Seidel said screens are “intriguing” (though he doesn’t want to use them), he isn’t totally opposed to e-readers (as long as they’re not the wired ones you could use to surf the Web) and that he has structured some services like plays — so he’s open to experimenting. But he feels Jews should be wary before messing with the walls that have protected the Sabbath.
“I think there are a lot of people completely taken with technology and have lost their critical faculties,” Seidel said.
Conservative leaders had a dispute this summer when a prominent rabbi suggested using e-readers on the Sabbath during a convention of North American Jewish men’s clubs leaders — arguing that such devices are becoming the equivalent of books. The proposal was withdrawn.
A year earlier, the leader of the movement’s key rabbinical school wrote an 80-page opinion saying electronic devices violate the Sabbath because they create a record, which is too much like writing. Rabbi Danny Nevins’ opinion was approved by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards by a vote of 17 to 2.
Proponents of more experimentation counter with the obvious: The vast majority of Jews are already using the whole range of technology on the Sabbath. Judaism can’t be shut out of the digital revolution.
“Judaism is itself a technology. You name it — Torah study, mitzvot, prayer, all these things are technologies that exist for you to connect more deeply with yourself, your community and God,” said Gil Steinlauf, rabbi of Adas Israel, a large Northwest Conservative synagogue currently reviewing its Sabbath electronics practices, from e-readers to live streaming video.
The cutting edge is at LabShul, a lay-led group that will host 1,000 people at a Tribeca arts center this weekend for Yom Kippur. The entire service will be, as it has been for seven years, projected on large screens. Images will include paintings of God by LabShul children, layered with verses of scripture. Pictures of stained glass windows will flash on the screens.
LabShul is led by Israeli-born actor and rabbinical student Amichai Lau-Lavie, whose uncle was the chief rabbi of Israel and who unplugs from calls and e-mails each Sabbath. He talks and writes about what prayer was like before the creation of books, before people’s hands and eyes were focused on the page.
“We have to be sophisticated consumers of technology, to see what violates our sacred space and time and what doesn’t,” he said this week. “I expect no less of Judaism at thousands of years old to come up with creative solutions, and it’s happening right now; we’re in the middle of it.”
In recent years, there have been groundbreaking digital translations of the Talmud, revolutionizing prayer for Orthodox Jews who need daily access to the Talmud’s 30-plus volumes. Using your device for non-Sabbath daily prayer is fast becoming so standard that sometimes people absentmindedly kiss their iPhones after praying — a ritual normally done with books.
Some Orthodox rabbis observe the “half-Shabbos” phenomenon and see something hugely important: The forming of a new Orthodox approach to technology. Others see run-of-the-mill rebellion.
Simon is someone who appreciates the importance of the Sabbath. He halts work and e-mail and spends the day at his synagogue, Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church. As a more progressive Jew, however, he believes Sabbath is more about your routines than what technology you use. He chuckles a little when recalling his jarring experience a few years ago at another synagogue.
“I’m a bit of a reluctant traveler, but I’m warming” to technology, he said.
Which is good, since Rodef Shalom leaders say they plan to experiment more with screens.