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Rabbi Ari Ellis

Rabbi Ari Ellis: Rivets, Shabbat, and the Future of our Community

Rabbi Ari Ellis, January 24, 2013

We all know about how the Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912 after colliding with an iceberg. But do we actually know what sank the Titanic? In April of 2008, the New York Times ran an article about a new theory as to why the Titanic sank. Until then scholars believed that when the ship hit the iceberg, it created a huge hole flooding the ship with more water than it could handle.

However, some researchers believe that new evidence from the shipbuilder’s own records, support a different theory. When divers examined the ruins at the bottom of the sea, they discovered six narrow slits that let water into the ship. They now believe that the rivets holding the ship together failed. Upon hitting the iceberg, they snapped under pressure.

In studying the archives, they found that the company used stronger steel rivets for the main hull on both sides of the ship. But they used weaker iron rivets in the bow and the stern, where the iceberg struck. Perhaps stronger steel rivets in sufficient quantity were not available or would have delayed construction. Or cheaper iron rivets might have been a way to save money. The shipbuilders were under tremendous pressure to build the Titanic, along with her two sister ships.

The company’s records also suggest that trained riveters were in short supply. Iron rivets required a higher degree of skill than steel rivets. Other shipbuilders at the time were switching over to steel rivets, which not only were stronger, but could be installed reliably by machine.

The shipbuilders, however, did not compromise when it came to frills and luxuries. The Titanic had every conceivable amenity: cafes, squash courts, a swimming pool, Turkish baths, a barbershop and even three libraries. All the amenities were built to the highest standards of fashion and opulence. But when it came to the foundation, to the strength of the hull, the shipbuilders compromised.

Unfortunately, we have still not learned from their mistakes. We do ourselves a great disservice by emphasizing the superficial while ignoring the essentials. I want to commend Rabbi Larry Pinsker for his thoughtful comments and practical suggestions regarding the future of our community. Indeed, when the Winnipeg Council of Rabbis decided to respond to the Rady Centre’s decision to open on Shabbat mornings, it was my hope that doing so would provoke further discussion and elicit reactions from all across our community.

Rabbi Marc Angel, in his collection of essays Angel for Shabbat, tells a story about his wife who was once shopping before Pesach. She overheard a woman loudly shouting at the store manager because they were out of shank bones. She was adamant that she needed a shank bone for her Seder plate. His wife saw, though, that her shopping cart was full of non-Kosher meat! She insisted on fulfilling the custom having a shank bone, while ignoring the laws of Kashrut, one of the most basic aspects of Jewish life.

Rabbi Angel explains that her focus was on the custom of the Seder plate, at the expense of keeping a Kosher home. She was satisfied with external superficial symbols of Judaism, but did not think it necessary to bother with the real laws of the Torah and our tradition. Ignoring Kashrut is no different than overlooking the quality of the rivets.

And the same is true of Shabbat. Along with Kashrut and Jewish education, both for ourselves and our children, the observance of Shabbat is among the most basic religious institutions that make up the foundation of our Jewish way of life. More than almost anything else, Shabbat plays a vital role in the continuity of Jewish tradition. Compromising on any of these basics endangers the strength of our community.

It’s not easy to pass on Jewish identity from generation to generation. It requires tremendous effort and serious thought. If you want to build a first-class ship, you need to use first-class materials. So too, Rabbi Angels explains, if we want to create a first-class Jewish community, we must maintain first-class standards of Jewish observance, education, and commitment. We must “walk the walk” and “talk the talk” of Jewish life.

I fully agree with Rabbi Pinsker’s recommendation that we embark on a community-wide study of our infrastructure and institutions and work together to further our common interests. And education is key. We are the People of the Book. We have only survived for so long as a people because education was always our priority. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes “a people that places children at the apex of its agenda does not grow old. It continues to see the world through the eyes of a child – with hope and wonder and aspiration unsullied by cynicism and despair.”

The 1st century historian Josephus testified that “should any one of our nation be asked about our laws, he will repeat them as readily as his own name.” Until modern times, Rabbi Sacks explains, there was no parallel to the Jewish insistence on education as a fundamental right of every child and a duty of every parent. A 12th century monk wrote that, “a Jew, however poor, if he had ten sons, would put them all to letters, not for gain, as we Christians do, but for the understanding of God's Law; and not only his sons, but his daughters too.”

Our children are smart and can’t be fooled easily. We can only expect them to have a commitment to Judaism to the same extent that we ourselves do in practice. We must “walk the walk,” and not only “talk the talk.” And as much as we do as individuals and as families, what happens outside in our wider community also matters. We need to take a step back and take an honest look at our community. We do have a lot to be proud of. But our children and our grandchildren deserve better.

The resources of our community belong to us all. The Asper Campus does not operate in a vacuum. They are the custodians of our community property. But it’s not their place to make far reaching decisions about the future of our community on their own. Whether it’s the Jewish Federation, Rady Centre or Gray Academy, we must all insist that the leaders and decision makers of all our community institutions are held accountable for the decisions they make. We must insist that our future be built on a strong foundation of the basics of time honoured Jewish practice and meaningful Jewish living. Only then can we ensure a bright future for us all.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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