Guest Post: Why I Don’t Unplug on Shabbat

Thanks to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Elizabeth Wood, for permission to repost her interesting blog post from RJ.org

Why I Don’t Unplug on Shabbat

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood

I understand that technology can be overwhelming. It’s still a new and different medium, and it is constantly changing. In order to stay on top of technology and social media, you have to practically make it your life – check email, update status, tweet, rinse and repeat. But technology can also be fun. It brought you this blog, it helps to keep you connected to friends and family who are far away, and it can help you discover and uncover all sorts of new things. For instance, technology taught me the following: I don’t like to “unplug” on Shabbat.

It all started during my first year as a rabbi. I took a pulpit halfway across the country from my family and friends. While I was enjoying my time there and meeting lots of new people, I was extremely lonely – but social media saved me. Through Facebook, Twitter, Gchat, and Skype, I was able to stay virtually connected to my support system, and I didn’t feel so alone, except for one day of the week – Shabbat. The day when I felt that I wanted my community around me the most, I was suddenly unplugged from them.

You see, for many people, Shabbat is the perfect time to “unplug” from technology. They might turn off their phones, shut their computers, or not turn on the TV. And while I respect everyone’s right to observe Shabbat in the way most meaningful for them, it just didn’t make sense for me. If I turned off technology then I lost my community entirely. And what’s more, turning off my technology wasn’t something that resonated with me as a desirable way to celebrate Shabbat. I like technology. It’s not a burden to me, and it’s not tiresome. If anything, it energizes me and makes me feel more connected to the world and the people around me.

I drive on Shabbat, I spend money on Shabbat, and I use electricity on Shabbat. Just as rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said, the purpose of Shabbat is to elevate time rather than things. To me, the holiness that I find in elevating Shabbat lies in the time rather than the activities I engage in. It doesn’t matter what I do on Shabbat, whether I use technology or not; it matters how I do it and that I’m making choices to enjoy myself and feel rested and refreshed, rather than burdened by work or stress.

If technology and social media are not your thing, don’t feel obligated to do them on Shabbat. Or, if you like to use Shabbat as a time to unplug from them, I certainly uplift your choices. But for me, it was a choice that didn’t make sense, and I didn’t want to feel pressured into doing something that many others around me were doing simply because it felt right for them.

The beauty of Reform Judaism is that we educate ourselves about our religion and then we make important decisions that make the most sense for us, personally, emotionally, and spiritually. The beauty of Shabbat is our ability to join together in community, celebrate a beautiful day given to us by God, and give thanks for the blessings in our lives.

When I was lonely and needed community the most, social media was a real blessing to me and my life. And for that, I give thanks… especially on Shabbat.

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood is the associate rabbi educator at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills in Forest Hills, N.Y.

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15 responses

  1. It is important to stay in touch with friends and family; however one would think that as a rabbi in a congregation there is plenty of community to be found or engaged with on shabbat right where you are. It does matter what we do on shabbat. Heschel himself writes of shabbat that we have one day to let go of trying to control the world and let it be, and staying plugged in all the time is exactly the kind of control he is talking about.

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  2. Being Jewish always seemed to me like a list of denial. No pork. No driving. No electricity, carrying, driving, creating or destroying on shabbat or most of the holidays. And if you like joyful music, nothing in a major key. Judaism is a bummer of a religion.

    Shabbat was, is, and always will be to me, a burden. A worthless, ridiculous, fundamentalist notion giving Jewish people foolish enough to feel guilty about violating its laws one more reason to turn away from their faith.

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  3. The Notorious R.A.V. | Reply

    I invited Rabbi Wood to post this as a guest spot because I found (and often find) her thinking to be different than that often expressed by other rabbis or Jewish leaders. Personally, I am a big fan of Sabbath Manifesto, a movement that has proposed non-legalistic ways of observing a Shabbat, including putting social media to sleep for a day. While I personally choose a traditional Shabbat observance, I am fascinated by those whose choices are different, especially, as in the case with Rabbi Liz, the choices have been made for thoughtful reasons. So while I don’t observe in the same way, I totally respect and understand her ideas. Part of what her thinking challenges us to do as well, is to reconsider how we define “community” and to reflect on the best ways to connect to community even on a Shabbat.

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  4. For Rabbi Wood, I guess my question is at what point does the individualization of Judaism eventually overwrite the essential community nature of it? This isn’t a “condemn you to hell” question as much a real attempt to understand what remains of Judaism once we introduce the element of “I like, I choose, I decide?” We all make choices, I get that, and the Orthodoxy I practice is not definitively the right way or the will of God. But I do have some serious concerns about the nature of Reform Judaism – at a certain point it divorces from tradition, reasonable textual interpretation and community norms (a loaded term I know) and becomes driven by individual human desires and can no longer be defined as the faith of our ancestors. We can certainly argue the legal aspects of cellphones and cars, but is there any place left to draw the line between Judaism and a personally driven “I’m OK, you’re OK” choose-your-own religion?

    Steve, I am truly and genuinely sorry that you see no beauty, no value and no truth in Judaism. It’s your right and privilege to feel that way, but I feel from your comment that you haven’t made your peace with that decision. There are many fundamentalists in Judaism, including a slew of so-called Rabbis that taught me for 10 years. I’ve been fortunate to separate the faith from the practitioners, and see all that it has to offer. Restrictions? Absolutely. Do I wish certain things were otherwise? Sure, but if you have faith and believe in the essential truth of Torah, you accept these as the cost of doing business. The beauty and value are there, but it takes work like anything worth anything in life. I’ve found a level of peace with my faith and a home in Modern Orthodoxy. Like any home it’s sometimes creaky and the roof occasionally leaks, but it is often cozy, comfortable and a respite from the outside world. I’d invite you in (you’re certainly welcome) but I sense you’d choose not to accept – again, your right and privilege, but there remains something in Judaism for the rest of us and I’d ask your respect for that belief.

    Oh, and there’s plenty of music in major keys – grab some of the Klezmer my dad has been playing for 50 years. 🙂

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  5. I have been meaning allowing some time for this post to sink in, deciding whether, when & how much to comment. First, in the interest of transparency: I am a JTS-ordained rabbi, shomeret Shabbat mother of 3, and I consider myself to be fairly “traditional” in my ritual observance, whatever that term may mean. I have lived in many, varied communities, and lately find myself in suburban Atlanta, walking distance to a Conservative synagogue in which I do not prefer to daven and which has an extremely limited shomer shabbos population. It’s lonely for me on Shabbat here, and I have a shomer shabbos spouse & 3 kids (and a dog w/ a Jewish soul) to keep me company. In general I believe it’s difficult to observe Jewish ritual as a single person, without family &/or like-minded community/friends, and I think that of all the ritual mitzvot, for a single person the observance of Shabbat is the most challenging. So I make no judgments about Rabbi Wood for choosing to plug in to her community for support and connection. It’s not a choice I would make; and I often wonder if my choice leaves me more isolated and longing for community, and thus unhappy (to an extent) on Shabbat, which is a violation of the spirit of the law (l’hitaneg b’ta’anugim) if not a violation of the letter of the law (lo ta’aseh kol m’lachah). Shabbat shalom, y’all.

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  11. I was not going to comment anything here, but I believe that I should, lest s/one less knowledgeable stumble upon this the same way I did and think it is true and valid. THIS IS WRONG! Just because one feels it would be nicer for them to do things one way makes no difference in what the Torah has commanded. If you are Jewish and practice any sort of observance, you must believe that there is a G-d and His torah is divine. If so, then the laws of Shabbos are clear and undeniable- and you must unplug on Shabbos. If this is hard for you, then you have to consider what you can do to make your Shabbos more fulfilling within this framework- and it most certainly can be sublime. Bring yourself closer to the torah’s decrees instead of trying, heaven forbid, to bring the laws closer to yourself and your current situation. Good luck to everyone in serving Hashem to their fullest and in recognizing and following the true derech hatorah.

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  12. I see you are choosing not to publish my comment. Why, can I ask, are you respectful of other walks of life and ways of doing things… only sometimes?
    “…I am fascinated by those whose choices are different, especially, as in the case with Rabbi Liz, the choices have been made for thoughtful reasons. So while I don’t observe in the same way, I totally respect and understand her ideas. Part of what her thinking challenges us to do as well, is to reconsider how we define “community” and to reflect on the best ways to connect to community even on a Shabbat.”
    Why is it that the walk of life that I have suggested, which is definitely one I live with extreme thought and reasoning, not one for you to be fascinated with, respect and understand? Have you given it the same consideration that you have shown to others?
    Perhaps there is an internal reason that you don’t want to respect what is really true.

    Like

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