Thursday, August 16, 2012

Shabbat and Technology

Almost twenty years ago, I was the part-time interim rabbi of the Conservative synagogue in Reno, Nevada, spending every other Friday through Sunday in that community. One of the members of the congregation asked for some guidance regarding Shabbat observance.

This congregant and his wife were born in another country and came from a Sephardic background. They were among the most observant members of the congregation. Like pretty much everyone else in the community, they lived far away from the synagogue and drove to services, but they did not go to their office or go shopping or to the movies, etc., on Shabbat. They tried to observe Shabbat as fully as they could within the context of the community in which they lived.

The problem was that their kids, especially in the spring and summer when Shabbat ended pretty late on Saturday, were starting to dread Shabbat. There weren’t many other kids in the neighborhood to play with, and the kids were really starting to feel both bored and isolated. He didn’t know what to do. On the one hand, he really did not want his kids watching television on Shabbat; on the other hand, he didn’t want his kids growing up hating Shabbat either, with the likelihood that they would abandon Jewish observance when they grew up and moved out.

What advice would you have given this man? What advice do you think I, as a Conservative rabbi, should have given him?

Jewish Ideas Daily recently ran an appreciation of Yosef Achituv, a leading educator of the Religious (i.e. Orthodox) Kibbutz Movement, who passed away in early June. In many ways the ideology of the Religious Kibbutz Movement is similar to that of Conservative Judaism, and Achituv was a Fellow of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a pluralistic institution where he taught side-by-side with Conservative and Reform thinkers. While he appreciated Conservative Judaism, he was also critical of it, according to Jewish Ideas Daily, because “its halakhic innovation did not emerge from the ongoing life of communities but was rather the product of meta-reflection by the movement's intellectuals, inorganically grafted onto the halakhic process.”

In other words, Conservative Judaism lacks a true community which actually lives by the halakhic decisions that the movement promulgates. There is a certain validity to this critique. Most of our members do not observe Shabbat, kashrut, or daily prayer according to the theoretical standards of Conservative Judaism. On a certain level, there is no pressing need to resolve halakhic problems, because our members in general will do what they feel is right regardless of what the Movement’s rabbis tell them.

An example which to some extent validates Achituv’s critique is a recent responsum by Rabbi Daniel Nevins, the Dean of JTS’ Rabbinical School, on the use of electronic devices on Shabbat, which was approved by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement.

Rabbi Nevins first reiterates previous rulings that the use of electricity per se is not a violation of Shabbat. He demonstrates, correctly in my opinion, that the classic Orthodox equations of electricity with either fire or “making something new” (a circuit) are erroneous and there is no actual prohibition on the use of electricity.

However, while the use of electricity per se may be permitted, actions which nonetheless constitute Shabbat violations in and of themselves do not become permitted simply because they are done by means of electricity. Cooking, for example, is an activity which is forbidden on Shabbat, and that prohibition includes heating water. So, for example, I permit turning on lights in the synagogue on Shabbat, but a Jewish person is not allowed to plug in a coffee pot on Shabbat, because in doing so he or she violates the prohibition on cooking.

While I agree with much of what Rabbi Nevins wrote in his responsum, I am not sure that I agree, for example, with his prohibition of the use of e-readers on Shabbat. He notes that almost all e-readers are connected to the Internet and even those which are not, nevertheless make a record of where one has stopped reading so that it can return to the same page later on. Rabbi Nevins considers this “writing” and thus a biblical violation of Shabbat.

Rabbi Nevins is certainly a greater scholar than I and his responsum has made me re-think my own usage of an e-reader on Shabbat. I have decided that from now on, I will turn off the Internet function of my Kindle on Shabbat as a symbolic separation of workday from Shabbat activities. But I don’t consider the Kindle’s use of memory to remember where I have stopped reading a particular book or magazine to be “writing.” It isn’t permanent, for one thing, and part of the definition of prohibited writing on Shabbat is permanence. Beyond that, it seems to me that even though the electronic record may be an inevitable by-product of using an e-reader, it is at worst in halachic terms a p’sik reisha d’lo ichpat lei (an inevitable consequence but one that the user doesn’t really desire or care about) and thus at worst a rabbinic violation.

Beyond that, there is a question of what values we are trying to implement and live by and who our community really consists of. I remember many years ago attending a class taught by Rabbi Joel Roth, a Talmud professor at JTS and generally considered one of the more stringent halachic decisors in the Conservative movement. To the surprise of many of us in his lecture, he advocated that Conservative synagogues should allow acoustic instrumental music on Shabbat at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah luncheon. His reasoning was as follows: instrumental music on Shabbat is only a rabbinic prohibition while eating non-kosher food is a biblical prohibition. Since the likely result of prohibiting instrumental music would be that the Bar or Bat Mitzvah family would hold a non-kosher reception in a restaurant rather than a kosher reception in the synagogue, he would allow the instrumental music in order to have more Jews eating kosher.

I would maintain that the use of e-readers will soon be analogous if it is not already so. E-books are much cheaper than paper books, and this allows works of Jewish thought and spirituality to be read by more people than ever before. They are also more environmentally-friendly, and Rabbi Nevins correctly notes that the Jewish value of bal taschit, not wasting resources, is one of the issues to be considered in evaluating any particular technology. I suspect that within the lifetime of many who are reading this, standard books will be almost if not entirely replaced by e-books. It may be that if enough Jews refrain from the use of e-readers on Shabbat, Jewish publishers will continue to print regular books, but they will become so expensive that few will be able to afford them. I think that Rabbi Nevins’ prohibition of the use of e-readers on Shabbat is one that few Conservative Jews who are not rabbis or JTS rabbinical students will follow.

To return to the situation with which I started this discussion, my advice to my Reno congregant was that he allow his children to watch videos on Shabbat, but that it be limited to videos with Jewish content only. In this way, Shabbat would be made distinct from the rest of the week, his kids would be exposed to more Jewish learning, and they would not grow up finding Shabbat a burden rather than a delight.

Similarly, I would encourage us to disconnect our e-readers from the Internet on Shabbat and read books of Jewish content on that day.

I have tried to stress over the years that Jewish observance is not a case of “all or nothing.” The questions posed to Conservative rabbis at times do not have simple answers, because the questioners are trying to include more Jewishness in their lives without necessarily making a commitment to full observance. I am grateful to be part of a Movement that struggles with these issues and recognizes that different rabbis and different communities may legitimately come up with different answers.

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