For the gadget-toting Jew, a recent announcement from the Conservative movement about new Sabbath guidelines on the ban on electronics might sound like a flight attendant’s canned directive before takeoff: no cell phones, smart phones, digital cameras or even e-readers.
But beyond the traditional halachic reasons for pressing the “off button” on the Sabbath — the Torah’s ban on “work” reinterpreted for modern times — the guidelines contain an insight that speaks to the spiritual health of our society: The very gadgets meant to make our lives easier are now shackling us to our work and isolating us from the people around us. And Judaism’s oldest mandate — the Sabbath — might be the key to untethering ourselves.
“Using electricity makes us powerful,” wrote Rabbi Daniel Nevins in the guidelines, which were approved by a committee of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in May. But Nevins, who is dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, cautioned: “Our digital servants have the tendency to become tyrants, and it is nearly impossible to escape their reach. Instant access leads to the loss of privacy and the erosion of social intimacy.”
The fear that gadgets are taking over our lives or becoming an extension of our bodies is not new. But right now, a broader anxiety seems to be rippling through the Jewish community’s disparate, divided domains.
Less than two weeks after the Conservative movement released its Sabbath guidelines, Hasidic pop star Lipa Schmeltzer — who inhabits a far different Jewish world — posted a YouTube video infused with a similar perception of gadgets taking over even in his insular subculture. The video features Schmeltzer and a dancing chorus line of companions dressed up as silver robots, looking like the Tin Man from the classic 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz.”
The film is based on a highly allegorical novel by Frank Baum, a disillusioned prairie populist, in which this character, who lacked a heart, symbolized modern urban industrial man. Once healthy and productive, he is now reduced to an unfeeling and dehumanized worker. In Schmeltzer’s video, his Tin Man character sees Hasidim and their children in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn flocking to electronics stores, obsessed with gadgets and games, oblivious to their human relationships. He and his fellow robots admonish viewers to “hang up the phone.”
In May, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men packed Citi Field stadium in Queens for a rally against the moral dangers of the Internet. The protest, which was advertised on the Internet itself, inspired countless punch lines. But it also contained nuggets of universal wisdom: “Even secular studies agree that children are being turned into ‘click vegetables,’” said one speaker, Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, according to an article in The Verge. “Bored? Click something else.”