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
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."