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Half Shabbos, Half Truths, Half Solutions

Just because everyone else is talking about it, doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t…

The Jewish Week became relevant for a few minutes this week with a scintillating indictment of modern orthodox Judaism. It seems the Jewish Week just found out that lots of orthodox teens struggle with Shabbos and many of them are texting on Shabbos.

The phenomena has a name. It’s called keeping “Half Shabbos”. Which is just like the question of whether someone is “shomer negiah” in that it seeks to validate a halachically impossible choice. There is no such thing as a “Half Shabbos in halacha”, nor is there a non-shomer negiah option in halacha. But teens are teens and they need labels and molds by which to sort confusing or difficult things and themes. So teens invent ideas like “Half Shabbos” and shomer negiah to give context to their struggles.

My thoughts on the article?

1) Apply grains of salt liberally. The Jewish Week cites some anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal journalism is not strong journalism. To be fair, I have also written articles based on anecdotes and made broad sweeping generalizations based on those anecdotes. However, I am an “insider” or at least “insider adjacent” to orthodox Judaism whether it be modern orthodoxy or chasidus. I have friends, neighbors, relatives who are part of or have left those groups. I do have some context. The Jewish Week lacks that context and thus their “outsider” perspective (update / correction:) [Although the author of the article and editor of the Jewish Week are orthodox, the tone, tenor and agenda of the Jewish Week are decidedly not and therefore anecdotes in their publication] should to be taken with grains of salt. Further, they couch the phenomena as a “new norm”. Methinks that is a bit of a stretch.

2) The phenomena exists. I don’t think the fact that it exists signals a failure of any stream of orthodoxy, specific schools or schools of thought. This is simply because each stream, school, school of thought has its own sets of challenges. This one, by the way, seems to be prevalent throughout all of them. I worked extensively with at-risk teens from ’99-’02, yeshiva kids smoking pot (on Shabbos), watching movies (on Shabbos) and they had challenges. They rationalized too. But eventually they got a crossroads and either bought in or bought out. Point being, this sort of challenge is not unique to one group. So failure? No. Issue? Yes.

3) Issues needs to be addressed. I believe that parents need to take a proactive role in the lives of their teens. Parents (otherwise known as tuition payers) and certain “experts” (who are paid by parents angry at their schools) love to blame schools for their children’s problems. I don’t believe in placing blame. I do believe in assigning real goals and objectives to address issues. Parents need to be able to limit their teen’s use of cell phones. It can be done with a carrier side block, it can be a condition of cell phone ownership that kids must deposit their cell phones into a Shabbos box before Shabbos, it can be anything the parents and teen agree (or are forced to agree upon). But if a teen has access to their phone of Shabbos, the parent is placing a huge challenge before their teen. It can be avoided.

That being said, if Shabbos is difficult for teens, and it is, there needs to be a way to help them enjoy the experience more. I don’t claim to know or understand the needs of teens and how Shabbos can be tailored to meet their needs. But I am certain that for many teens the Shabbos table discussions of adults are irrelevant, boring and quite frankly can be a turn off. People kvetch and moan about Jewish issues at their Shabbos tables. This is good conversation and important to discuss. But for a teen to hear negative, negative, negative, blah, blah, blah, every single week, it can have a terrible effect. So, I propose more relevant Shabbos discussions for teens.

I also propose advancing humanist or even secular motives for refraining from texting for 25 hours a week. Non-religious people all over the world are able to find meaning and benefits from “turning off”. As much as I dislike trying to attribute a modern benefit to an ancient law, if it can resonate with teens and motivate them to “buy in” it is worth the effort.

4) Then there is the broad picture. I don’t believe this is a new issue. I don’t believe it is a different issue per se than watching TV on Shabbos (I had modern orthodox friends who would sneak some TV watching on Shabbos) or smoking on Shabbos, or eating on Yom Kippur, or skipping tefillin for a few days, (all of which I saw with my own eyes or heard first hand from friends and acquaintances) or any other teen rebellion that is considered completely normal. The biggest factor in determining whether the teen returns to “Full Shabbos” observance (or at least trying) will be the reaction of the public.

If we treat them with respect, compassion, understanding and tolerance there is a chance they will grow out of their teen spirit. If they are shunned, outcast, name called and tossed out of the religion, even if it just their perception and not reality, we will almost undoubtedly have lost them. Let us not forget the lessons of Ari Goldman in Book Review | The Search for God at Harvard that even a small feeling of exclusion can hurt for a lifetime. Let us remember that even if we disapprove of their choices, our teens remain OUR teens. Their issues and problems and OUR issues and problems. So long as we can toe the difficult line of being inclusive and tolerant of their indiscretions with the hope  of change and clear message that we do not approve of their choices, their is no reason for me to believe that this new version of an old problem will not see the same satisfying result.

Link: Jewish Week

Where Half Shabbos hit the blogs first: Kavanah


19 Comments
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  • Garnelironheart

    The problem is that during the week most people don’t actually speak to one another anymore.  They instant message or twitter or update their Facebook status or they text.  Suddenly comes Shabbos and people have no idea what to do next.  How do you expect a generation raised in front of a video screen to understand what it’s like to walk in the park or toss a ball around for real instead of with a controller?  Perhaps many of these kids are texting simply because they don’t know how to socialize any other way.

  • Garnelironheart

    The problem is that during the week most people don’t actually speak to one another anymore.  They instant message or twitter or update their Facebook status or they text.  Suddenly comes Shabbos and people have no idea what to do next.  How do you expect a generation raised in front of a video screen to understand what it’s like to walk in the park or toss a ball around for real instead of with a controller?  Perhaps many of these kids are texting simply because they don’t know how to socialize any other way.

  • Garnelironheart

    The problem is that during the week most people don’t actually speak to one another anymore.  They instant message or twitter or update their Facebook status or they text.  Suddenly comes Shabbos and people have no idea what to do next.  How do you expect a generation raised in front of a video screen to understand what it’s like to walk in the park or toss a ball around for real instead of with a controller?  Perhaps many of these kids are texting simply because they don’t know how to socialize any other way.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      They certainly know how to socialize in other ways. Don’t be so melodramatic.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      So when they interview for a job they answer the interviewer via text message?
      When they answer a question in class they answer via text?
      When they pray in synagogue they pray via text?
      When they give a dvar Torah they do it via text?

      To claim they are incapable of conversation is to completely miss the point in my opinion.

    • Anonymous

      Perhaps many of these kids are texting simply because they don’t know how to socialize any other way.

      Garnel, they socialize in many ways, texting is just one of the ways. It’s silly to make such absolute statements that don’t even pass the common-sense test. I mean, seriously, have you ever observed a group of teens? There’s chatter all the time.
      People used to talk, and that was the only method of communication, then they started to write letters. But writing letters didn’t supplant talking entirely, it just joined talking as an additional method of communication. Same with the telegraph, the telephone, email, etc. Now texting has joined our methods of communicating with one another. It is just one more method of communication, but it doesn’t completely supplant former methods of communication.

      • Garnelironheart

        I’ve sat in coffee shops and watched two people, each with their own laptop open in front of them, instant message to one another back and forth.  At a recent social event I watched the teenage daughter of a friend sit for one hour straight pounding away with her thumbs at her tiny keyboard.  I’ve had friends who have done job interviews tell him how they’ve had job seekers say “excuse me” halfway through an interview and then pull out their cellphone to respond to a text they’d just received.
        No, they’re not exclusively limited to that kind of communication but it is as much a part of their day as talking to real people.

        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          Maybe those were all introverts who wouldn’t participate in any conversation
          anyway. You blame technology but it could be unrelated.

          • GarnelIronheart

            No, it’s not technology alone.  It’s the desire for instant gratification that technology satisfies.  Time was you had to wait when something amazing happened to tell your friends.  Now you text them.  Time was you had to wait to ask someone a question.  Now you just instant message them.  I want it and I want it NOW!  Technology satisfies this urge beautifully and the only question left for the kids this post is about is “Why should Shabbos get in the way of what I want NOW?”

  • http://twitter.com/daniopp Daniopp

    Agree with just about all of it…

  • Anonymous

    In my neighborhood, the teens mostly leave the shabbat table as soon as the meal is over. They bench and then leave to hang out with their friends. And this applies to the “good kids” as well as the not so good ones.

  • Hubdir

    Cell phones didn’t exist at Sinai.  Comments I’ve seen elsewhere can’t seem to definitively say what halacha, if any, is being violated.  Perhaps the issue is Hashkafah?  If the cell phone is carried within an eruv, is this really a big deal or even a violation of shabbos?

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      It’s true. Electronic devices (not light bulbs) are hard to pin down as far as a halachic prohibition.

      Unfortunately, even R’ Shlomo Zalman Aurbach who disproved pretty much all the theories to prohibit maintains that despite no tangible halachic prohibition, they remain prohibited on Shabbos.

      In eyes of man it is a big deal. They are rebelling and we, as halachically observant Jews should stand firm that cell phones are prohibited on Shabbos.

      When they get to the great courtroom in sky they and we will find out for sure…

      So it’s not hashkafa, it is halacha.

      • Hubdir

        In other words, if I understand you correctly, it’s not prohibited except to the extent that some rabbi said it is.  That’s pretty flimsy IMHO.

        • Susan Barnes

          “In other words, if I understand you correctly, it’s not prohibited except to the extent that some rabbi said it is.” You could say that about most of halacha.

          • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

            Not quite. Most halacha is built on clear existing legal principals. This is
            not.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_M5TFA2LNGNXLLMLJJ6GVEK23BQ Willbe

    I saw the article, and I also thought that the numbers were greatly exaggerated.  I also agree that experimentation and rebellion is normal for that age group, and doesn’t necessarily signal a major crisis in frumkeit.

    I know that in our community , keeping shabbat is not only normal, it’s “cool”.  Teens want to rebel from their parents, and simultaneously want to conform to their peers.  If they have a peer group which validates shabbat observance as “the cool choice”, then they will be more likely to continue doing so.  Even better, they will do so out of their own choosing, not  because of parental insistence.

    I’m certainly no expert, but it seems to me that our youth groups play a key role in establishing shabbat (and indeed kashrut, tzniut, etc.) as the “in thing” to do.  Perhaps if more synagogues started or expanded their teen programming, and committed significant resources to staff and program these groups, that we would not see such troubling (and frankly, embarrassing) articles appear.

    • Anonymous

      While the numbers may be exaggerated the issue is a real issue.  Teens today are not being given the feelings of being a Jew.  Most teens only here their parents complain about how hard it is to be Jewish.  Who can blame them, why would anyone want to live a burdensome life filled with rules and laws they cannot violate.  I once heard a shuir from R’ Dovid Orlofsky in which he told over the following story (I heard this over ten years ago, but it is more true than ever).  When speaking for a group of modern OJ teens one Friday night he presented the crowd with a theoretical option.  A remote with two buttons on it. Push button A and everything remains the same, you wake up the next morning you are Jewish and nothing changed.  Push button B and you wake up the next morning and you are not Jewish and never were.  He speculated that 75% or more would choose button B.  One teen raised his hand and said “Rabbi you got it all wrong, everyone of us would push B”.  
      The teen stated what everyone of those kids thought Judaism is a burden.  Why should they want it.  This stems from the parents lack of faith and feeling for their religion.  Children need to be instilled with the desire to be Jewish, they have to hear how great it is to be Jewish.  Parents are the main providers of the “mesorah” of what it means to live and breath yiddishkeit.  The schools can only help, they cannot ingrain this in every child, you may have the exception of a child turned on by his rebbe, but that is not the norm.  As role models, parents must watch their every word and move when it comes to religion too.  Just like a partne won’t use foul language as no to teach their kids, they cannot speak negatively of Judaism either.
      I once heard from a rebbe of mine that R’ Moshe Feinstein said the reason children were going off the derech were because parents would say “is shver tzu zein a yid – it is hard to be a Jew”. 

  • Theredheaded rebbetzin

    Another very nice article, Rabbi. With several potenial solutions. Might I add one: talking w/ teens individally and in small groups in order to find a solution they “own”.  Some yrs ago in the interests of motivating my students (we were working on apposing view points) to practice writing forms by using rebellion as the motivator-I proposed wearing school uniforms, pro or con, as it was a news topic at the time.  By the next year the school was wearing uniforms-by student request-oops. :)