Just one year ago this month, as the High Holidays moved forward, the U.S.economy started tumbling backward. At the very moment when many felt the need to be connected to the world around them, the Jewish calendar dictated that they turn off their iPhones and BlackBerries, and disconnect for multiple days of prayer and reflection.
The New York Times even ran a piece about New Yorkers ducking out of Rosh Hashanah services to take calls and check messages pertaining to the meltdown — High Holidays aside!
The start of 5770 may seem a bit more stable than last year; however, in that time, electronic devices have only grown in their appeal and usage. Some may be hesitant or even balk at the idea of turning them off — even for a day, though especially, on a start-of-the-work-week Monday — as Yom Kippur approaches.
According to a recent poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, 87 percent of Americans say they own a cell phone, while 16 percent own BlackBerries, PDAs or similar devices.
Accepted practices for Shabbat and the holy days differ by denomination, but according to Rabbi Shaya Deitsch of Lubavitch of Montgomery County, halachah for the holidays and Shabbat are nearly identical; it's a time to shut down electronically and focus on deeper matters.
In that same vein, however, Rabbi Yossi Kaplan of Chabad Lubavitch of Chester County: Jewish Center also pointed out that the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was a big proponent of using technology as a way to enhance people's connections with God (not, however, on the holidays).
'There's a Recognition'
Many area rabbis outside of Orthodoxy noted that the rules get a bit fuzzy when we begin to attempt to reconcile modern life with Jewish law and tradition.
Rabbi Leonard Gordon of Germantown Jewish Centre noted that "in all the laws of Sabbath rest, there's a recognition" that extenuating circumstances do arise in which these same laws can be overridden.
"If you're in an emergency or health-care profession that needs to stay connected, that's always been permitted," he said.
But what about scenarios like a relative in intensive care or an upcoming due date for a child's pregnancy? What do you do if you're called upon smack-dab in the middle of a minyan?
Rabbi Avi Winokur of Society Hill Synagogue said that religious leaders recognize the importance of maintaining connections in such situations, even during holy days. "I think that most rabbis would understand why you'd want to have [a phone] on vibrate," he said.
But Winokur was quick to point out that a line should be drawn to separate life-and-death scenarios from less serious situations: "In order to take Jewish tradition seriously and not just pretend to, there need to be limits," he said, adding that "you have to discipline yourself to say no to some of this modern stuff in some fashion."
Of course, protocol in Conservative shuls, such as those led by Gordon and Winokur, may be different than in Reform congregations.
Rabbi Lance Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park said that he "wouldn't be surprised if there's some silent texting going on" during services, though he said that the congregation requests that people turn their phones off during services — or at least put them on mute.
While that's still technically a violation of halachah, "people drive to the synagogue in their cars listening to the radio," he said, so using a cell phone is a relatively small infraction when added into all that.
According to Gordon, the provisions for breaking the Sabbath, though few, extend beyond just life-and-death situations: "There's a concept in Hebrew — chesed mammon — that if there would be massive financial losses that would be irrecoverable, you could make a personal exception for yourself."
He noted that it would never have occurred to him that tracking last year's stock-market free fall might have been in that category, but he warranted that for some people, it might have been the case.
Gordon said that he has held off from getting a BlackBerry or similar device, but their ubiquity, he remarked, "has led me to teach more about Shabbat and the value of that boundary, and trying to offer this to people who might otherwise not be rigidly observant — to say, even if your Shabbat hasn't been rigidly traditional in other ways, you might want to take 25 hours off from answering e-mail."
Like many rabbis worldwide, that's a theme being echoed this holiday season by Rabbi Joshua Waxman of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington.
Shabbat and the High Holidays, he explained, offer "an invitation to get in touch with a slower, more natural rhythm, which is about the rhythm of the people around us and of God. It's kind of countercultural" to the rest of the hectic bustle of modern life.
"The way we live right now is often much too fast, and the High Holidays are about reconnecting to far deeper rhythms, which are often slower than the rhythms we're used to living our lives by," said the rabbi.
In other words, it's exactly the kind of message you can't get via texting.