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