Digital revolution knocking at synagogue door
Views differ widely among U.S. Jews, but the idea that technology presents a threat to Judaism’s prohibition on working, or creating, on the Sabbath has permeated much of American synagogue culture.
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The first time Sam Simon saw a screen used to project prayers during Sabbath services, “it took my breath away.” And not in the good sense.
“It feels intrusive, disruptive on Shabbat,” the 68-year-old McLean, Va., techie said of his experience in a D.C. synagogue, using the Hebrew word for Sabbath.
Only the most traditional interpret Judaism’s prohibition on working, or creating, on the Sabbath as prohibiting the turning on of electricity and electronics, encompassing such activities as flicking a light switch, heating up the oven or driving a car between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.
But the idea that technology presents a threat to this sacred commandment has permeated much of American synagogue culture, even for liberal Jews such as Simon. Many still consider the sight on Sabbath of a cellphone, tablet device or a flashing screen disturbing when they come to services.
As a result, American synagogues have been cautious about technology. Meanwhile, much of institutional religion, hoping to lure back a wandering America, has been using technology to reach more people, experimenting with launching church DJs or holding services via Facebook.
But the digital revolution is now chipping away at a millennia-old barrier: the Jewish Sabbath.
Reform synagogues — a large, liberal part of Judaism — are expanding their use of technology on the Sabbath, experimenting carefully with live-streaming services and projected images. The Conservative movement, long considered the middle road of institutional U.S. Judaism, had an intense back-and-forth this summer over a proposal to use e-readers to pray on the Sabbath. And while Orthodox Jewish leaders are unanimously opposed to turning any device on during the Sabbath, reports widely shared in the past year or so say huge numbers of young Orthodox send text messages, seeing it as socializing, not work. They call it “half-Shabbos” (Shabbos is the Yiddish word for Sabbath.)
The issue was highlighted this weekend because of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and one of the few times a year most U.S. Jews go to synagogue. Sabbath rules apply on Yom Kippur, which happens to fall this year on the Sabbath. It began at sundown Friday and ended at sundown Saturday.
Range of beliefs
Beliefs and practices regarding technology and the Sabbath differ widely among U.S. Jews.
The Orthodox believe the process of electricity constitutes “creating” something and have systems of timers for things such as stoves and air conditioning, and avoid electronic doors and hotel key cards. Many ultra-Orthodox are opposed to use of the Internet altogether and use “kosher phones” that don’t connect to the Web. Reform rabbis are fine with electricity and many have long used electrified musical instruments and screens to broadcast crowded services into overflow rooms, but have been hesitant about video cameras, e-readers or screens in the sanctuary. Conservative rabbis are somewhere in the middle, and are divided on much of this.
The questions are all new. Jewish law bans writing on the Sabbath, but are pixels — or the digital record of them — writing? If you type a search term into an iPad that holds Scripture you’re using to pray, did you just write? Does downloading create a record the way writing does, even if you’re downloading some Talmudic analysis? If your community is on Facebook, are you connecting or disconnecting on the Sabbath if you post there?
For some the issue is simple: a desire to unplug. For others the concern is Jewish law and how to interpret the ancient, detailed 39 categories of forbidden Sabbath work in the new, wired world. For others it’s cultural: Electronics don’t mesh well at synagogue.
“It just doesn’t feel Shabbasdik,” Ethan Seidel, rabbi of the Conservative Northwest D.C. synagogue Tifereth Israel, said of projectors and screens, using a Yiddish adjective for the special, holy vibe of the Sabbath.
Seidel said screens are “intriguing” (though he doesn’t want to use them), and he isn’t totally opposed to e-readers (as long as they’re not the wired ones you could use to surf the Web). But he thinks Jews should be wary before messing with the walls that have protected the Sabbath.
“I think there are a lot of people completely taken with technology and have lost their critical faculties,” Seidel said.
Conservative leaders had a dispute this summer when a prominent rabbi suggested using e-readers on the Sabbath during a convention of North American Jewish men’s-clubs leaders, arguing that such devices are becoming the equivalent of books. The proposal was withdrawn.
A year earlier, the leader of the movement’s key rabbinical school wrote an 80-page opinion saying electronic devices violate the Sabbath because they create a record, which is too much like writing. Rabbi Danny Nevins’ opinion was approved by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards by a vote of 17-2.
Proponents of more experimentation counter with the obvious: The vast majority of Jews are already using the whole range of technology on the Sabbath. Judaism can’t be shut out of the digital revolution.
“Judaism is itself a technology. You name it — Torah study, mitzvot, prayer, all these things are technologies that exist for you to connect more deeply with yourself, your community and God,” said Gil Steinlauf, rabbi of Adas Israel, a large Northwest Conservative synagogue currently reviewing its Sabbath electronics practices, from e-readers to live-streaming video.
In recent years, there have been groundbreaking digital translations of the Talmud, revolutionizing prayer for Orthodox Jews who need daily access to the Talmud’s 30-plus volumes. Using a device for non-Sabbath daily prayer is fast becoming so standard that sometimes people absent-mindedly kiss their iPhones after praying, a ritual normally done with books.
Some Orthodox rabbis observe the “half-Shabbos” phenomenon and see something important: the forming of a new Orthodox approach to technology. Others see run-of-the-mill rebellion.