Tag Archives: shabbat

Electronic Shackles: Redemption on Shabbat and Pesach 

Electronic Shackles:
Redemption on Shabbat and Pesach

by Rabbi Rick Brody

This cartoon showed up in my Facebook feed today:

2015-04-07 13.44.03

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not only is it hilarious, but it’s also very timely at this moment in the rhythm of the Jewish seasons. It reminds us of the ways we remain enslaved to technology and in need of the annual festival of liberation that comes each spring as well as a weekly reprieve from the distracting, overstimulating workweek.

The cartoon captures the value of having a regular day to unplug. The Rabbis described Shabbat (a day that has always been an opportunity to step out of our workday routines and away from our reliance on the engines of industry–and in more recent history for abstaining specifically from using electronic devices) as me’ein olam haba, a “taste of the world to come.”

While I don’t subscribe to a belief in the image portrayed in this cartoon for whatever might “come next” and am much more interested in promoting the idea of “olam haba” as a shift in consciousness, relationships, and civil order attainable in our lifetime, the idea still stands: If our experiences of eternity involve only those parts of reality that truly matter; and the various vessels of our own creation—which might both help and hinder our journey towards that encounter with eternity—are ultimately not actually part of that ultimate reality, then ought we not train ourselves to function happily and freely without them right now?

The Jewish approach to answering that question is a “six-7ths” compromise: We will engage these devices, tools, and vessels during the 6 days of creation but will abstain from them once a week as a taste of a different way of living. And—since Shabbat is not only a memory of the completion of Creation but also of the Exodus from Egypt—we will also find this abstaining to be liberating. How enslaved the poor folks in the cartoon have been—and will remain eternally–because of their inability to function without their electronic shackles.

Right now are the intermediate days of Pesach, chol hamo’ed, non-holy days sandwiched within sacred time. They are like sweet charoset (and a little bit of maror, a reminder of the bitterness of oppression) between two pieces of matzah, the humble, flat bread of our liberation that defines and bookends this holy time. As we enjoy their sweetness—ideally intimately connected to springtime!—may we find a good balance between using personal devices for redemptive purposes and seeing the larger prize of liberation that involves more than those instruments of communication, entertainment, and data acquisition. May we communicate directly with those in our midst; may we soak up the warming rays of sunshine; may we engage more than our thumbs to walk, run, and play in outdoor leisure; and may we move from being atomized, silent acquirers of information to interactive, conversant knowers of and participants in the real-time goodness of physical companionship and quality time with those we love.

I composed most of this reflection on a personal “handheld” electronic device, using my thumbs—as well as my eyes and cognitive faculties. I completed it on a “laptop” device, using a few other fingers. But now I’m going to live it by walking away from these external instruments and focusing on the most important device of all—my body as a whole, with its multiple faculties of emotional, cognitive, kinesthetic, and other ways of knowing and experiencing the blessed reality it inhabits—which will interact fully with my children and my environment, unshackled by electronic tools. Moadim l’simchah—may these be special seasonal days for joy!

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The Tyranny (and Salvation) of the Clock

The New York Times just ran an utterly fascinating opinion piece, exploring the sociological and psychological dimensions of our battle with time and the response of procrastination. I’ve meditated quite deeply and personally on these questions and challenges for most of my existence—and the number of unfinished drafts here on WordPress and other writing ideas floating in my mind for decades are testament to the living reality of these issues in my life.

A few responses:

1) I love the phrase “passive obstructionism” as it applies to procrastination.

2) The disciplined, regimented approach to productivity—discussed and partially ridiculed in the column—while it is generally anathema to my default, relaxed style, has been a blessing to me. Since I returned to full-time work this summer—with the especially regimented schedule of a secondary school (life is measured out in eight 42-minute increments!), I have been reenergized and refocused, more productive and more fulfilled in terms of a sense of purpose. The great irony is that I’m writing this reflection while home today with a sick child and therefore not tied to the yoke of the clock. And I encountered the article that inspired this post because I was browsing Facebook more thoroughly than I have done in the last six weeks. Such browsing is a habit I have generally not missed in my new existence but I’m now aware of how I have indeed had less time for reflection and personal writing. So, an occasional release from a tight schedule can bring some good, but it’s likely the case that having such a regimen as the norm is better—for me—both for daily fulfillment and also for more productive “downtime.”

3) Many ideas here are particularly relevant during these Days of Awe, since so much of the author’s focus here is on the guilt and shame associated with procrastination and our society’s responsibility for fostering that mentality. Much to ponder there.

4) The classic rebellion against the tyranny of the clock (that predates the literary examples in the column) is an ancient gift from the Jewish tradition that comes every 7 days: SHABBAT.

May this coming Shabbat—Shabbat Shabbatonim (the Sabbath of Sabbaths), the Day of At-ONE-Ment—both allow us to escape the pain of time’s oppression and also re-empower us to embrace the peculiar miracle that is time: Let us recommit to maximize our fleeting moments in this world so that we can accomplish our greatest aspirations and fulfill our creative potential with purpose; let us recommit to interact with each other (interpersonally and societally) in a synchronized fashion that enables us to relate with others in time; let us relieve ourselves of the torment that comes both from seemingly unending deadlines but also from the shame and self-deprecation that we inflict when we believe we have “failed” to win the battles against those (often self-imposed) pressures; let us attain the wisdom to know when “getting it done now” is what matters most and also when it’s important to just be present in the moment and less focused on beating the clock. And let us allow the coming sacred day and our own work of t’shuvah (turning) make us whole once again in our messy time-bound journey through life.

Responding to Cherry-Picked Derision of the Mitzvot

It is quite the fad among those who oppose fundamentalism — especially those who advocate for a more humane approach to the reality of same-sex romantic relationships in our contemporary world — to respond to “Bible-thumpers” by pointing out their hypocrisy: “What about all the other Scriptural prohibitions that you don’t spend any time preaching about, or might even violate yourself?!” This basic approach is important and has its place. We observant Jews, I think, find it especially laughable that non-Jews would be so adamant about the absolute authority of certain mitzvot while completely ignoring others.

However, this tactic of alerting the fundamentalist to his or her fallacies often moves in a different direction, especially when employed by those who seem to hate religion in general. Such people tend to equate all religiosity with fundamentalism and seem to find ridiculous, backward, and indeed threatening to modern life any practice that doesn’t have an immediately discernible rational explanation. Their inability to see that such practices might still have meaning for others leads them to dismiss the entire idea of adhering to a code of behavior that dates further back than last week, especially if any concept of a relationship to Divinity is expressed as part of the motivation for the practices or the system itself.

The Huffington Post has just published a typical sortie in this ongoing “battle” between atheists and fundamentalists. After reading it, I decided I’ve had enough and that it was time for me to weigh in with some advocacy for nuance and moderation in such discussions. I’m sure the haters on either extreme are yelling too loudly to hear me, but perhaps those in the middle who might be interested in a more intelligent conversation will find something worthwhile in my response.

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As an observant Jew, I agree with many other comments here that it makes little sense for Christians to cite some commandments from the Hebrew Bible as authoritative and to ignore others. And, like all Jews, I see all the commandments within the context of a much larger interpretive tradition that maintains that “anyone who translates a verse literally is a liar” (Babyl. Talmud, Kiddushin 49a), that essentially legislated out of any practical application many of the “archaic” laws of the Torah such as the stoning of disobedient children and capital punishment in general, that ultimately saw slavery (permitted in the Torah) as abhorrent, that transformed the basic Biblical practices of marriage through the banning of polygyny, etc. So, I agree that one — whether or not he or she plans on adhering to the commandments of the Hebrew Bible — ought to view them skeptically at first reading (skepticism is very Jewish; fundamentalism is not).

However, I am offended by the approach of this post in its attempt to casually suggest that the whole corpus of laws from the Hebrew Bible is ridiculous, and I’m probably even more offended by many of the specific prohibitions cited as efforts to prove the author’s point. As for the approach: It seems that the author deliberately chose the most archaic English translations of the material (lots of “thee”s and “thou”s), a technique that seems similar to a litigator’s act of “leading the witness.” Yes, these commandments were delivered in an ancient language, but to their original readers (and the original readers of various translations in historical context), they likely sounded much more felicitous than the words here do to readers of English in 2012. Other translations exist today with language that is much less “off-putting” than the language used here.

More importantly, this approach ignores the social and literary context of many of these laws. I believe that we need to be closer readers of the texts that have played such a significant role in shaping the values and laws that define our society. I believe that the proper correction for the myopic, “cherry-picking” use of Leviticus 18:22 by bigots, autocrats, and demagogues is not the same kind of cherry-picking in our rebuttal but rather a different kind of conversation about the Bible, its history of interpretation, and ethics — not more of the same decontextualized readings of other verses.

More egregious is the dismissal of many of the values (and practices) underlying the laws cited as examples here. At the very least, the problem with this current post is that in many cases, it focused on the “wrong” commandments to ridicule (i.e. practices not deserving of ridicule). The author seems to suggest that since most people gossip, it must be okay. What a terrible approach! I would prefer that people who have any ethical moorings argue with a little more nuance for intelligent adults to try navigating through the array of behavioral choices available to them by working to discern which ones have serious implications for those around them and which ones do not. In other words, we have much to learn about the Biblical abhorrence of inappropriate speech; not simply because the Bible says so, but because the Bible happens to be right on this issue — the abuse we commit with our words is much more destructive to another human being and to society as a whole than are the sexual acts of two consenting adults.

As for the other laws derided in this post, several have been “legislated out” of relevance even within normative Judaism in the manner mentioned above. In these cases, the author betrays ignorance about context. Others, however, remain at the foundation of a contemporary Jewish life in the pursuit of holiness and meaning and are anything but archaic, irrelevant, or inoperative to serious, observant contemporary Jews. Many Jews continue to take dietary prohibitions and Sabbath observance seriously for a variety of reasons. Such practices have had significant positive impact on the connectedness that Jews feel towards a tradition that forges a unique identity, that instills in us a sense of discipline, that emphasizes that we be conscientious about what we consume in our mastery of the world around us, that celebrates taking time away from a daily grind that depletes our energy and that blinds us from what really matters in the world, and that sensitizes us to living humbly in our quest for sanctity.

If more people were strict about adhering to some of these other “13 laws” than they were about preaching about other people’s apparent disobedience of other Biblical commandments, I believe the world would be a much more civilized and sanctified place. We don’t accomplish much by “throwing the baby out with the bath water” and ridiculing the entirety of ancient religion. Narrow readings of any text are generally not helpful. If we read more openly — including in a manner that pays attention to the world around us rather than just the actual words on the page — we can discover not only which ancient texts are truly problematic as we move forward but we can also discover deep possibilities for meaning and goodness within many texts and practices, both ancient and modern.