Friday, September 17, 2010

Yom Kippur 5771 - Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In

(Originally delivered on September 18, 2010.)

Do you own an iPod (or other mp3 player)? Seemingly miraculous, deeply personal, and fundamentally impulse-driven, the iPod is the quintessential device of today.

Judaism, however, and particularly Conservative Judaism, faces numerous challenges in the age of the iPod. To wit:

1. Everything on your iPod is instantly available. On the other hand, being actively Jewish, requires years of study and learning and commitment to Jewish life.

2. Everything on your iPod can be deleted just as easily as it was acquired. As such, we have infinite control over our devices, making them exactly what we want. Hence the “I”. But Judaism, even modern, progressive, non-Orthodox Judaism, has rules, principles, and customs which cannot be simply “deleted.”

As we become more and more integrated into this instant-access, infinitely changeable digital world, the challenge is this: How will we ensure that we have Jewish great-grandchildren? What makes us Jewish, and what will keep us Jewish?

On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about being actively Jewish, as opposed to being Jewish by default, and I highlighted Temple Israel’s Youth House as a place where active Jews are made.

Today I will speak primarily about what will keep us Jewish.

At the end of the Musaf service on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, which fell on Friday, I mentioned that the next day, Saturday, was the “2nd holiest day of the year.” As I was shaking hands on the way out, I was asked by more than one person, “Rabbi, what’s tomorrow? Is it really the 2nd holiest day of the year?”

So I need to clarify: the holiest day of the Jewish year is Yom Kippur. It’s today. In second place, there is a 52-way tie: the second holiest day of the year is Shabbat, which, fortunately for us, comes up every 7 days.

The German-Israeli religious philosopher and educator Ernst Simon used to tell a story of his teacher, the pre-eminent modern Jewish thinker Martin Buber. Simon was shomer Shabbat, meaning that he kept all of the Shabbat traditions – not cooking, not spending money, going to the synagogue, and so forth. Buber, like many Reform Jews, thought that the more arcane aspects of halakhah (Jewish law) were unnecessary, and would make fun of Simon for keeping these rules.

It happened once that Simon had guests for Friday night dinner, and the phone rang. Now, he ordinarily would not answer the phone on Shabbat, but it keeps ringing and ringing. Thinking it must be an emergency, he finally picks up the phone. He hears a taunting voice say, “Shabbes!” and *click*.

Simon returns to the Shabbat table. His guests ask him if everything is OK, and who was on the phone? Simon says, “Oh, that was just Buber.”

One good answer to the question, “What will keep us Jewish” may be found in the words of Ahad ha-Am, the early Zionist thinker who was an advocate of Israel as the cultural homeland of the Jews: “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

Now you might be afraid that I am going to lecture you now on all the things that you should do or not do on the Shabbat, the 39 categories of prohibited types of work identified by the rabbis in the Mishnah. But I am not going to do that. Rather, I am going to advocate for something a little less daunting.

Who here has ever felt lost without a cellphone?

Who here gets nervous without Internet access?

Do you get the shakes if you don’t know where your electronic gadgets are?

Who here has found themselves searching desperately for a WiFi signal, and been frustrated by somebody's well-meaning, but clearly misguided security code?

I must confess that all of the above has happened to me. Like many of us, I am a slave to technology - the devices run my life; they sometimes feel like disconnected limbs of my body, or perhaps an external lobe of my cerebral cortex.

We are living in the age of connection, a time when being off the grid is next to impossible. Our friends, relatives, and, most perniciously, our workplaces expect us to be available 24-7 - constantly connected, constantly ready to hit reply.

Well, you know what? This cannot be good for us. Is this the end of personal time? Will we ever be truly “alone” again? Will we ever have moments of uninterrupted reflection?

Now, there are some of us that thrive on this. Who here knows their Myers-Briggs type? This is a basic psychological evaluation that gives you a score on four basic scales of personality traits. Statistically speaking, about half of us are Extroverts (or perhaps more, since we ARE Jewish!); that is, we thrive on interaction and get our energy from spending time with and talking with others. When Extroverts are alone, they tend to pull out their cellphone and see who they can reach. As for the Introverts among us, well, we may like staying in touch, but we are more likely to read the newspaper or fire up our iPod and read the updates on our NYTimes app than make phone calls.

But whether you like being connected or not, new research is pointing to the fact that our infinite connectivity is not good for us. There has been a series of articles in the New York Times regarding technology’s effects on us, and the results are not good.

For example, the director of the National Institute for Drug Abuse reports that “Technology is rewiring our brains.” Constantly checking our email, for example, causes regular squirts of dopamine in our brains, and this naturally-occurring brain stimulant can be addictive, making us want to keep checking that email or Twitter or Facebook updates.

Multitasking, while thought by some to be a more efficient way of working, is actually causing us to lose the ability to focus, and shut out irrelevant information. And the constant distractions of text messages, mobile phone calls, and email is producing more stress.

So that’s the bad news. And here is the good news: we have the ability to turn them off. And especially as Jews - we even have a day that pops up every seventh day on which it makes special, holy sense to disconnect, a day so set-aside from the rest of the week (and the rest of the year) that it is only eclipsed by Yom Kippur in its special-ness.

There is a debate in the Talmud about the following: if you are alone in a desert and you have lost track of the day of the week (and you have no mobile phone), when should you celebrate Shabbat? One rabbi proposes that you should start counting off days, and when you get to seven you should observe the Shabbat. A second opinion says that you should assume the current day is Friday and observe the Shabbat on the next day. Why should you wait?

The fourth commandment of the “Top Ten” is the longest of them all “Zakhor et yom haShabbat lekaddesho.” Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. And then it goes on for a while. And you know why? Because it is the most important social innovation in the Torah. The ancient Israelites pioneered a concept that no society before it had developed: a day off. Yes, yes, it’s also important not to murder and to honor your parents, but other societies already knew that. The Shabbat, at the time that it was given to us, was apparently unique.

In his critique of contemporary Judaism and Jewish institutions called Nothing Sacred, author Douglas Rushkoff points to the Shabbat as the natural response of an enslaved people who had been set free. Think of it this way: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. They gain their freedom. They know that they still have to work, but on more reasonable terms. So they negotiate themselves one day off out of every seven. Not bad, right?

It is the most revolutionary concept of the ancient world, and holds sway over much of the Earth’s population today: the idea of sanctifying time by setting it apart from the rest of the week. God gives the Israelites a weekly vacation. The Apostle Paul, who fashions Christianity, and Muhammad, who creates Islam, dispose of many parts of the Jewish template that they draw on, but they keep the Shabbat. It is progressive, humanistic, and difficult to argue against.

I was asked recently, as a corollary to the ongoing flap about the Muslim JCC that is planned for Lower Manhattan, if Judaism considers Ground Zero a holy site. I answered no, because with only one possible exception, we do not really have holy sites. We only have holy times. In his classic work, The Sabbath, a slim volume very much worth reading, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, (slow and loud!) “We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to the moment; it is the moment that lends significance to the thing.”

In other words, Rosh Hashanah makes the shofar holy, not the other way around. Yom Kippur, Shabbat, and even weekday mornings make the synagogue a holy place when we come to it to pray. Not vice versa. And so forth.

Elsewhere in the book, Heschel describes the Shabbat as a “palace in time.” That is what has made Judaism so portable, so resilient, so able to continue in far-flung lands and under oppressive rule, and in good times and bad. When our Beit Miqdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed for the second and final time by the Romans in the year 70 CE, our people were exiled. And since they could no longer sacrifice in the place designated by the Torah, they took their holiness with them wherever they went. Judaism became, by necessity, portable. Shabbat travels well - you can observe it as easily in Baghdad as in Cordoba, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Tehran, and Jerusalem. The Jewish palace in time is in every place and no place.

And so this biblical revolution, this palace in time, this portable holy wonder, continued to be observed for centuries and millennia. Ahad ha-Am got it right; Shabbat has kept the Jews Jewish.

And here we are in the modern world, beset by electronic enemies and creeping digital invaders at every turn.

In 1950, the Conservative movement faced a new development in American society: suburbanization. Leaving their close-knit, inner-city Jewish neighborhoods (like the Lower East Side in New York or Dorchester in Boston, where my father grew up), Jews were moving to the ‘burbs, where kosher food was hard to come by, where they were more likely to live next to non-Jews, and where they had to drive to get to their synagogue.

Newly-suburbanized Conservative rabbis, who always lived next door to the synagogue, noticed that many of their congregants would have to violate several of the 39 rabbinically-defined categories of prohibited work on Shabbat in order to drive to the synagogue. So the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the central body of the Conservative movement that still to this day makes decisions about halakhic questions, issued a teshuvah, a rabbinic answer to the question of observance of the Sabbath in modern times. They declared that if one lived too far away to walk, then it was better to drive to the synagogue than not to come at all.

As a part of the same teshuvah, they also said that the use of electrical appliances, like lights and telephones, is not forbidden on Shabbat. Electricity, which was unknown to our ancestors, does not fall under the rabbinic category of fire, and using it for appropriate purposes was just fine, provided it was in keeping with the spirit of Shabbat.

Well, my friends, times have changed. It has only been sixty years, but you all know that even during the last decade the rate at which technologies have continued to improve and grow more complex and more, well, pervasive is staggering. In 1950, nobody could have known about just how much electronic devices would invade our personal space, and how much we would be enslaved to them.

So I am about to propose something really radical, and at the same time quite contemporary.

Yes, it is true that the Conservative movement endorses a fairly stringent set of observances for the Shabbat. You might have noticed that on Shabbat in this building there is no cooking, no turning electrical appliances on and off, no writing, no spending money, and so forth. We try to discourage the use of cellular devices by people in the building on Shabbat and holidays as well. And this is the way that I and my family and some Conservative Jews observe Shabbat.

However, I would like to suggest something that is just so crazy it might work. (On television, whenever somebody says that, it always DOES work.)

What if we were to re-imagine what it means to have a “day off?”
What if we were to unite the principle of Shabbat with our need for freedom from the continuous stimuli of our electronic devices? What if, from Friday evening at sundown until Saturday night we were to turn off, tune out, and drop in?

Some of you might remember a variation on this phrase from the 1960s, coined by famed counter-cultural psychologist Timothy Leary: Turn on, tune in, drop out. (Of course, they say that if you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t really there...)

I am suggesting a contemporary Jewish take on a radical idea. To wit:

Turn off
This is the easy part. All of our devices power down (mostly). Find your power button, and turn it off on Friday evening before sunset. Turn it back on on Saturday night.

Tune out
This will require much more willpower. Letting go of the mundane matters of the week, the the things that vie for our attention nonstop, is no simple matter. We live in an impatient world, and we are not accustomed to putting aside our digital connections in favor of ourselves and our families.

To tune out is to seek the Zen state of patience and acceptance, understanding that your email will still be waiting there for you tomorrow. It’s not so easy, but the reward is great. Once you manage to do it successfully, you will find that it is not actually that difficult, and it is also liberating.

Drop in
And here is the best part: come to Temple Israel. These are your people, and this is where you might be able to have a dialogue with the Divine, in words, in song, or in the silent meditations of your own heart, and also to enjoy some real-time dialogue before and after with each other.

I am not alone in recommending turning off for Shabbat. There are two public initiatives going on right now that you should be aware of. The first one is called “Offlining.” Has anybody here heard of this? Raise your hand.

Offlining is a project put together by a pair of not particularly traditional guys who work in marketing, Eric Yaverbaum, who is Jewish, and Mark DiMassimo, who is not. Through various media, they are encouraging people to pledge to have 10 device-free dinners between now and Thanksgiving. As of this past week, nearly 11,000 people have taken this pledge. They targeted their first “No-Device Day” as today, Yom Kippur, and produced creative posters to promote it.

The other initiative is similar, although a little bit more far-reaching. This one comes from a Jewish organization called Reboot, which seeks to connect young adults with Judaism. Their concept is called “The Sabbath Manifesto.”

Reading from their website:

“The Sabbath Manifesto is a creative project designed to slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world. We’ve created 10 core principles completely open for your unique interpretation. We welcome you to join us as we carve a weekly timeout into our lives.”

So the Sabbath Manifesto’s goal is to avoid shaking a finger and lecturing about the 39 categories of prohibited work, but rather to suggest 10 simple things that you can do to help enjoy the Shabbat as it should be enjoyed. Here they are:

1. Avoid technology. (Note: it does not say, “don’t touch anything that beeps or flashes”)
2. Connect with loved ones.
3. Nurture your health.
4. Get outside.
5. Avoid commerce.
6. Light candles.
7. Drink wine.
8. Eat bread.
9. Find silence.
10. Give back.

I like the simplicity of this approach, because I think it successfully unites tradition with modernity, something that we are always seeking to do in the Conservative world. And by making mostly positive statements rather than negative ones, it makes the Shabbat feel like a day of doing something good for yourself and the world rather than a day on which everything is forbidden.

As an added encouragement, particularly to #1 (avoiding technology), on the Sabbath Manifesto website you can buy a little sleeping bag for your cell phone. It’s adorable.

Now, of course, the traditionalists among us might say, “Well, turning off your cell phone and computer is a good idea. But there is ever so much more to Shabbat.”

Yes, there is ever so much more. But sometimes less is more. For all those of us who are committed to a high level of Shabbat observance, that is wonderful.

For those of us that are not, I suggest that you take this day to consider the ways in which the rest of your life has invaded your free time, and that we as Jews have a special day set aside for being free. We are slaves to technology, and the Shabbat can set us free from that slavery, just as God redeemed us from Egypt. Shabbat is our opportunity to step off the hamster wheel, and to rediscover simplicity. You might get a headache from dopamine withdrawal, but it will be worth it.

Author Judith Shulevitz, in her new book, The Sabbath World, describes Shabbat as God's claim on our time. You get six days. God gets one. I don't think that's such a bad trade. But you can also think of it this way: your work and your digital connections get six days. You get one. That’s a pretty good deal, too.

And, admittedly, it is not so easy to turn off and tune out. Author A.J. Jacobs, who wrote the smart and funny book, The Year of Living Biblically, in which he documents his attempts to live in a way that is as close to what the Tanakh describes, confesses his own failure to avoid checking his email on Shabbat. He would make it an hour or two, and then give up.

Until one day, when he accidentally locks himself in the bathroom of his Upper West Side apartment (the doorknob is broken), and has to wait until his wife comes home to let him out, several hours later. After a certain amount of panic, he relaxes into the isolation.

“I'm OK with it,” he says. I've reached an unexpected level of acceptance. For once, I'm savoring the present. I'm admiring what I have, even if it's thirty-two square feet of fake marble and an angled electrical outlet. I start to pray. And, perhaps for the first time, I pray in true peace and silence – without glancing at the clock, without my brain hopscotching from topic to topic.

“This is what the Sabbath should feel like. A pause. Not just a minor pause, but a major pause. Not just a lowering of the volume, but a muting,” says Jacobs.

As I have already stated, we sanctify time. That's what a holiday is. Days are holier than any space or thing, more holy than even the Torah scroll. Yes, we treat a Torah scroll with respect, and nobody would question that. But do we treat the seventh day with the same respect?

More importantly, do we treat ourselves with sufficient respect? Yes, God has staked a claim on your time. But what about you? You need the time. You need the break. You need the opportunity to disconnect, to detach yourself from your electronic leash, from all the things that trouble you all week long.

So consider making the rest of this Yom Kippur a No-Device Day. And then try turning off, tuning out, and dropping in on Shabbat.

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