Random Musing Before Shabbat–Yitro 5772–Why I Won’t Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging

This week I had intended to write about something completely different from what you will read following this introduction. I am, as I often do, wrestling with the many uses of Ani Ad”nai that we find in the Torah as rationalizations as to why we should observe some particular commandments. In Yitro, with the first iteration of the ten commandments, we find the grandfather of this concept in the first commandment. Although the formulaic Ani Ad”nai is not used even once in the ten commandments, it is somewhat implicit, and at the very core of the first commandment. You should heed all that is being said here simply because

“I am Ad”nai your G”d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage…”

In the midst of struggling yet again with this “do it because daddy says do it, or daddy will punish you” theology, I read a most enlightening blog post on this very subject, for this very parasha, from Rabbi Menachem Creditor. You can read it on his blog. His words have given me a handle, after all these years, to redeem this most troubling of theologies, by standing it on its head (or side.) I won’t give it away. Go read it and see what you think.

So I decided to take this week’s musing in another direction, also based on something I’d read. A colleague posted to Facebook the first of many links I expect to see this year to the good folks at Sabbath Manifesto promoting this year’s National Day of Unplugging. I commented on her post, shooting from the hip, explaining why I had some reservations about endorsing this idea. Then it struck me that here in the parasha we read for the first time the fourth commandment, a rather explicit commandment regarding Shabbat. Here was an opportunity to expand on my thoughts about that. Herewith, those thoughts.

It seems like such a great idea. A national day of unplugging. I’m not convinced that this is such a great idea, and I’m not certain I would want to participate in it (I haven’t participated in either of the previous two years, and it wasn’t for lack of knowledge of the event. However, I can’t say that, until now, I didn’t participate by deliberate choice.)

For some of you, dear readers, this isn’t even an issue on your radar screen. Your Shabbat observance may or may not routinely exclude the use of technology. Perhaps you make your Shabbat choices based on the standard embraced by the Reform movement and other forms of liberal Judaism – that of informed choice. You don’t need the folks at Sabbath Manifesto telling you what to do to make Shabbat more meaningful, even though you might agree with some of what they say. Your choice is not determined by rabbinical fiat. If your leanings are Reconstructionist, perhaps you apply the Kaplan standard of giving the past a vote but not a veto. If you’re in the Conservative fold, you may be struggling to see how halakha might evolve to deal with our ever increasing dependence upon and relationship with technology. There was a time when I might say that an orthodox Jew has no issue with this either-they just observe the halakha and don’t use technology on Shabbat – so they are already unplugging. (But not literally-witness the KosherLamp, Shabbat elevators, and more.) However, times are changing. Witness the increasingly present idea of “Half-Shabbos” adopted by young orthodox youth eager to use their smartphones on Shabbat afternoons.

I’ve always considered myself somewhat cross/multi/post-denominational Aspects of all the various modern Jewish philosophies are part of how I determine how I live. On this issue, I don’t know that my understanding of Shabbat and its purpose must, perforce, involve disconnecting from the world through avoiding/unplugging technology. Yes, there is value in focusing on the immediate world, but I also believe there could be value on Shabbat in staying connected. They ask “can you survive a day without technology?” as if we were a society of addicts. Yes, aspects of technology are addictive. Nevertheless, I ask why survive a day without technology? Will this automatically make someone a better person? Of that I remain uncertain. The other nine points of the Shabbat Manifesto make sense. It’s just that first one that has me concerned. Consider that maybe what we need is a Shabbat Plugged-In.

What’s the motivation behind those proposing the day of unplugging? I don’t doubt for a second that it is, in part, a sincere effort to help people discover the everyday wonders around them, to give people a chance to slow their lives down for a moment, to assist them in connecting with their understanding of G”d. The folks behind the Sabbath Manifesto, the folks from Reboot, are not dogmatic. They make it very clear that it is up to every individual to interpret and utilize their ten principles. They offer different examples of what it might mean to refrain from using technology, to be mindful of one’s health, etc.

So I want to make it clear that I have no argument with the folks from Reboot, and I genuinely encourage you to engage in your own dialog with their principles/proposals and see how they might work for you. I have, and in so doing, have come to the conclusion, at least currently, that the first principle, “avoid technology” on Shabbat, doesn’t ring as true for me as the other 9 principles. I accept that this just might be my own gut reaction, an assumption, that, however unintentional, the principle harkens back to an obeisance to a tradition simply because it is one. A rabbinical interpretation of an uncertain commandment. A rigid adherence to a worldview that may no longer apply. Technology is no longer ancillary to our daily life. For better or worse, technology has become integral to our way of life.

Avoiding technology on Shabbat sounds to me as if it could be just another bone thrown to tradition as a result of the collective Jewish guilt of liberals Jews who continue to believe that there is something not genuine about their Judaism because they do not do everything that traditional Jews do and/or not do on Shabbat, because they are not shomer Shabbat.

Religion is not automatically pro-simple. There’s very little that is simple about Judaism. Asceticism exists in many religions but it is only one of many ways to be religious. Now, that’s a drastic comparison. Living the life of an ascetic, an Essene, so to speak, is not at all akin to taking a day off from the use of technology once a week, or even once a year. The idea of a national day of unplugging is not entirely anathema to me. I can certainly see value in stepping away from technology once in a while. I even try to do that whenever I am using my computer – planned breaks. Where things fall flat for me is the linkage to Shabbat. Especially so because I believe that my use of technology on Shabbat can actually enhance my Shabbat experience.

(The day is coming, my friends. We’ve had electronic/digital siddurs for over a decade. A bit clumsy to use on phones-I remember how tricky it was on my PDAs from Palm and HP, and later my first true smartphone, a Motorola Q, to try and use the electronic siddur and Tanakh I had on them. Now we have siddur and Jewish text apps for phones and tablets. There have been traditional siddurim and texts available electronically for years. Now the Reform movement, somehow always behind Chabad and the orthodox world when it comes to utilizing the latest technology (and I say this as someone who was active in the early days of the Reform movement’s first forays onto the web, even serving on an Internet committee) has finally made their new siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, available on iOS.

(Sidebar: As an Android user, and a working class Jew who can’t afford Apple’s always higher pricing, I sometimes wonder why there is this stereotypical idea that Jews and iOS go together. It’s an almost deliberate denial of the “Jews as cheapskates” stereotype – because there’s little doubt, at least in my mind, that Android gives more bang for the buck than iOS. “We’re not cheap. We only buy from Apple!” Has anyone ever done an actual survey to see if more Jews own iPhones than Android, Blackberry, or other devices?) I have digressed from my digression, so back to my original digression before we get back to the main topic!)

So yes, the day is coming. People will be worshipping using eReaders, tablets, phones. When this is all people are using – when the printed book has become a rare sight – what will we Jews do on Shabbat? Will Reform congregations allow their use on Shabbat, while Orthodox shuls not? Will the Conservative movement’s committees endlessly debate the topic while the movements members and synagogues simply choose for themselves, but only hire clergy who follow the halakha as it stands?  Will Reconstructionist congregations see the already prevalent divide between traditionalists and modernists often inherent in their congregations become wider and perhaps lead to a fractious schism? (The Renewal types will either be busy meditating, and trying to stay out of the fray. There, have I been an equal opportunity offender?) Will the Institute for Science and Halacha, that venerable bastion of modernist traditional Judaism, that gave us Shabbat elevators, work with scientists and engineers to help create the eSiddur equivalent of the KosherLamp that can be used on Shabbat? Will we find a way to create a fully digital “sefer Torah” (and yes, there could be an inherent oxymoron in combining the words digital and sefer-unless we expand the definition of what sefer means in an all digital age.) The day will come, like it or not, when we Jews will certainly be using some forms of technology on Shabbat, because there will be no alternative, and our religion will have evolved to adapt to that. What will the Sabbath Manifesto of that future time ask us to consider in order to enhance our Shabbat experience? I’m not sure “avoiding technology” will be in the mix.

That’s enough digression for now. Now back to the main topic!

To know how to deal with the use of technology on Shabbat, we must first ask ourselves what, exactly, we are supposed to do/not do on Shabbat? It says in the ten commandments (and in the creation narrative) that G”d rested, but it doesn’t say that we must or should rest. It only says what we shouldn’t do: M’lakhah. Therein lies the rub. What, exactly, is m’lakhah?

Now to be fair, a bit later, we come upon Exodus 31:12-17

And Ad”nai said to Moses: Speak to the Israelite people and say: nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I, Ad”nai have consecrated you. You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from his kin. Six days m’lakhah may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a {sabbath of complete rest} holy to Ad”nai…

From there it goes on to the “v’shamru.” Now you tell me where that says we must rest? Maybe that {sabbath of complete rest} thing? It’s in brackets because we don’t really know what the text means. It merely says it is a Shabbat Shabbaton, a sabbath of sabbaths. A ceasing of cessation, or a cessation of cessations. Could the text be any more obtuse? Let’s face it: though we’re used to using it that way, the Hebrew word Shabbat doesn’t really translate directly to mean rest. Stopping or ceasing may be better translations.

So as far as I am concerned, it is not at all clear that we are commanded to actually rest, in the modern meaning of the word, on Shabbat. What we are commanded is to not do any m’lakhah.

The word m’lakhah is defined in scholarly biblical lexicons in many ways. Among those definitions are:

  • a trade mission or business journey
  • business or work
  • handiwork or craftsmanship.

The word is generally used to describe work in the sense of things that one needs to do to live or earn a livelihood. As usual, the rabbis took a different tack to define it. Working from the creation story, they noted that it says that G”d “rested” (really just another form of Shabbat, vayishbot) from G”d’s m’lakhah. Assuming this meant G”d rested from all the work required for creation, they linked m’lakhah with creative acts, thus creating a different category (for there can be business work that isn’t necessarily creative.) Since m’lakhah appeared both in creation and the ten commandments, the linkage was obvious, they thought. Nice, but then they gummed up the works by linking it all to the creative acts involved in building the beit hamikdash, the Temple, in addition to the basic acts required by human beings just to survive (like baking bread, making clothing, writing, building shelter or a house.) Thus was born what we now see defined as m’lakhah according to halakhic principles.

Thirty-nine specific areas of creative effort are noted. I won’t get into a specific discussion about each of them here, though I will note I find some of them strange. The prohibition of “putting the finishing touch on something” (makeh bapatish, literally, striking with a hammer) seems particularly odd, considering that Shabbat is the recognition of G”d doing exactly that-putting those last finishing touches on creation. In fact, I might be so bold as to suggest that this is why the Torah says (in Gen. 2:2) that on the seventh day G”d finished the work that G”d was doing – words which have vexed readers of the Torah from the start. So it seems to me that putting the finishing touch on something on Shabbat is to honor and recreate what G”d did! How and why have we turned this upside down?

Heschel suggests that the concept of kadosh, holy, is central to Shabbat. The concept of holy is first introduced in reference to Shabbat:

And G”d blessed the seventh day and called it holy.

Now many might cite Heschel as support for the idea of an unplugged Shabbat. I suspect Rabbi Heschel himself would be a supporter of Sabbath Manifesto and a day of unplugging. After all, Heschel’s take is, simply put, that Shabbat is about being in time, rather than being in space, which we do the rest of the week. The festivals, Heschel argues, though they celebrate events in time, are fixed to timings in the natural world – moon phases, seasons, and thus, he says, tings in space. Shabbat is independent of anything in nature and space – it is a celebration of time. He says:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world. (A.J. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning For Modern man)

Is there something inherent in technology – computers, cell phones, smartphones, tablets, etc. that make them about space, rather than time? Perhaps. However I would also argue that these technologies might actually allow us to transcend and hallow time. Technology, for example, allows us to be places we are not, and to be in more than one place at the same time (albeit virtually.) Technology allows us to be in our own time and the past simultaneously. Technology just might be exactly what is needed to be celebrating time rather than place.

I’ve written many times about the anamnesis prevalent in Jewish ritual – ways of making the past present. Technology is a wonderful tool for making that happen. With technology, we could be at our Seder table and at Sinai or the Reed Sea at the same time!

As I stated near the beginning of this musing, it’s a matter of what you do online or with the technology, not that you are just using or not using it. I might use the technology to study, to engage in social action activities, to be part of an extended virtual community. Instead of the false dichotomy of “during the week we use technology and on Shabbat we don’t” why not “during the week we use technology for all sorts of things, but on Shabbat we use technology only for a higher purpose, in service to G”d and the spirit of G”d’s Shabbat.” I do not believe it has to be either/or. Item two on the Sabbath Manifesto is “connect with loved ones.” is that connection any less worthwhile if it is done using technology, as that might be the only way to do it?

During the week I utilize computers to deal with the tyranny of work. On Shabbat, might I not use a computer in a way that is totally free of how I use it for work? Maybe I’ll use it to create a song, or a poem. (Oh wait, that’s creative isn’t it? Well, as I said before, I’m not sure the rabbis got that right anyway.) Maybe I’ll use it for something that, for me, enables me to totally experience the idea of “Shabbat Vayinafash” which I like to think of, as I’ve written in musings before, of G”d’s refreshing or re-souling G”d’s self. Who am I judge judge how another experiences Shabbat? If playing Angry Birds help you be in the spirit of Shabbat, then why not play Angry Birds? If reading is something you usually do on Shabbat, does it really matter if you use a Kindle or a Tablet instead of a book?

I’ve often heard even shomer Shabbat Jews refer to a Shabbat recharge. Now there’s irony in this simile/metaphor. (For you purists, I might argue that it is not at all clear if this is a simile or a metaphor. It can be the simile “Shabbat is like a battery being recharged” but it could also be the metaphor “Shabbat is a recharging.”) Can there be recharging without violating prohibited m’lakhah? Certainly not in a physical, scientific sense. What about in a spiritual sense? If using technology helps provide my spiritual recharge for Shabbat, is that truly wrong?

What about mitzvot and Jewish values? The rules for Shabbat permit some violations for the sake of saving a life. If I turn my cell phone off, I might never know of that opportunity. My cell phone might enable me to perform an act of kindness or support for another on Shabbat. Maybe someone I know has an emergency, or a car accident, or a death in the family. Maybe a friend is feeling down and needs cheering up. Maybe a family member needs my assistance. Maybe a friend is studying Torah alone and needs a partner. If someone is alone and needs community, they could attend one of the virtual synagogues on the web. Is this truly wrong? We arrange for shut-ins to see services through live streaming (some synagogues have done this for decades just by phone, by the way.)

If I go to services and get inspired, by traditional standards, I’d just have to keep the ideas in my head until Shabbat is over. I couldn’t write a note, record a voice memo, make notes on my smartphone or tablet. Chances are by the time havdallah came around I’d have forgotten. If I used technology to help me remember, I could perhaps make my life, or that of someone else, or even the whole world, better.

Now, all this being said, I will state that my own Shabbat practices have varied widely over the years. For many periods in my life, I did refrain from using technology on Shabbat, from answering the phone, checking email, writing articles, etc. I did refrain from doing commerce or business on Shabbat (though there’s that catch involving anyone who is a Jewish professional and what it is that they actually do on Shabbat to meet the needs of the congregation or community.) I found ways to unplug during Shabbat.

Now I have reached a point in my life where I find that technology allows me to experience my Shabbat in ways that actually enhance it. So I’m not sure I’ll unplug on March 23/24 for the National Day of Unplugging. I may unplug on other occasions or other Shabbats. I may even unplug that Shabbat – but not because it is the National Day of Unplugging, but rather because I choose, that Shabbat, to do so.

So consider this my little plug for not unplugging on the National Day of Unplugging for the wrong reasons. Technology is not inherently evil, not inherently contradictory to the goals of Shabbat. Technology is a tool, and it can be used for good or evil. Maybe, if we focus on only using it for good on Shabbat, we can help bring about a world in which technology is always used only for good all week long as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Yitro 5771/ Redux Beshalakh 5762 – Manna Mania
Yitro 5770 – Special Effects
Yitro 5769 – Evolution Shabbat
Yitro 5768-B’Kol HaMakom-In Every Place
Yitro 5767-Kinat Ad”nai
Yitro 5766-Top Ten?
Yitro 5765-Outsiders (Updated from 5759)
Yitro 5764-Outsiders II
Yitro 5763-El Kana
Yitro 5762-Manna Mania
Yitro 5761-From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities
Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments
Yitro 5759-Outsiders

 

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About migdalorguy

Jewish Educator & Musician, Technology Nerd and all around nice Renaissance guy
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