on and off the elevator without having to interact with it in any way.

It’s actually a bit more complicated than this, depending on how observant one actually is. For example, one must beware of elevators with automatic sensors that could be accidentally set off. Also, some Sabbath elevators disable the regenerative braking, ensuring that a passenger’s weight on the elevator doesn’t produce any useful work.

As mentioned above, elevators are very efficient so the Sabbath versions are silly if not terribly wasteful. However there are other fascinatingly ingenious workarounds available, such as this ridiculous wooden lamp. The difficulty with using a lamp on the Sabbath is that one can’t turn it off when light is no longer wanted and leaving it on all the time isn’t very pleasant either. The solution? A wooden lampshade with opaque panels that can be rotated into place to turn the lamp “off.” Of course the bulb is still burning and wasting energy under the shade, so it’s not really off at all, but this is religiously preferred to flipping a switch.

Finally, as a last resort there’s the shabbos goy, a gentile who does work for observant Jews on the Sabbath. Non-Jews can do things that a Jew can’t do. So an observant Jew can’t turn on the air conditioner, but he can not-so-subtly complain about the heat until his gentile friend does.

And this is what I always found distasteful in Judaism — aside from the gefilte fish, another Sabbath workaround. Judaism doesn’t seem to prohibit these kind of acts because of their moral or practical implications, but because of their symbolism; it’s perfectly fine to benefit from air conditioning as long as it’s not a Jew hitting the on switch. Though the Jewish side of my family is extremely reform, this obedience to a plethora of traditional rules always struck me as more burdensome than meaningful. Thus my affinity for the Nietzsche quote above. (This is a purely personal preference. If you’re Jewish and find meaning in following the rules, follow them all you want.)

I’m not writing this as an unprovoked rant against Judaism. I have a serious question: can an environmentalist observant Jew consistently apply his ethics? Covering light bulbs with boxes instead of turning them off hardly seems like a good idea for an environmentalist. Perhaps the general prohibition on operating electrical devices does result in observant Jews having a net energy savings on the Sabbath, but it’s actions on the margin that matter. Given that the applicable rules for Jews are more symbolic than moral, could some flexibility be granted for a good cause? Or alternatively, is the flexibility embodied in the creative workarounds mentioned above the real problem?

(I’m aware that that the Sabbath prohibitions are intended to respect God’s resting on the seventh day. To which my friend Chad says, “Yes, but God got a lot more done the other six days of the week than I do.” Exactly! If the Old Testament God had GMail and Bloglines, he wouldn’t have been able to rest on the seventh day either.)

(Also, if this post doesn’t elicit some comment from Jeff, nothing will.)


7 thoughts on “Baby I will be your shabbos goy”

  1. Acknowledging that I’m both not Jewish and relatively ignorant of Jewish tradition, this post seems to highlight an interesting challenge Jews must face when considering how closely they should adhere to their orthodoxy. It seems clearly irreconcilable to be both orthodox and an environmentalist without seriously contorting the modern conceptions of at least one of these labels. But even more significantly, it seems as though the challenges to adhering to orthodoxy can only increase as technology becomes more prevalent and intertwined with every incremental human action.

    My initial guess is you won’t see many people on this blog arguing in favor of strict orthodoxy, so let me press a bit harder on the moderates with a couple of questions. First, is there a logical consistency applied by the more reformed traditions that explains which behaviors to continue to practice, or (as we see in certain Protestant traditions) do the standards seem to change whenever something gets too unpopular? Second, acknowledging that the rationale for nearly all Jewish cultural practices was either religious (e.g. doing no useful work on the Sabbath because God rested) or historical (e.g. not eating “unclean” animals because when the law was created the medical risk was very high) what grounds would an atheist — or really, any cultural progressive generally speaking — have for honoring some subset of the traditions strictly as a “cultural Jew”?

    And for the record, these comments seem merely curious to me, so please call me out if I’ve unknowingly said anything horribly offensive…

  2. Comment elicited.

    And here we hit upon the difference between reform Jews and orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews derive more meaning from following the laws as their ancestors did, while reform Jews pay more attention to the spirit of the law. For example, to me, the injunction about not doing work on the Sabbath still allows me to drive a car, as long as I’m relaxing and not, you know, working. (You might remember that I steadfastly refused to do homework on Saturdays in college.) So since taking care of the environment is a mitzvah as well, I’d just turn off the damn light.

    Unlike Christianity, Judaism is more concerned with what you do rather than what you believe. You’ve just highlighted a difference between the Orthodox interpretation of what it means to “do Jewish” (highly legalistic) and the Reform interpretation (abiding by the spirit of the Commandments).

    At least that’s how I see it. Two Jews, three opinions, you know.

  3. Agreed, reform is far more sensible. I think Chad’s right that the ever-increasing integration of technology is going to make a stricter lifestyle more and more difficult.

  4. Either that, or it will require a rethinking of the legalistic maneuvers required to use technology on Shabbat. Why not, if you’re Orthodox, take a day off from technology a week? Why do you have to find a way around the law so you can use a light bulb on Friday night? You can go a day without checking e-mail, right?

    Or here’s a thought. If you’re an orthodox Jew, don’t live in a location where you have to use an elevator or a car on Shabbat. And if you get injured and have to take an elevator/car, God will forgive you (I think there’s a “don’t be stupid” rule for most commandments, such as “don’t fast on Yom Kippur if you’re sick”).

  5. We use timers.
    My aunt lives in a building with an elevator whose Sabbath mode is also put on a timer for 2 periods during the Sabbath – around when people come home from synagogue on Friday night and Saturday morning.

  6. And Orthodox Jews DO take a day off from technology a week – no checking email, tv, cars, electric shavers, hot water heaters – but it is nice to not fall on your ass in the dark on Friday nights.

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