As a Jewish educator, I constantly use the modern State of Israel’s significant role in technological innovation as way to instill pride in my students for being Jewish.
Lately, however, I have been thinking that instead of focusing on the Jewish people’s role in creating technology, we aught to be spending more time focusing on the value of our being able to unplug from it.
For Jews living in the modern world, even for the non-observant Jew, Shabbat and holy days are more than just exercises in nostalgia. They are compelling opportunities to unplug and recharge our spiritual batteries from the technology of everyday living. Just this past month, most of us were bombarded by a 24-hour news cycle full of stories that left us spiritually drained and dispirited. Instead of ushering in the New Year of 2013, Americans watched television until the wee hours of the night, as the fiscal cliff lagged on. This week, we were warned on national television by many political leaders and media outlets that the fiscal cliff negotiations were only foreshadows of what has yet to come, and, along with it, more 24-hour viewing.
Cable news outlets have effectively found a way to fill the time. For us, it’s only going to get worse.
So I say, for the sake of our sanity, we must find a way to unplug.
I suspect that for my parents and grandparents unplugging was a lot easier - not because our world was any quieter, but because there were fewer ways of being connected. In our world of 24-hour connectivity, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pull away.
As a congregational rabbi, I was at first astonished by the number of grown-ups who felt the need to secretly check their cell phones during religious services (even though they think we can’t see them from the bimah). Now, I no longer see checking one’s smart phone during services as irreverent, I am just saddened by a person’s inability to overcome his or her serious reliance or addiction.
Once upon a time, traditional Jewish values helped guide us as a people toward living lives where we recognized the need to unplug. Ideas like tzniyut, modesty, helped to inform our personal awareness and our relationships with other people. We learned that the heroes of our Torah were not necessarily big personalities, but were people who made a difference through their modesty and simplicity. Moses was not known for bringing great plagues to Egypt, but more so for his humility. The Judge Samson’s overconfidence and flashiness nearly led him to failure, while it was the private and calculating Queen Esther who was able to save the Jewish people. Yet, today, I find that these stories and values often fall flat and are unable to resonate in the face of a society that tells us to reveal everything about ourselves and to make ourselves big. We sign up for multiple social networks, where we become addicted and post personal information and pictures of ourselves for everyone to see; we send mass emails that we only later regret; we contribute to creating a culture of more information, not less.
In the face of this spiritual crisis, we Jews must see the discipline of unplugging as no less challenging than the observance of committing to kashrut or finding the time for Torah study. Unplugging from technology and finding time for real life is the modern Jew’s 614th commandment: a necessary part of living healthy, happy, and holy lives, where we may create shalom bayit, peace in our homes. Because we cannot find the time to live life if we spend all of our time living life virtually.
For the past decade or so, there has been a wonderful organization called Project Reboot, which, in a rather explicit way, links this idea of unplugging from our electronics with the observance of Shabbat. It’s coming up on March 1 and 2, and I hope some of you out there will try to take the challenge with me this year.
Of course, some of you found this article via one of those virtual mediums: Facebook, Twitter or even Haaretz’s cell-phone app. I just hope you didn’t do so while reading from the pews.
Rabbi Daniel Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.