The Jewish People has faced more than its share of crisis throughout the generations, but the latest challenge is of a uniquely 21stcentury variety.
It seems that a growing number of young people – from Shabbat-observant families across the religious spectrum, most of them students at Orthodox schools – are sending text messages to friends during Shabbat. While most do this surreptitiously, behind their parents’ back – or behind their own, with acrobatic-like agility – others openly admit that they do not, or cannot, turn off their cell phone when the Friday sun goes down. They have even coined – you should pardon the expression – a name for this phenomenon: Half-Shabbat, or, in text-ese, hlf shbt.
Parents, educators and rabbis are at a loss to explain why this is happening. Some see it as pure addiction; after spending so many hours in the course of the week texting, tweeting and Facebooking, many teens simply cannot bring themselves to quit for 25 hours. Others contend this is a form of rebellion, using technology the way other generations used cigarettes or long hair to make their statement of non-conformity.
Still others point their fingers at the religious community, in particular the Modern Orthodox world, whose attempt to blend Torah observance with cosmopolitan culture may walk too fine a line, the nuances of which are often lost on the young.
Most authority figures interviewed on the subject have thankfully proclaimed that they will deal with this issue through love, and not lashes. They recognize that strident opposition to texting – such as throwing the phones in the mikve – will only aggravate the situation and likely lead to more alienation.
For young people, a phone is much, much more than just a way to communicate.
It is a world in and of itself: a camera, a personal movie theater, a portal into news, music and information, a personal secretary and a loyal, constant companion. For better or worse, it has become a precious lifeline the loss of which would be devastating.
At the same time, I think we need to dig a little deeper and ask ourselves why this is happening, seizing the opportunity for constructive character building.
I suggest that there are several dynamics at work. First, there is the syndrome of extreme entitlement, whereby all restraints are rejected and all limits are lost. Tradition is fine, but not when it gets in my way; I want what I want when I want it, and no one can tell me otherwise.
Instant gratification – once reserved for infants and toddlers – has been encouraged for far too long. The exuberance of youth may see the world as a field of limitless opportunities – and that is a good thing – but it doesn’t mean there are no boundaries.
Controlling our passions and proclivities is an essential part of growing up, and it is precisely that kind of discipline that defines our Torah and spiritual lifestyle.
What is prayer if not an admission that there is a Higher Power in the universe, upon whom we are dependent? What is the purpose of a Jewish community if not to remind us that we have responsibilities, and not only rights? And what is Shabbat, if not a way to remind us to be more than collectors of material things, more than slaves to commerce and competition? Patiently but firmly, these ideas must be broached and explored. Parents, when all else fails, must still be parents, and we cannot abdicate our obligations to our children.
Timid as we may sometimes be about confronting our kids, they still value our words and consistently vote us their favorite heroes.
Yet at the same time, we parents must be intellectually honest and completely consistent, for kids have an uncanny ability to sense hypocrisy.
If we fudge on our own religious integrity, if we bend the rules when it suits us, why shouldn’t they? More than one dad has become addicted to his “Crack-Berry,” ignoring his family every time the phone rings or an e-mail arrives.
Along with the kids and the parents, the third leg of this triangle – our educational system – must also conduct a serious reality check. We must become infinitely more creative in our teaching methods, searching high and low for the key that turns a student on to Jewish knowledge and observance.
More than one Shabbat texter has complained that “Shabbat is just way too boring without my phone.” The problem, I’m absolutely convinced, lies not in the product, but in the sales pitch. Presented in the right way, with more “do’s” than “do not’s,” Shabbat can be the most exciting, enthralling day of the week – for kids of any age.
Moreover, let’s do away once and for all with the “tears and fears” approach to Judaism. Rather than talking about what terrible fate awaits us if we sin, our emphasis should be on the positive aspects of coming closer to God. Let’s stress to our children that the mitzvot are there not to satisfy some demanding deity, but for our own good, enjoyment and benefit. God prefers to please us, not to punish us, and that is how we must approach every element of our faith.
Shabbat, in short, is not a cell. Pun intended.The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; email@example.com.