Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

Half Shabbat Data: This Just In

In Uncategorized on June 29, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Dr. Scott Goldberg in The Jewish Week has weighed in with some data announcing that 17% of Modern Orthodox affiliated youth text, or should I say admit to texting, on shabbat. My last posting gave many reasons for why I considered this highly problematic. My friend, Aryeh Klapper, a well known scholar and educator, has a different take. Orthodoxy, in general, is ignoring the challenges of the digital century.  The ubiquitous necessity for electricity will make professions that require international travel very problematic. Once sensors are on all public sinks and toilets, once books are only available electronically, will the response be to retreat to professions that will not take us to China?  Will hotels be off limits, or will we be allowed to do our business with a shinui?  And what would that look like?

Given all the things teenagers could be doing, is contacting their friends the worst thing? He argues that there needs to be a revisiting of the prohibition in general given the way the world is changing.  He did concede that the moniker “half shabbos” does indicate a crisis of sorts.If students feel that they can pick and choose then shabbos for them at least is in trouble.

In a world where a satellite shoots an image every few seconds, where you walk by a house and a light goes on, where you walk in a room and lights go on, or off when you leave it, where is the coherent response in halacha on how to respond to these challenges? This is Aryeh’s larger point.  If such things will be permitted and by necessity they may have to be  in the future, then how does one rationalize prohibiting  battery operated cell phones? iPads don’t complete a circuit at all I’m told. Uh oh!


On Keeping “Half Shabbat” or Teenage text addictions

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2011 at 7:41 am

The Jewish Week has uncovered a new scandal.  Frum adolescents keeping shabbos except when it comes to texting.  They call it keeping “half shabbos”, maybe they should say “sho…shabbos” without the “mer”, or maybe it should be a faux shabbos.  Two people on my facebook page linked this story for dramatically different reasons. Shades of Rashomon.  One poster, an Orthodox rabbi who works with college age youth, and the other, a less than halachic Jewish communal professional.  The latter found the issue somewhat laughable. Kind of like, “Seriously, this is what’s got their knickers in a twist? Plllleasse!” The former wondered why these high schoolers find it so difficult to lay off their cell phones for one day a week, and why they text instead of just making a phone call? Even though boredom is given as one of the reasons, that doesn’t explain why texting was prevalent at a shabbaton. Presumably, there were many people to hang out with. What was the temptation?  As the article recounts:

At a recent campgrounds Shabbaton sponsored by a local Modern Orthodox high school, the teenage participants broke into small groups after the meals, as is usual, to talk with their friends.

On their cell phones.

Of the 17 students who attended the weekend program, said 17-year-old Julia, a junior at the day school, most sent text messages on Shabbat…

For some reason, a face to face conversation was deemed less fulfilling, or not fulfilling enough, than  composing a hackneyed 160 character missive in real time.  Well, kids will be kids, and as rebellions, or compulsions go, although sad and disappointing, it should not surprise, or scandalize anyone.  It does, however, raise some interesting questions.  Is compulsive texting a phase that is a consequence of having lots of time on ones hands, or will it remain a vital form  of communication that is tacitly permittedwell into adulthood?

I find texting useful when I need to convey information and do not wish to disturb the textee.  Say, I wished to announce that I had arrived safely, I would text “Landed”.  Similar terse messages are useful and efficient.  I would, however, find it profoundly annoying to use this medium as a primary form of communication, but obviously these kids do.  I cannot conceive how someone can rack up thousands of messages a month which means I have absolutely no handle on the nature of this phenomenon.

I do know, however, that if this is the part of shabbos one chooses not to keep, s/he is missing the point of shabbos altogether which is for a person to retreat within reason from all the technology around him and look inward.  One may argue that no Torah prohibition has been violated here (although that is not certain), but the individual has guaranteed that shabb0s as a totality will have less meaning and no impact on him in the largest sense.

The point of confining activity is so that habits of the spirit replace mundane daily routines.  If we only restrict ourselves, without replenishing our hearts and minds with reflective alternatives i.e. prayer, study, guests, and rest, then we have succeeded in making shabbos observance a misery.  The fact that the need to text is so overwhelming indicates a vacuum within a halachic framework that makes shabbos an empty shell that needs to be filled with something. Unfortunately, texting undermines the purpose and the essence of that structure.

Because I find it hard to imagine how anyone could send two thousand texts a month, I called my twenty-four year old daughter who during her undergraduate years was a serial texter. She is now married with a day job. I asked her if, now that she is married and a working adult whether the volume and the quality of her texts had changed.  She answered that she texts significantly less, and that she uses it primarily for making and confirming plans.  In college, it was the preferred medium for sharing news, and real time “conversation”.  Might this indicate that this is a phase that will burn itself out with more responsibility?

What she found disturbing about the new phenomenon was the brazenness of doing it out in the open at an organized youth activity.  Our house was a social center on Friday night when my daughter was in high school.  She said that even those who were not shomer shabbos wouldn’t have used their phones when they were hanging out in our basement because they respected where they were.

Ironically, it is the educational focus on halachic minutiae that contributes to minimizing the severity of this behavior.  If in ones head it is not  a significant transgression, then one can have her text and shabbos too–meaning that there is no difference between how one outside the shabbos framework and those ostensibly inside view the observance and desecration of shabbos.  Both say, “I don’t do drugs, I’m a good student, and I’m not so sexually active, so not only am I a good kid, my half shabbos identity makes me a good Jew. Driving on shabbos is technically a far more severe prohibition, but it does not invalidate the experience of shabbat any more than texting does.  The”Half shabbos” practitioners are measuring themselves by the values of the general community with pseudo-halachic ammo.

They also look ridiculous to the community that is now defining who they are. Why don’t you IM if you text? Your Ipad probably uses less electricity than your cell phone, so why not watch a movie? Does God want you to be bored on shabbos, how stupid is that? How, indeed?

When the Orthodox community was populated with smokers, most of them, managed to hold off for twenty-four hours a week from what is considered one of the most notorious of physical and psychological addictions. Shabbos, for them, was that important.  If one who cares enough about shabbos to keep at least “half”, but not enough to withdraw from their cell phones, one wonders what they think they are doing? Is the half kept out of personal commitment, convenience, parental pressure?

I can hear the educators query. “What would you have me do, invalidate their entire practice?” For someone who is newly introduced to Judaism, certainly not, but for the student who would not thinking of davening without a mechitza–


…and speaking of Paul Simon…

In Uncategorized on June 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Months ago I wrote a synopsis of the Maharal’s understanding of Hesed. A major point that was not explicit is that Hesed, compassion, by definition may be catalyzed by a need, but one is technically under no obligation to respond.  One does it only because one wants to, just as God sustains the world out of no personal need, but only because this is God’s will.

Two concrete examples:

Take this report from NPR about two high school grads from Goldsboro, North Carolina. This is exactly what the Maharal was talking about.

In a different vein see what Paul Simon did for a fan at one of his concerts. After Simon announced that he was going to play “Duncan” Rayna, a Simon devotee called out, “I learned to play guitar on that song.” She was invited on stage and this is what happened:

In both cases, it is the fact that these gifts came without expectation, merely out of one’s desire to make something wonderful happen in the life of another. Not only does it transform the recipient of such largesse, but those who witness it are enriched, and profoundly transformed by  the Divine potential of humanity. Anyone who has a heart is warmed by the power of everflowing love for those we know, and those we may not.

In listening and watching these stories unfold I welcome you to be part of that community. Now maybe just wonder why these stories make us feel so good.

So Beautiful, or So What?

In Uncategorized on June 6, 2011 at 9:32 am

Paul Simon’s latest, and certainly one of his greatest solo albums “So Beautiful Or So What” has been recently released. The music is evocative and the lyrics border on poetry. In my mind, the three most artful masters of contemporary song are not incidentally Jews. Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Paul Simon stand far and above the many talents who emulate and innovate at their feet.

Dylan gives credence to the Talmudic axiom that prophecy is now the province of children and the insane.  Barely coherent in speech, something magical happens when Dylan smiths a tune that shackles his flood of consciousness into a respectable order, and even a refrain. He is the least musical of the three, but the discipline of the simple tune makes his mad language accessible, powerful, and evocative of the traditional.

Leonard Cohen is truly a student of the spirit not afraid to let all that education emerge in song. He knows his Bible and observes Jewish tradition to a point. Musically, he is quirky, but his lyrics stand on the shoulders of poets and books that matter.  Like Paul Simon, for Cohen, it is only love that is sacred and eternal, and both return to those themes time and time again. Dylan, in contrast, is the master of the moment, the rant, and the opaque narrative.  If you don’t know what he means, that must indicate a modicum of profundity.

I always know what Cohen and Simon mean, and I always wish I would have thought of their words first.  The only way that Simon disappoints in this album is his reliance on Christian symbols throughout.  I always feel sorrow that somehow the richness of Jewish tradition evaded him, and therefore he avoided it.  His musicianship, however, and the arrangements of these songs, is something to behold.

I saw Simon in Jerusalem thirty years–a lifetime–ago. He was welcomed as a native son returned, and he was so visibly moved he tried to bring Garfunkel back the following year.  At the end of the third encore, someone threw a yarmulke up on stage. He picked it up from the floor, kissed it, and put it on his head. The not so religious crowd cheered with approval. Proof positive that Paul Simon had been to Hebrew school, probably had a Bar Mitzvah and never looked back.   This was the Bar Mitzvah trip he never had.

Cohen on the other hand, a son of the Montreal Jewish community subtly evokes his heritage throughout his oeuvre, and, more than all three, certainly knows his Bible. He entertained the Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur war, and despite the twists and turns of his spiritual journey, being Jewish and drawing from that heritage is very much embedded in who he is.  If you doubt this, just listen to, “If it be Your will”, or “Who by fire” both evocative of Jewish liturgy. His understated and haunting voice has echoes of the chanting of traditional Jewish prayer. Where Simon’s insights abound with emotional and sometimes spiritual intelligence, Cohen’s songs are anchored in the wisdom of the ages. To me, it is the difference between the tutored, and the untutored Jew.  With Dylan, it is the rantings of the quadraphrenic Semite.  The echoes are there, but as echoes tend to be, they are distorted. Making sense is just not a high priority.

Just one more thing, in Simon’s song “Love and blessings”, the opening sounds much like Randy Newman’s classic, “I think its going to rain today”. One of Newman’s lines is “Human kindness overflowin’ but I think it’s going to rain today.” Simon sings, “Love and blessings, simple kindness fell like rain on thirsty land.” Is Simon giving an artful nod to another great Jewish tunesmith? Well, maybe. For me, the opening melody clinches it.