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The Jewish Case Against Unplugging

Jews can be pretty proprietary about guilt. We’re almost proud of it. If an outsider, after binge-reading Philip Roth, came to the conclusion that guilt is what fuels our emotional engines, we would experience that particular delight of feeling completely understood. And yet, when it comes to guilt, the thing we might feel most guilty about is not really being as guilty as we think we should be.

With our first step on Ellis Island, European Jewry entered a totally new and all-consuming breed of guilt — a Puritanical one, which is at once unspoken and omnipresent. This particular mix of regret and shame is a product of America’s religious founders, a group of people who are so fearful of human impulse and emotion that they formed a society that deified abstinence. The Puritans are long gone, but their culture of guilt remains.

The latest target of this very American breed of guilt is technology. The rapid ascent of smartphones, tablets, apps and social networking has incited a chorus of fearmongers and naysayers telling us to unplug, or go on digital detox, or recharge by uncharging or cure our digital attention disorders. The Jewish cultural organization Reboot’s “Sabbath Manifesto,” which aims to put a “modern spin on the tradition of a weekly day of rest,” places unplugging on the top of its list and is encouraging everyone to take part in the National Day of Unplugging, happening March 7–8.

The problem with all this unplugging isn’t that people might use their smartphones less; I think we can all agree that for many, that would be a good thing. Instead, the issue is that we good little Puritanical Americans, Jewish and not, are viewing our relationships with our cell phones in the context of addiction. We are encouraged to go cold turkey, to rinse ourselves clean of the foulness injected into our bodies and souls by our Twitter-scrolling hands. God help us all.

Where is the moderation here? The acknowledgement of self-restraint? [Because many of us, possibly most of us, are not addicted to our smartphones, or have any other detrimental psychological conditions as a result of using technology. Instead of being encouraged to power down, shouldn’t we be encouraged to trust ourselves and our ability to control ourselves around all those shiny white iPhones and the pretty little apps? Maybe we could even learn a few tips on how?

This is a pretty reductive, but here goes. The fundamental difference between Jewish and Puritanical guilt is that Jews usually feel guilty for not doing enough: “There wasn’t enough food”; “You didn’t call your mother enough.” Puritanical guilt, on the other hand, is rooted in the feeling that one did too much, that the person fell in too deep with his or her urges.

When we view smartphones through the prism of Puritanical guilt, we are led to believe that there must be something wrong with our relationship with them, simply by virtue of the fact that they are something we desire. If we look at it more Jewishly, then we can let go of the notion that anything we desire must be bad, and start thinking about ways to draw boundaries in order to regulate this desire.

Now is a good time to point out the fact that I am well aware of the Sabbath’s prohibition of technology. If that is your custom, then, yes, please, unplug during the Sabbath. The reason you will be doing so is not because you are scared to death of your relationship with your smartphone. But for the large numbers of us Jews who do happily turn on the lights or listen to music during the Sabbath, why should we be unplugging?

I say this as someone who tried to unplug during every Sabbath for a while. Sure, there was a certain bliss found in the symbolic severing of the tether, physical and psychological, between my smartphone and me. But after a few weeks I started realizing all the good things I was missing, too: calls from my sister, photos from my dad’s hikes, Skype sessions between my mom and my toddler. With my family across the country, when I was unplugging from technology I was unplugging from them, too. Heck, I even missed Facebook. The people I follow are mostly interesting and funny. I love to see their weekend updates or check out an article they recommended. Is there really something so wrong with scrolling through my feed once or twice a weekend?

When I decided to stop unplugging, it was for two reasons: One is that I felt that, overall, I was losing more than I was gaining, and the other is that I realized I could control myself. Despite what everyone was telling me, I am not a smartphone addict, and you probably aren’t, either.

So instead of focusing so much energy on unplugging as a way to reconnect on the Sabbath, I think we should put more effort into plugging into life around us. Make a point of having friends over for Friday night dinner at least once a month. You can even text them your address. Or read the weekly Torah portion, or say some prayers, all of which are readily accessible, yes, via your mobile devices!

The other Friday night we used our iPad to look up Sabbath songs to sing to our son. I wanted my less Jewishly raised husband to join me in “Lecha Dodi.” It took a little while to find the melody I was raised with, but eventually we found a recording that was at least 100 years old, a spare and soulful rendition of the mystical song. A few more minutes of searching, and we found the lyrics both transcribed and translated.

And then there we were, singing “Lecha Dodi” as a family, led by a man from another time, another place, our son swaying back and forth to our slightly off harmonies. We were really plugged in.

Elissa Strauss is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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