The news reported that Jared and Ivanka Kushner received rabbinic permission to ride in a car back from the inaugural ball on Friday night. Many people have questioned this decision. We do not know the name of the rabbi who gave this permission nor the specific circumstances of the individuals, but we can discuss the possibilities. In general, I can understand the interpretation that allows this but would not have given this permission. Let’s also keep in mind that Jared Kushner is not, and to my knowledge does not want to be, Chief Rabbi of America. He is just an Orthodox Jew trying to do his best, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. No one should be looking up to him or his wife as a religious role model any more than they should Joseph Lieberman or Sandy Koufax. Let me add that Ivanka converted in a completely legitimate way with an upstanding beit din that did not include the rabbi of her shul (contrary to reports).
The couple wanted to honor their father on the greatest day of his life, as he was sworn into the most powerful office in the world. A convert to Judaism is technically “reborn,” so the specific commandment of honoring her father no longer applies. However, she still has to show gratitude to the man who raised her and supported her. I don’t know anyone who would advise a convert to do anything other than show respect for his parents. While honoring a parent or showing gratitude does not set aside any specific law, it does create a need that should be met if possible. Additionally, this was a state function and the Kushners will be acting in political roles. If they can attend without violating Shabbos, on this one special occasion, there might be room to allow it. Normally, people should spend Friday night in synagogue and at the Shabbos dinner table. However, for family, sometimes you have to spend an unusual and perhaps uncomfortable Shabbos.
If your family or employer asks you to do something like this, tell them that you have to ask your rabbi (and ask him).
One question a rabbi would ask is the nature of the family dynamics. How would missing the event affect family relations? Would the president get insulted, or would the public perceive an insult, if the Kushners missed the event? I do not know the answers to these questions. An insult is not a free pass. You cannot violate Shabbos just because your father would be insulted if you observe Shabbos. However, it raises the question of whether there is a way to accommodate both Shabbos and the family need.
Additionally, why couldn’t they just walk home? This would also resolve the main problem. Apparently, with hundreds of thousands of protesters in Washington, D.C., security concerns prevented the Kushners from walking home even with security surrounding them. There was a real danger to their lives that required them returning from the inaugural ball by car, if they attended. However, they could have avoided the danger by refraining from attending and returning home by car before Shabbos.
A Shabbos Bus?
In his 2009 book ”Shabbat, the Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas,” the late R. J. Simcha Cohen discusses at length a dilemma facing his own community. As the rabbi of a retirement community, he leads an aging membership that has trouble walking to shul. He analyzes whether he is allowed to hire a gentile bus driver to take elderly members to and from shul on Shabbos.
The community is surrounded by an eruv and all transportation will be done within the permissible perimeter (i.e., within both the eruv and the techum). R. Cohen wrote an analysis and sent it to a number of prominent rabbis, receiving responses from R. Moshe D. Tendler, R. Norman Lamm and R. Yosef Carmel, all reproduced in the book. R. Cohen addresses the following issues:
You are not allowed to ask a gentile to do work for you on Shabbos that you are not allowed to do yourself. However, this rule has many conditions and exceptions that allow for various extenuating circumstances. R. Cohen works hard on this issue, harder than I think is necessary. He enters complex areas like having one gentile ask another gentile before Shabbos to do work for a Jew on Shabbos. R. Yair Bachrach (Chavot Yair 53) permits this arrangement although others forbid. However, the consensus seems to only allow that in cases of great need and when the second gentile does not know he is doing work for Jews (Piskei Teshuvot 307:13). Even in this unusual situation, the driver should not know that he is driving the Kushners because it is Shabbos. I’m not sure if that is feasible.
Some object that the ways to avoid this prohibition only apply on one-off situations, not when used every week. R. Cohen dismisses this objection as incorrect. For example, the Rema (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 276:2) objects to those who ask gentiles to light candles for them on Shabbos but does not raise the objection that they did it every week. I find that to be a fairly weak response. However, this objection does not apply to the Kushners, because we are discussing a one-time permission for the inauguration.
Cohen raises the issue that outsiders, unaware of the situation of this community’s needs, will misunderstand the riding of a bus to and from shul under specific conditions. They will think that these people are violating a prohibition. R. Cohen suggests placing signs on the bus explaining that these are special Shabbos buses, which should eliminate this problem. The announcement in the media that the Kushners received special permission also resolves this issue.
Cohen raises the issue of whether sitting on a bus constitutes a violation of halacha. If your weight causes the vehicle to do more work, then perhaps you are personally guilty of violating Shabbos. This is a serious concern that was debated in the context of Shabbos elevators, with great authorities on either side. R. Cohen cites R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin and R. Isser Yehuda Unterman as being lenient. In his response to R. Cohen, R. Moshe Tendler writes that those who permitted Shabbos elevators were unaware of the weight problem. This is surprising because his father-in-law, R. Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, vol. 1 no. 132), was among those who ruled leniently. Additionally, it is simply incorrect. Some explicitly permitted the weight issue, such as R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach regarding Shabbos elevators (Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilchata ch. 23 n. 140).
Cohen proceeds to the nebulous prohibition of uvda de-chol, performing weekday activities on Shabbos. I’m not sure how or if he resolves it, other than stating that the Shabbos bus is for those who are elderly and weak or ill. I’m not sure it would be relevant to the Kushner issue, either. It could also add a concern of Shabbaton, that we must actively rest on Shabbos, which precludes riding in a car. The Chatam Sofer invokes this concept to forbid riding on a train.
Moshe D. Tendler responded that riding on a bus is tantamount to driving it, because one’s weight adds to the work. He also argued that this innovation will destroy the sanctity of Shabbos and runs the risk of being extended to other situations that do not have the same urgency.
Norman Lamm raised a historical precedent in India, that was only discontinued in the late 1950s or early 1960s. But he cautions that the risk of exiting the techum perimeter is too great to allow this innovation.
Yosef Carmel quotes responsa by R. Shaul Yisraeli that permit somewhat similar situations and concludes that he would permit a Shabbos bus under a number of detailed conditions, including that it run at most every other week and regularly monitoring public impression about whether this is perceived as a farce or a sweeping abrogation of the law.
One source that R. Cohen missed is R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s ruling on the matter. R. Hershel Schachter (Be-Ikvei Ha-Tzon, pp. 34-35) quotes R. Soloveitchik as nixing a proposed Shabbos bus to bring people to shul because driving on Shabbos has become a symbol of anti-Orthodoxy. I suspect that the full force of this has passed with time but it still has sufficient force to prohibit. In the Kushner case, I believe it is still sufficient reason to forbid use of a car. Driving or even riding in a car is a public symbol of rejecting Orthodox Judaism, and cannot be permitted except when medically necessary.
Given the unusual circumstances, there is room for a rabbi to permit riding home in a car in this one case assuming no other Shabbos laws would be violated. At the inaugural ball, the Kushners would not be allowed to do anything contrary to Shabbos rules. This was probably an extremely uncomfortable situation but sometimes you have to do that for family.
Despite all the discussion, I think the Amirah Le-Nochri prohibition, Shabbaton commandment, weight issue and Rav Soloveitchik’s concern would forbid this behavior. I would tell the Kushners that despite all the other considerations, they should go home just before Shabbos. However, I know other rabbis who have said that they would rule leniently on this.
By Rabbi Gil Student