Two personal stories.
First story. The law firm I worked for first was known as a Catholic firm, because most of its high level partners were observant Catholics. I was the only Orthodox Jew there, and what I did and didn’t do was, to them, what Orthodox Jews did and didn’t do. I often said, only somewhat jocularly, that they probably thought coffee was not kosher because I never drank it. (Sorry coffee lovers, just never liked the taste.)
One positive aspect of this situation was that the firm understood religion and religious observance, and took it seriously. So when Friday came in the winter, leaving early never was a problem for me, nor was taking off for yomim tovim. In fact, in the eight years I worked there I had only two “problems” in this regard. Once, on a Friday in July, when I still lived in Manhattan, just a 20-minute commute from my office, a partner tried to end an early afternoon meeting we were having because, he said, he knew I had to leave. It took some effort, but I finally was able to convince him that I still had plenty of time, and when I did have to leave I would do so.
The second was a bit more serious. It happened during one of those horror years (for working people), when the Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur/Sukkot cycle fell out on seven weekdays. One such year, I had to tell a partner that I wouldn’t be able to defend a recently scheduled deposition because it fell on Simchat Torah. His reaction was “Again? Really??”
That was the worst I faced, and quite frankly, in some ways I sympathized with the partner.
Second story. During those years, I had a friend who was a lawyer in a firm that had lots of Jewish partners. He was working on a major merger deal and couldn’t join his team; they were working almost around the clock on the last days of Pesach. When he returned, the Jewish partner excoriated him for not being there. When my friend said he was sorry but it was Pesach, the partner, who while not completely observant was thoughtful, serious, and knowledgeable about his Judaism, responded: “I know. I also usually go to shul on Pesach. You think I didn’t want to be there and with my family for the holiday meals? But this was an emergency. A $50 billion deal. You let the team down, and others had to pick up the slack. I’m disappointed in you.”
And so I turn to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kusher, and the rabbinical permission they received to be driven by Secret Service agents to and from the inauguration festivities on Friday night after Shabbat had begun. According to the news reports, that was because there were pikuach nefesh (life preservation) issues involved, as a result of some inexcusable threats made against the president and his family.
I’m not a rabbi, nor am I skilled in halachic decision making, so I offer no comment on the technicalities involved in the decision allowing them to be driven. I also do not believe that what they did is any basis whatsoever to question either the sincerity of their Orthodoxy or the legitimacy of Ivanka’s conversion, and I deplore anyone who does either or both.
But it’s more than simply an halachic issue. I think of the first-year associate, or indeed of any young and probably insecure employee who has to leave early on a Friday in the face of some office emergency. Say that her supervisor says to her — or perhaps the supervisor just thinks but doesn’t say — Ivanka and Jared were able to be driven to a ball and you can’t be driven home after working to help fix this emergency situation?
Or let me look at it from another angle. Assume Ivanka and Jared had missed some of the festivities because it was too far or unsafe for them to walk, and although the question had been asked they declined to use the permission they received. So instead of attending the balls they went home before Shabbat started so she could light candles and they could sing Shalom Aleichem and eat a Shabbat dinner with their family. And then imagine a supervisor about to criticize an employee for leaving early in the face of an emergency but then thinking to himself: Cool it. The Sabbath is very important to her; even Ivanka and Jared had to miss some of their father (in-law)’s inaugural festivities because of the Sabbath’s importance. I really need to cut her some slack.
I don’t know who the rabbi was who gave them permission to be driven on Shabbat, nor do I know the specific halachic reasoning that went into such permission. One reason suggested in online discussions of this issue (and I saw many such discussions) was that they are important public/governmental figures — karove lemalchut in halachic terms — and the rules governing the behavior of such people can be different in certain situations because of the impact it may have on the Jewish community. Perhaps.
But while being karove lemalchut may have privileges, responsibilities accompany those privileges. In this case, and in light of the democratic nature of our country for which we should continue to seek God’s blessings in shul on Shabbat morning as we have done for centuries, I believe the responsibilities trumped (please don’t groan too loudly; it’s in memory of my father-in-law who loved puns) the privilege.
This young power couple had an opportunity to emphasize the importance of Shabbat and teach that importance to many who might not truly understand what it means to those who take seriously the halachic rules governing Shabbat. That was a precious opportunity that if it had been seized might have been beneficial to many. It is opportunity that sadly was missed.