Shoes and the Law
The title of a newspaper article caught my eye yesterday: Jews Ponder Day’s Footwear. I had to read to find out what it was about and kept reading because I’ve always been at least mildly interested in observant Judaism and the Talmud. The issue, briefly, is that the Talmud adds extra restrictions to the usual Sabbath observance for Yom Kippur. One of these is that leather footwear is prohibited. As a result, modern Jews observing these restrictions “wear sneakers with their suits,” as the article puts it. I’m glad I read all the way to the end of the article, because the final portion presented a rabbi’s reflection on the nature of this law.
There are other contradictions with the no-leather rule. If the idea in the Talmud is to avoid luxury and comfort, what about wearing sneakers — a popular Yom Kippur leather shoe substitute — which are undeniably comfortable?
True, said Rabbi Jacob Traub, chairman of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of San Francisco. But when the Talmud was written thousands of years ago, sneakers were not an option, he pointed out.
“You don’t wear shoes because leather shoes are comfortable as opposed to going barefoot, which was pretty much the only other alternative, unless you live in Holland,” said Traub.
But Traub — who wears canvas shoes with rubber soles on Yom Kippur — wouldn’t advise anyone to choose an uncomfortable shoe for the Day of Atonement — or to go barefoot.
“I would say once you’ve complied with the law, you’ve complied with the law,” he said. “I’m not one of those rabbis who is looking for extra, to go above the law.”
That sentence struck me–”I would say once you’ve complied with the law, you’ve complied with the law”–because I have just been working through Luther’s treatise The Freedom of a Christian with my students in a Reformation course. The rabbi’s rationale seemed such a stunning counterpoint to Luther’s assertion that “a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all subject to none.” The rabbi’s point is that the law is an end in itself and you are either compliant or not. Luther’s point is to free the Christian from all man-made laws when it comes to salvation. There, in salvation, the only thing that matters is Christ’s righteousness given to the believer–passive righteousness as Luther would call it some years later. Luther does, as you may know, have a second proposition: “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all subject to all.” This realm of active righteousness is the place for obedience to the Law and even for man-made regulations. But the purpose of these is for our own discipline and the good of others. So even in this proposition, law for its own sake has no place in Luther’s thinking, and it would never occur to him to say that the reason for a specific regulation made no difference.
What this means for even those practices in the church that are man-made is that they are not to be rejected out of hand. Ceremonies, for example, have their place. Luther says in the treatise, “Ceremonies are to be given the same place in the life of a Christian as models and plans have among builders and artisans.” So they are useful as long as they are used appropriately, and appropriate use requires that we constantly examine them to be sure that they are fulfilling their purpose and not overstepping their boundaries. Confirmation is, I believe, one example of how this works. There is no divine mandate for us to continue Confirmation, since it is not a means of grace. It has proved useful at times but also holds tremendous potential for misunderstanding, and as a result there has been much conversation and experimentation around this practice over the last decades.
Reading the article on observant Jews and their footwear alongside The Freedom of a Christian made me think about things like that. And it made me wonder what you think about where we might be wearing sneakers with our suits.