Take My iPad, Please!

Gadget Rules Place Needed Limits on Technology

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published June 25, 2012, issue of June 29, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.


Click to view a slideshow.

“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.”

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.

David Booth, a conservative rabbi who helms Congregation Kol Emeth in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, said that he plans to use the teshuvah in a workshop about Sabbath observance at his synagogue this fall. “This idea of untethering is a big deal in Silicon Valley,” he said. “There are addictive things about these technologies. To tell everybody once a week to go untether is greatly healing and freeing.”

Booth said that he sees the effects of tech addiction when he counsels married couples who are more focused on the Internet than on each other. In his personal religious practice, Booth’s family enters the Sabbath by unplugging the house’s wireless Internet network before lighting the Friday night candles.

Schmeltzer’s video also riffs on tech dependency. “The gadgets make us lazy, we gotta take it easy,” the break dancing robots sing. And at another point, “Instead of searching Google, I’m busy making kugel.”

“It’s not a secret that I myself am a sufferer of being crazy with the phone,” Schmeltzer told the Forward. When the iPhone was released in 2007, Schmeltzer was among the first to buy it, waiting on line outside an Apple Store in the Palisades Center mall in upstate New York. Today, he said, his hands are constantly cramping from texting too much. He plans to take up yoga for his hands to relieve the pain.

“Now we understand the beauty of Shabbas that we got thousands of years ago,” he said. “The truth is, we can make Shabbas in the middle of the week, for one hour a day.”

In fact, many Jews, both Orthodox and secular, seem to be taking mini-Sabbaths during the workweek to create distance between themselves and their gadgets. Mordechai Lightstone, director of social media at the Chabad news site Lubavitch.com, said that he blocks the Internet on his phone during his three daily prayers and that he puts away his phone altogether at family meals.

Schevitz said that she has a no-phone policy when she is in the car with her children. And Nevins silences his phone when he’s talking to another person or eating a meal.

“For our ancestors, Shabbat was the cessation of manual labor,” he said. “Today we are information workers, and so maybe our challenge and our opportunity is to shift the way we handle information on Shabbat.”

And beyond.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com or on Twitter @NaomiZeveloff


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.