Is There a Place in Jewish Law for Observing 'Half Shabbat'?

When I was a teen, you were either religious or you weren’t. Today’s rabbis would do well to broaden their view of religious observance, so more people could feel part of the Jewish community.

I am told there is a growing phenomenon called observing “Half Shabbat.” This, apparently, is when a person keeps Shabbat as a whole, but does send text messages on their cell phone and/or use a computer for social networking. I would like to offer a number of thoughts regarding this development.

“I look at all the lonely people” – The Beatles

This behavior is primarily found among young teens and singles, and is a reflection in my opinion of a growing loneliness and alienation people are feeling today. In one interview I read, a young woman clearly stated that she would cease to violate Shabbat in this way when she was married. While there may be romantics who will decry this as a symptom of modernity, bemoaning relationships via screens and electrons, it is clear that for today’s generation these are the channels of communal sharing. Shabbat is a day of completion and there is no completion without community friendship and love. While the methods may be a problem, social need is the underlying problem, one which is by far more profound.

“You can go your own way” – Fleetwood Mac

It is curious to me that the recent selection of the chief rabbis of Israel received so much media attention. It surprises me because more than ever before young people are asserting autonomy when it comes to their practice. In Jerusalem, where I live, you can no longer assume anything regarding a person’s practice based on their appearance or social circle. In my view, this sense of personal empowerment is a positive development, highlighting choice and personal responsibility, which are core values in Judaism.

“You gotta fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay” – Van Morrison

Orthodox Judaism, with its creed, dogma and doctrine, has come to set up an all-or-nothing equation. I think it’s important that we remind ourselves that from a social perspective this is not natural nor is it realistic. Historically speaking it was usually not the norm. One of the principles I teach my rabbinical students is that when they are asked for a halakhik opinion (a “psak”), they need to truly see the person opposite them, where they are holding in their practice, and modulate leniency and stringency accordingly (within the confines of the law, of course). People are holding where they are holding, I teach them, and rabbis would do well to understand that many people are not “holding” 100 percent in halakha.

I share these thoughts because I would like to take a position in defense of mediocrity and autonomy. Half Shabbat comes from a need for community, a refuge from alienation. When I was a teen, the assumption in the religiously observant world was “you are either in or out,” and many of my friends found their way out.

Of course there is no halakhic sanction for “Half Shabbat”, but I would suggest that there is room to socially accept it in the Orthodox community. This should be part of a general movement to broaden the tent, and perhaps lessen the significance of denominational definition.

If the new order allows people to find their own way to remain connected to the community and a part of the community, I say it is a blessing.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, and is a candidate for Jerusalem city council with the Yerushalmim party.

Reuters