Technology and Shabbat – 21st century variety.

A recent article was published about the how observant Jews will face the rise of the e-book and the digitization of newspapers and magazines.  Let me begin by quoting a portion of the article:

So how are Jews responding? Some are thinking of ways to accommodate emerging technology within the structure of traditional Sabbath observance while others wrestle with the implications of the shifting media landscape for Jewish law and observance. A number stress that, regardless of legal considerations, the Sabbath’s rules and spirit have never been more important they are today, when technology saturates our lives.

The discussion arises at a moment when all religions are exploring what the digital revolution means for their communities, whether it’s the Amish deciding which devices to adopt, Muslims experimenting with online worship, or Roman Catholic clergy wondering whether social networks represent a new form of pastoral ministry.

Perhaps the simplest way to engage with digital media on the Sabbath is to plan ahead and print reading materials out during the week. But others are floating more high-tech solutions. The blogger Morris Rosenthal, for example, imagines a special Kindle that can bypass Sabbath prohibitions by disabling its buttons, turning itself on at a preset time, and flipping through a book at a predetermined clip.

Jeffrey Fox, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and the head of Yeshivat Maharat, an institution in Riverdale, NY that trains women to be religious leaders, doubts this type of device will catch on. Unlike popular Sabbath-compliant electronic appliances such as the Shabbat Elevator or the Shabbat Amigo scooter, he explains, there is no burning need to read a Kindle on the Sabbath, absent print materials vanishing entirely.

Fox believes that e-readers – like other electrical appliances that don’t generate light and heat – are technically permissible on the Sabbath but should not be used because they are a step away from forbidden activity and because, in epitomizing our weekday existence, aren’t appropriate for the Sabbath.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, says that even if an e-reader is invented that adheres to Jewish law, he worries such a device could undermine the Sabbath’s values.

“The Torah says you shouldn’t leave your place on the seventh day,” Nevins explains. “You can say Judaism is creating a local ideal that you experience Shabbat in a place with people and don’t go out of those boundaries … The problem with virtual experiences is they distract our attention from our local environment and break all boundaries of space and time. Shabbat is about reinforcing boundaries of space and time so we can have a specific experience.”

Nevins is writing a legal opinion on using electronic devices on the Sabbath in which he supports the use of appliances like electrical wheelchairs that help disabled individuals participate in communal life but not devices like e-readers that could disturb the Sabbath’s tranquility. He plans to submit the opinion for discussion and eventually a vote to the Conservative movement’s law-making body in May.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in New York, explains that since the Reform movement doesn’t consider Jewish law binding, “The key for us [on the Sabbath] is abstaining from work that we do to earn a living and using the time to reflect and enjoy and sanctify, which is ultimately what the day is about. To the extent to which technology can contribute to that, then by all means make use of it.”

Fox thinks that if the Orthodox community comes to reevaluate its stance on electricity use on the Sabbath, it won’t be a reaction to e-readers alone but rather a result of our homes, in the next 50 to 75 years, becoming so thoroughly wired that Jews will be left with no choice but to use electronic devices.

Nevins sees parallels between contemporary discussions about electronic devices and the Conservative movement’s decision in the 1950s (when the automobile and television were the new technologies) to permit driving to synagogue on the Sabbath.

“As Jews were moving to the suburbs … we said we’re going to lose everyone if we don’t let them drive to synagogue,” he says. “To some extent it was true because people would drive one way or the other but, on the other hand, making peace with [driving to synagogue] formally undermined an ideal we have, which was the neighborhood community. There is a similar danger here. If we become too relaxed about this we could lose the distinctive flavor of Shabbat.”

Nevins’ message about shielding the Sabbath’s spirit against the gale of digital transformation echoes among Jews of different levels of observance.

While I am not a regular user of an e-reader, I do have the capability of reading electronically on my cell phone.  Yet, the truth is, as someone who likes paper, I don’t feel the struggle.  Shabbat is a day for the paper book.  However, not to diminish the challenge, it is true that for many, why do I want to have different reading for Shabbat than weekday, especially if there is something during the week that I am reading which I feel would enhance my Shabbat enjoyment.  Furthermore, the e-book phenomenon is growning when the Jewish publishing companies, like Artscroll, are selling books in e-book form.  Of course, Artscroll also recognizes that one is not using the book on Shabbat.

This brings me to a related question.  Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill on his blog, The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, had a series of posts about a phenomenon regarding Shabbat in which one is Shomer Shabbat but communicates via texting, tweeting, etc.  (see here, here, and here).  I was talking with a colleague of mine who is Conservadox.  He was telling me his children are the only one’s from their age groups and peers who don’t text on Shabbat and how that causes them to often miss out on plans for Saturday night.  While I personally am happy when I get to turn my cell phones off for Shabbat, and am not advocating for this idea of a half-Shabbat, I can see how it can have it’s disadvantages for people.  The reality of today’s world being instant communication, to shut the world off for 25 hrs a week can be quite daunting for some.

To come back to the original article, it is quite telling that the Orthodox and Conservative rabbi quoted both seem to suggest that halacha could accomodate this change, but wonder if allowing e-readers on Shabbat would ultimately take away from the sanctity of the day.  For me, knowing that Shabbat is a quiet time for me and my library is part of the spiritual high of the day.

Addendum:  I came across another write up on the subject at the Jewish Book Review blog.  The author, Jason Miller, presents an argument that is in favor of working on how to make technology Shabbat friendly and Shabbat technology friendly.