catholic, with a small “c”

Before I write anything else, let me remind/ tell you of my religious background: I consider myself a religious person, although I do not currently attend any one service regularly. But I was raised as what we like to call “a generic Protestant,” granddaughter to Baptist missionaries to China (you can buy our book here!), graduated high school from Sandy Spring Friends School. Although I don’t currently attend services anywhere, I have in the past been a regular at Friends Meeting, Unitarian Universalist, Disciples of Christ, and most recently an Episcopalian church. I have read about, studied, and attended services in many different religions, including: Catholic, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, and Buddhism. I am an expert in none of them.

Call me catholic, with a small “c”.

So I present the following topic not as a criticism of any one religion, but as an examination of the structures of organized religion, in general. From the Washington Post’s “God in Government” column:

Intrigue over Shabbat Elevators

I’ve been fascinated by the whole controversy the past few weeks over Shabbat elevators, and it appears I’m not the only one. A series of stories the past few weeks at The New York Times, NPR, Religion New Service.

The Shabbat elevator, which often stops on every floor, began as a way for Jews to avoid pressing elevator buttons on the Sabbath — manual labor forbidden on that sacred day. But a few weeks ago, a group of highly influential rabbis in Israel issued a ruling prohibiting their use.


Since that Sept. 29 ruling, the change has been met by interest, confusion and a certain bit of angst. RNS story breaks down the rabbis’ deliberation and ruling this way:

The rabbis said they felt compelled to rule on the elevators after receiving “a written and oral technical opinion” from certified elevator technicians and engineers. It was made clear to us that in using these elevators, either in ascent or descent, direct activation is created regarding doing work according to the Torah,” the rabbis wrote. They noted that “the function of Shabbat-mode elevators change with technological developments.”

Although the decree did not specify exactly what the problem is, prior rabbinical debates have focused on whether the number and weight of passengers influences the elevators’ operation.

What fascinates me about this story is that is is such an outstanding example of the way modern religious institutions interpret rules that were written to guide  a society that was so completely different from the reality of today. While I understand the importance of tradition and ritual, I also wonder about allowing ourselves to lead our lives according to a human interpretation of what any religious person would call “the word of God.”

Does God really want us to spend energy creating ways around our interpretation of these ancient rules, such as creating a special elevator that works differently on the Sabbath? Wouldn’t She rather we go ahead and push the button of a “regular” elevator,  and then get on with the real stuff — you know, feeding the hungry, helping the poor, making the world a better place? The problem with taking these rules of society to the extreme like this (and yes — just about every organized religion does it somehow), is that you are allowing religious “leaders” to pick and choose what rules to follow and how to apply them in a world that could not have been conceived by the men who wrote them down thousands of yeas ago. (Nor even by the men who “re-interpreted” them in later centuries….)

What do you think?



  1. I was just talking about shabbat elevators to someone who had not heard of them… And I had somehow missed this whole controversy.

    And I wondered aloud why no one had ever challenged the elevator. Not that I think it should be challenged, it just struck me as curious.

    Now this!

    Being rule-bound is a problem no matter what… That is all I will say right now.

  2. First, let me say that I respect individuals to practice the freedom of religion. Even those denominations that I personally feel are not my cup of tea (or teabagging). I do believe there are bigger core issues to deal with outside of the rules that define each sect. If religions maybe concentrated on the core issues that seem to be the same in each, maybe their leaders and communities could, would, have tolerance and love for one another over their differences. In the issue over manual labor on the sabbath; I wouldn’t even get out of bed, that is a job in itself.

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