Shabbat: The antidote to identity politics


Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein | Special to the JT


The divisive elections in the United States and Israel exacerbate the trauma of societal divisions because politics touches on our sense of identity. A study led by renowned behavioral scientist Professor James March analyzes the essence of human behavior. What is it that motivates people? The conventional wisdom is that human beings are basically selfish and make decisions based on what will best advance their own self-interest. Marsh calls this the “Consequence Model” of human behavior.

But in analyzing voting patterns in the United States, he found something exciting — that people voted for parties that did not necessarily represent their own best interests. There were Silicon Valley billionaires voting for the Democratic Party even though their taxes may be lower under the Republicans; and there were auto mechanics in Oklahoma voting for the Republican Party even though the Democratic Party was promising them health insurance.

To explain this anomaly, March came up with a whole new model for explaining human decision-making: the “Identity Model.” Under it, people do not necessarily make decisions based on self-interest; instead, they ask another kind of question: Who am I? What do I identify with?

So how do we, as Jews, overcome all these divisions among ourselves when there are so many different opinions about who to support politically? The answer lies in finding a shared identity, a common purpose we can all rally around. Something more essential, more profound and more real than political beliefs. Something more enduring than the latest candidate to run for office.

That thing is Shabbat.

Shabbat, I believe, can bring us together when so much is pulling us apart.

It transcends all barriers, connecting us to each other and to generations before us.

Shabbat is described by the sages of the Talmud as the “soulmate” that God designated for the Jewish people. We don’t just observe Shabbat; we connect deeply with it. As our soulmate, its practices, ideals and values shape our national identity as Jews.

Just as a true soulmate gives us love and support, holding us and carrying us through life, Shabbat has accompanied us on all our journeys throughout history, across millennia and continents. Most importantly, it has kept us together. Our connection to Shabbat is more than historical; it lies at the heart of who we are, a God-given gift rooted in the deepest part of our souls.

Over the years of The Shabbat Project, I have witnessed the deep, unbreakable bond between Jews of all backgrounds — near and far, observant and unobservant, affiliated and unaffiliated — and Shabbat. I have seen the possibility of transcending barriers and differences that seem to separate us — barriers of language and culture, differences in ideological outlook and levels of religious observance.

I have seen the power of Shabbat to unify. Shikma Kisar, a volunteer organizer, captures this unifying power in her poignant description of a Shabbat Project event ( held in the Israeli town of Kochav Yair:

“We set out a Friday-night Kiddush on 30 neighborhood streets. Old neighbors and new … people of different religious backgrounds … young and old … all came together. So many different people, all of them smiling, happy, ready to feel the closeness and the togetherness of a Shabbat celebrated in a spirit of unity. Tensions evaporated; long-standing anger that had simmered over decades suddenly disappeared over the course of a single Shabbat. A Shabbat of reconciliation and love. A Shabbat of healing.”

Shabbat has the power to heal our divisions. We are moved by the sense of our shared identity — by the feeling that we are profoundly connected to one another through the spiritual treasure of Shabbat, our Divinely designated soulmate.

Wherever we are in the world — whether it is Los Angeles or London, Melbourne or Moscow, Buenos Aires or Berlin, Jerusalem or Johannesburg, Toronto or Tokyo — The Shabbat Project has stirred within so many a connection to our history, our heritage and to each other. It has awoken us to the best part of ourselves, to who we are as individuals and as a collective.

That is the true power of Shabbat.

Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein is the chief rabbi of South Africa, and the founder and director of the Shabbat Project. His new book, “Shabbat: A Day to Create Yourself,” is due out early next year.

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