People of the E-Book? Observant Jews Struggle With Sabbath in a Digital Age

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The migration of print media to the web and digital devices has stirred society to ponder many Big Questions: Is Google making us stupid? Has technology short-circuited our children's attention spans? Are we frittering away our lives gaping at smartphone screens? All this while the most obvious question goes unanswered: what will Jews read on the Sabbath?

Many observant Jews do not operate lights, computers, mobile phones, or other electrical appliances from sundown on Friday until three stars appear in the night sky on Saturday. They abstain from these activities because, over the last century, rabbinic authorities have compared electricity use to various forms of work prohibited on the Sabbath by the Bible and post-biblical rabbinic literature, including lighting a fire and building. The difficulty of interpreting the Bible's original intent and applying it to modern technology has rendered electricity use on the Sabbath one of the more contentious topics in Jewish law.

E-readers are problematic not only because they are electronic but also because some rabbis consider turning pages on the device - which causes words to dissolve and then resurface - an act of writing, also forbidden on the Sabbath.

When they're not praying, studying, eating, socializing, or sleeping, observant Jews often devote a substantial portion of the Sabbath's 25 hours to reading - in print. As former New York Times religion reporter Ari Goldman explains in his book Being Jewish, it's thanks to the Sabbath that the "simple pleasure of reading is alive at least one night a week in our house." He recounts how "children who find every excuse all week not to read happily pick up a book on Friday night" and how he and his wife clip newspaper articles during the week to share with their children at the Sabbath table.

E-readers are problematic because some rabbis consider turning pages on the device - which causes words to dissolve and then resurface - an act of writing, also forbidden on the Sabbath.

Yet industry trends suggest digital media will eclipse print in a matter of decades. U.S. News & World Report is printing its last issue for subscribers this month, adopting a "digital-first" strategy already embraced by news outlets like the Christian Science Monitor. A Forrester Research analyst argued last month that book publishers must prepare "for a day in which physical book publishing is an adjunct activity that supports the digital publishing business."

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.

In a trend that probably hasn't dealt too severe a blow to the e-reader market, some observant Jews are refraining from buying e-readers altogether, reasoning that they do the majority of their reading on the Sabbath (see here, here, and here). One such e-reader holdout, an Orthodox Jew named Renee Beyda, explained in the Forward that she wouldn't want it any other way:

There is a saying in Judaism that one should be flexible like a reed, but that doesn't mean that my family will be buying e-readers anytime soon. After dinner [on the Sabbath], all five of us crawl under the fluffy down comforter of my king-size bed, each holding a book, vying for a spot close enough to the sole lit lamp in the room. These are the times I marvel at how only something as bizarre as keeping Shabbat could create this scene, which holding a screen could never replicate.

This past March, Reboot, a New York-based nonprofit led by Jewish artistic types, launched its first annual National Day of Unplugging to underscore the group's "Sabbath Manifesto," an attempt to recast the ancient Jewish day of rest for the modern age. Jews of various backgrounds joined non-Jews in experimenting with the Manifesto's principles, the first of which declared, "Avoid Technology."

The blogger Menachem Wecker framed the digital dilemma confronting Jews succinctly in an article in the Forward back in 2007: "Will Shabbat observance ultimately dwindle as people choose electronic entertainment over media-free rest, or will technology-addicted folks flock to Shabbat to escape their electronics-obsession of the rest of the week?"

Wecker could, of course, be presenting a false choice, since observant Jews may eventually be able to Kindle on the Sabbath without violating injunctions against kindling a fire or engaging in other types of work. Yet the possibility, as of now, appears remote.

Outside the realm of the Sabbath, meanwhile, the Jewish community is, in many instances, making the most of emerging technology, be it through Jewish prayer book apps, Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis adopting Twitter and Facebook for communal outreach, or Rabbi Yoffie, at a Union for Reform Judaism convention in 2009, urging the Reform Movement to launch congregational blogs as one way to engage young Jews and "create an online, Oral Torah of ongoing Jewish discourse."

Expressing a sentiment many religious communities and, more generally, many of us can identify with, Rabbi Fox explained, "There's real value in embracing technology. It's just about knowing when to turn it off."

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. More

Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy and a staff writer for The Atlantic Wire.
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