Guest post by Douglas Aronin
A few months back, I saw a cartoon that has made the rounds in Jewish circles. It pictures a chassidic-looking man talking into a cell phone, with a caption that reads: “Remember, if you need anything, I’m available 24/6.”
That cartoon, and particularly its caption, stayed with me because it says so much with so few words. More than anything, it speaks volumes about how countercultural traditional Shabbat observance is in our hyperconnected 24/7 world.
That cartoon was the first thing that popped into my mind as I read “For Many Orthodox Teens, ‘Half Shabbos’ Is A Way Of Life,” a front page story in the current issue of The Jewish Week (link). Written by veteran reporter Steve Lipman, the story focuses on a problem I didn’t even know existed: otherwise Shabbat-observant teenagers who can’t seem to resist texting their friends on Shabbat. “According to interviews with several students and administrators at Modern Orthodox day schools,” Lipman writes, “the practice of texting on Shabbat is becoming increasingly prevalent, especially, but not exclusively, among Modern Orthodox teens.” Rabbi Steven Burg, the international director of the Orthodox youth movement NCSY, acknowledges that “[i]t’s a big problem,” adding: “It’s almost a problem of addiction.”
That many teenagers today are virtually addicted to the ever expanding universe of computerized communications is not exactly breaking news. That adolescents, including Orthodox adolescents, are prone to testing limits can’t possibly be a shock to anyone who is or has been the parent of one. There are some Orthodox teens who rebel against traditional Jewish observance, or as it’s usually expressed in the Orthodox world, go “off the derekh.” Many ultimately return, but some don’t; it’s an unfortunate but unsurprising consequence of living in the modern world.
The surprising part of the phenomenon discussed in Lipman’s article in The Jewish Week is that, apparently, at least some of the teenagers who text on Shabbat don’t see themselves as rebels. “They still believe in God and consider themselves Orthodox,” as one of the teens interviewed for the article puts it. Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist who works with many Orthodox teens, agrees that texting on Shabbat does not necessarily lead to other violations. “This is a separate category,” she says.
Since my days of parenting teenagers are behind me, I was not aware of this phenomenon, which apparently is known in Orthodox teen circles as keeping “half Shabbos,” until I saw The Jewish Week story. A Google search quickly convinced me, however, that I was way out of the loop, and the phenomenon was more common than I could have imagined. Among other things, I found an extended blog discussion on the subject last September, a somewhat more limited blog discussion in November and a piece in The Jewish Chronicle (London, of all places) in January.
Of course, those few early entries on the “half Shabbos” phenomenon have been numerically overwhelmed by the on-line entries in the forty-eight hours or so since Lipman’s piece was posted – including, not surprisingly, a long string of comments posted on The Jewish Week’s own web site. Suddenly, it seems, everybody in the Modern Orthodox world is talking about it. These on-line discussions range widely, of course, as is typical of the medium, and include discussions about the addictive nature of these new media and the unwillingness of parents to set limits on teenage behavior. A surprising number of them, however, focus on the technical issues concerning texting on Shabbat: is electricity use the halakhic equivalent of fire, is it prohibited under the rubric of binyan (building), does texting violate the prohibition of writing, etc.
Those technical discussions may have some value as Torah study, but in this context they are mostly beside the point. The world of Torah will not be seriously undermined by some rebellious teenagers testing limits by using up-to-date media (with which they are more familiar than their parents) to communicate with each other on Shabbat. It will be seriously undermined, however, if those teenagers do not figure out, in the few years remaining to them before they enter the adult world as fully participating members, what it means to place shemirat Shabbat at the center of your life.
And that brings me back, of course, to the 24/6 cartoon with which I started. The reason that the caption of that cartoon makes us smile is that the chassid is pretending for his customer’s benefit that the difference between 24/6 and 24/7 is purely quantitative. He may persuade the customer – he may even convince himself – but we, the observers, know better. We understand that the difference between 24/7 and 24/6 is, at its heart, qualitative, not quantitative. To be available to someone else 24/7 is to surrender our entire lives to that someone. To be available 24/6 is to insist that there is a twenty-four hour period (I know, really twenty-five hours, but let’s not nitpick), which does not belong to that someone, which we insist on reserving to ourselves, to our families and to God. Shabbat gives us the ability to shield that period from employers and customers alike, and in the hyperconnected world we live in, that ability is a precious gift – a gift that our teenagers, who have not yet had to deal with need to earn a living, cannot understand.
More than two decades ago, I participated in a panel discussion on Shabbat observance at an event for Jewish teenagers. Describing the difficulties I experienced as a practicing attorney in leaving early on winter Fridays, I explained that I went to the office each Friday with two times in my head: the time that I would try to leave if all was going normally and the time I would walk out the door even if the world was falling apart around me. One of the other panelists, who held a high-level position in the financial world, told the teenagers that although he and I had not spoken about it in advance, he did exactly the same thing. His boss and his colleagues knew that there was a time on each Friday that he had to leave no matter what the crisis.
With the technological advances in communications during the intervening decades, the world in which we earn our living has become an even more unforgiving place. It is still possible for observant Jews to persuade employers, colleagues, clients and customers to respect our need for a twenty-five hour carve-out each week from the otherwise incessant demands of the world of work – but they will never take our need for that carve-out more seriously than we do.
Of course, physicians, because of the life-saving nature of their work, sometimes lose the benefit of that carve-out. One of them, participating in The Jewish Week’s on-line discussion, summed it up well: “[A]s a physician, I am still tethered to my phone when I am on-call, but the other weeks, I really look forward to the disconnect. There must be a way to impress the teens with this.”
Let’s hope there is.