Sunday, October 11, 2009

On religious legalism

About five years ago, Lord Sauron and I went to a three-day auction in New Jersey. Bought all sorts of stuff and hauled it back to Texas. One of the more memorable people from that trip was an old Amish guy who mostly bid on hammers, wrenches, and other hand tools. He wore the Amish homespun clothes, the suspenders, a straw hat, and some boots that looked like they were made by blacksmiths. (I've always lived in Mississippi and Texas, and haven't been around many Amish people.)

I didn't pay that much attention to Mr. Amish until he started bidding on the drill presses. This seemed like a violation of the Amish prohibition against electricty, right? What was he going to do with an electric drill press? I asked a friend of his, and here's the explanation I got:

The Amish have a prohibition against electricity. Well, let's define electricity. Let's say its the presence and flow of an electrical charge. A spark, perhaps. Think Ben Franklin's experiment with the lightning. Big spark.
A gasoline-powered electric generator compresses fuel with a piston. At some point, a spark plug ignites the fuel, pushing the piston downward. This creates motion.
For whatever reason, the Amish see this spark as a bad thing.

BUT.... what about a diesel generator? Would that be ok? Diesel fuel ignites spontaneously from compression. (The oldest joke in the mechanical/maintenance industry is to send a kid out to change the spark plugs on a diesel engine. Diesel engines don't have spark plugs.)
Therefore, its ok for the Amish to run machinery and lighting from diesel generators. Go here to learn about an Amish company that actually manufactures diesel generators.


Ok, next point.... During this same time period, I was running the Jukt Micronics metal shop, and we had most of the United Nations working in the place. We had metalworkers from Nigeria. Kenya, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Mexico, Guatemala, Eritrea, and Arkansas. I wanted to do something nice for the guys, and ordered pizza to arrive a few minutes before breaktime.

I ordered Pizza Hut Meat-Lovers pizza. I ordered Sausage pizza. Pepperoni pizza. Italian Sausage. Ham. And guess what? It was the middle of Ramadan. At least a third of my employees were Muslim, and I might as well have ordered everybody some pig-on-a-biscuit. Well, like I said above, I'd lived my whole life in Mississippi and Texas, and wasn't really tuned in to Muslim dietary requirements.

But here's where it got interesting: A small contingent of the Croatians (?) took some of the forbidden pizza to a corner, and they did something to it. I don't know what. Some kind of Mojo. When the pizza came out of the corner, it was ok for Muslims to eat, and a lot of them ate it. I wish that Baptists had a similar ritual to purify Jim Beam.

There was an article in the New York Times a few days ago about Shabbos elevators. You don't know about Shabbos (or Shabbat) elevators? Here's the Times:

Does that elevator “know” how many people are on it?
The question is at the core of a ruling issued by a group of prominent rabbis in Israel on Sept. 29 that seems to ban the use of many so-called Shabbos elevators: elevators fixed to stop on every floor from Friday evening until Saturday evening so that observant Jews do not have to press any buttons.
Since the 1960s, when high-rise apartment buildings became ubiquitous, the Orthodox rabbinate has made such elevators one of the few exceptions to Talmudic rules prohibiting 39 categories of activity on the Sabbath, including manual labor or the use of electrical devices. Like flipping a light switch, pressing an elevator button is considered the use of an electrical device.

You would think that if someone went to the trouble to program an elevator stop on every floor during the Jewish Sabbath, he ought to at least get credit for trying. Not so. Here's the "Ask A Rabbi" website:

One of the common misconceptions about how elevators work, is that they are moved by a powerful motor which works equally hard no matter how many passengers have boarded, or even if no passengers have boarded at all. If this were the case, then the added weight of the passenger is not a contributing factor in any of the functions of the elevator and he wouldn't be considered responsible for those violations of Shabbat caused by use of the elevator. This assumption though, is false.

The assumption is false because elevator motors do not use the same amount of power regardless of the number of passengers or weight. The following is an explanation of how the majority of elevators work, illustrating just a small number of Halachic issues surrounding the use of elevators on Shabbat:


  1. Most elevators are the traction type: consisting of a car and a counterweight on opposite ends of a cable hanging from a pulley;
  2. The pulley raises or lowers the car by using a motor, and stops by using a mechanical brake;
  3. The motor only requires enough power to lift the difference between the counterweight and the car, and to overcome friction;
  4. The weight is equal to half capacity of the car, thus the motor operates to counteract the pull of the weight when the elevator is less than half full, and does not operate when the elevator is more than half full, when the car is descending.

Since the weight of the passenger is partly responsible for the motion of the elevator, he becomes liable for any infractions caused by the elevator's descent. In a typical non-Shabbos elevator, these are some of the many problems that one could encounter:

  • Letting your weight trigger the mechanism that slows the elevator down and stops it at the next floor.

    • Causing the light that indicates the floor that the elevator is presently on to illuminate.
    • Activating the system (resistance sensitive pads, photoelectric device, or proximity detector) that opens the elevator doors.


    The Institute for Science and Halacha has spent many years working out the various Halachic problems and have designs for Shabbat elevators that meet the most rigorous Shabbat standards. Don't just use any automatic elevator - check with a Local Halachic Authority and find out whether it really is Shabbat safe.

Get it? If anything about your body - your weight, your leg breaking a light beam, your sinful desire to press a button - causes the elevator mechanism to change its scheduled starts and stops, then you've desecrated the Sabbath. It's like "step on a crack, break your mother's back" times ten.

Which gets me to the new Eruv in Baltimore. An Eruv, according to Wikipedia, refers to the legal aggregation or "mixture" under Jewish religious property law of separate parcels of property meeting certain requirements into a single parcel held in common by all the holders of the original parcels, which enables Jews who observe the traditional laws of Shabbat to carry children and belongings anywhere within the jointly held property without transgressing the prohibition against carrying a burden across a property line on the Jewish sabbath.

Orthodox Jews can't carry property - i.e., books, keys, kids - across property that isn't theirs on the Sabbath. So they put a wire around a massive amount of land, theoretically enclosing it within the communal property boundary of the wire, and this means its okay to carry your textbooks from point A to point B on the Sabbath. As long as you stay inside the wire. Step outside it, and God gets pissed. Here's another section of Wikipedia on "coping without an Eruv":

Loose medicines may not be carried; most authorities have agreed that it is preferable that one who constantly needs medication remain at home rather than transgressing Shabbat by carrying medication. But if such a person leaves home, then comes in need of medication, it is permissible under the laws of Pikuach nefesh to break Shabbat and bring the medication to the person. A small number of authorities in recent years have been permitting carrying the medication, though, since such a person may be tempted to leave home without it, and then his/her life may be endangered thereafter.

I first learned about the concept of the Eruv in Harper's magazine. The Eruv in the linked article is more than 4,000 acres, and encloses much of Manhattan. That's one heck of a household. Various committees and experts inspect the wire from time to time, and ensure that it remains unbroken. Otherwise, those inside the magic circle would be doing forbidden work on the Sabbath.

My wife is a Baptist Youth Minister. Our church prides itself on being "moderate" Baptist, which these days is kinda like being a "moderate" jihadist. We like gays and lesbians. We have female deacons and ministers. We don't believe that the Republican Party speaks for God. (Some of us even think that you can disagree with us and not go to hell, but don't tell anybody.)

My wife is having another carpal tunnel surgery tomorrow.
According to long-standing tradition, Baptists don't consume alcohol.
People from the church are bring food to our house every other day for the next two weeks, since the church members know that my wife can't survive on my diet of Bud Lite and Chili. (Great folks, all of them.)
But I have at least a 12-pack of Bud Lite in the fridge.
According to my calendar, we're in the year 2009. We've put a man on the moon. We're mapping the human genome. If we could stay out of religious wars in the Middle East, we would've sent a man to Mars by now.
With the exception of maybe three people, every member of the church that I know is at least a social drinker. They're going to be putting stuff in our fridge.
My Bud Lite is now in the salad bin of the refrigerator, stored out of sight.

The Amish prohibitions against electricity, the Muslim ban on pork, and the Jewish regulations against work outside the household on the Sabbath? Those are all silly religious beliefs.
But the Baptist drinking ban is a tradition. We all know and acknowledge that Jesus turned water into wine, and that Paul said a little wine is good "for the stomach's sake".

None of that matters. Baptists don't drink. I can't be too careful, and I better consume that 12-pack tonight.

The picture of the Amish generator came from here.
The picture of the Shabbat elevator came from here.

5 comments:

Harper said...

Reminds me of the old, "Why should you always take two Baptists fishing?" joke.

Double standards are a bitch. I'm thinking you need a tastefully concealed kegerator or dorm fridge tucked away in the garage or designated man cave area. You have to admit that Bud in the crisper is worth the plethora of church lady casseroles coming your way. Yum.

Hope the wife recovers quick, take good care of her!

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Harper,
Thanks for the encouragement. I made a dent in the supply last night, but I'm still not there.
The surgery is going on as I'm typing this.
There's at least a 6-pack left in the crisper.
I dread disposing of it. It's 5:00 somewhere, right?

Harper said...

Someone needs to make shrink wrap type sleeves with cola branding on them that you can slip over your beer, zap 'em with a hairdryer and, voila! That's not a Bud, it's a Dr Pepper.

Being no stranger to the median nerve release myself, my evil insurance company required a round of cortisone injections prior to my first surgery. The cortisone went south on me, caused severe nerve irritation and pain that kicked in about 15 minutes after I left the doc's office - just as I was sitting down to lunch at On the Border. I remember ordering a pitcher of margaritas and a straw, and not much else.

Jason said...

Just to clarify, the Amish restriction on the use of electricity is mainly due to the influence electronics / electrical equipment has on a person's lifestyle.

For example, an Amish farmer would never have a phone in the home. That would invite distractions from the outside world and interrupt a close knit family.

Having a phone in the barn, however, allows the Amish farmer to have a means of communication, in case of emergencies, without all the downsides. Same thing goes for most electrical equipment. An amishman is unlikely to purchase a big-screen plasma TV, with cable precisely becasue of the influence it would have on his children and because most of the content would be foreign to his sense of morals. A piece of electrical equipment that allows him to do his job carries much fewer moral restrictions.

TarrantLibertyGuy said...

Harper - finish the joke! I don't know it. Somewhere there has to be a "Baptist Joke Book". It will include this old favorite:

Q: "Why won't a Baptist man and his mistress have sex standing up?"

A: Because if anyone saw them, they might think they were dancing.

A friend of mine - a Baptist Sunday School Teacher, no less - his mom (a good Baptist mom) told him that she was concerned about his drinking. He has about 4 margaritas a year.

He said he didn't think he drank all that much and didn't think it was a big deal. Mom said, "I think you should pray about it."

He said "What if I pray about it and it turns out that God is OK with me drinking a Margarita every three months?"

Mom said "Then just keep praying."

I love it. If God reveals his will that is contrary to hers... then keep on praying until he comes to his senses.