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Ultra-Orthodox Jews aren’t the only ones who have an ax to grind with technology. In March, the secular Jewish not-for-profit Reboot sponsored the third annual National Day of Unplugging, asking Jews and non-Jews alike to power down their gadgets in the spirit of the Sabbath. The Union for Reform Judaism endorsed the initiative on its Twitter page, saying that it was time to “turn off our tech and refresh ourselves.” “Everyone is thinking about this because everyone is feeling so overwhelmed by it and somewhat offended by others peoples’ use,” Reboot spokeswoman Tanya Schevitz said.
Also in March, several congregants at the Modern Orthodox Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Manhattan’s Washington Heights spoofed the iPhone’s Siri function, a voice activated “personal assistant,” in a video for the synagogue’s Purim shpiel. In the clip, Siri, or Suri, as she’s called in this case, acts as an electronic scold, forcing her users to make more frum decisions. “Make a reservation for me at Second Avenue Deli,” one man asks. She refuses: “That restaurant does not have an acceptable hekhsher.”
“People are feeling a little bit spooked out by their technology,” Nevins said. “There is this sense that the boundary between machine and person is blurring. This is very empowering, but it is also invasive. I think Shabbat should feel a little different.”
The results of several years of work, Nevins’s ruling is a technical examination of Halacha and technology. For many decades, rabbis banned electricity on the Sabbath because they thought it violated the Torah’s prohibition of fire. But in his teshuvah, or legal responsum, Nevins argues that new gadgets like iPhones and e-readers violate not the Torah’s ban on fire — no sparks are set off by turning them on — but its ban on writing and recording.
These electronics, Nevins said, are more complicated than their on/off switches. A cell phone records the time a call is placed and the length of the call; an Amazon Kindle allows its user to type notes into the text. And computers are constantly capturing user data. By utilizing our gadgets, we are “working” even when we don’t realize it. “For me it feels effortless and like nothing is happening,” Nevins said, “but a lot is happening under the hood.”
What’s more, these technologies violate the notion that the Sabbath should be both a time to rest and a time to keep it local. “Contemporary families spend much of their time together focused on individual electronic devices. Faces lit by glowing screens large and small, ears attached to headphones, they busily interact with friends and strangers across the world while making minimal contact with the people around them,” Nevins wrote. “Shabbat can and should be different.”
Though many Conservative Jews don’t observe the Sabbath, Nevins said that his teshuvah is more than a thought experiment, and that it will guide the policies of camps, schools, synagogues — and individuals — about electricity usage on the Sabbath.