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Dinner Dilemma

Thursday, January 31, 2013
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Dear Miriam,

My family is working towards becoming more traditionally Shabbat observant. We got invited to a Shabbat dinner hosted by a couple who is well connected in my professional field, and I'd really like to attend. The problem is that we'd have to drive or take the train on Shabbat to get there. I'm trying to decide which values to prioritize, especially because even though I'd like to be shomer Shabbat soon, I'm not currently. What should I do?

Signed,
Dinner Dilemma


Dear Dilemma,

For anyone who has read any part of my Shabbat blog, you know that talking about individualized Shabbat observance is a real passion of mine. "More traditionally Shabbat observant" can mean a lot of things to a lot of people and, so my argument goes, whatever it means to you is valid. How you celebrate may change from week to week, it may be different from your other family members, it may even, sometimes, be different from your own ideal. What I tend to focus on in this equation is whether you're asking thoughtful questions and making conscious decisions, rather than being swept along by someone else's notion of how Shabbat has to be. If, on the other hand, you're working towards a new level of observance because you believe that Shabbat observance means a specific set of things that is divinely ordained, then you probably already know your answer about attending this dinner, and you probably knew that I wasn't the right person to ask. If you're looking for halachic advice (based on Jewish law), I encourage you to get in touch with a rabbi.

There is a sub-segment of Jews (mostly in the Conservative community) who consider themselves shomer Shabbat but will use transportation to get to synagogue or other Shabbat-related events. There is also a sub-segment of Jews, perhaps less well-documented, who consider themselves shomer Shabbat and sometimes make exceptions because life happens and needs change and no single decision determines everything about your beliefs and identity. There are others of us who strive to make Shabbat a meaningful, relaxing time to spend with family and friends but prefer not to categorize just how we celebrate and take our observance on a case by case basis.

Picture yourself the night of the dinner. If you drive there, will you feel like you compromised your beliefs, or will you be able to enjoy yourself and make a positive professional impression? If you stay home and make other plans, will you feel like your observance of Shabbat has deprived you of an important experience and be resentful of your choices? How would you make this decision if it was just about you and not about the rest of your family? How do you imagine yourself feeling the day or week after?  Will you still be on the track that you envisioned towards increased observance, or do you feel like this one night will cause you to backslide into your former ways? And, most importantly, does it matter, and to whom? These may sound rhetorical, but truly, if one is to grow in any practice, Jewish or otherwise, it's crucial to get at the heart of why this is something you're incorporating into your life.

You could explore options of finding somewhere to sleep near the dinner, but consider how that might impact your enjoyment of the rest of Shabbat. You could figure out if walking is remotely feasible and prepare yourselves for a long trek. You could send your regrets to the couple and ask if you may be able to get together some other time or invite them to your home for a Shabbat meal.  You could give yourself a day off from agonizing, and instead of seeing this as a dilemma, view it as an opportunity to examine and define not which religious or professional values to prioritize, but which broader values guide your life.

Be well,
Miriam

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