Is the complete sentence becoming obsolete? Will the members of the next generation read, or write messages longer than a few words, or will they limit themselves to the short bursts of text and emoji that they are tapping today on their phones. And what significance does this issue hold for Judaism in the early 21st century?
If a recent survey is a predictor, the future of written communication is in messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Twitter. According to App Annie, the influential software analytics firm, Generation Z now spends more than 3.5 times using messaging apps than those over 45 years old, while the older set still prefers using standard email programs to communicate with others.
Translated into English for non-techies, this means that kids prefer to write brief, very short messages, sometimes with a maximum of 144 characters, frequently with photos, rather than long expository notes. English teachers reading this are probably issuing a collective shudder, as they wonder if their students will ever be capable of writing a decent essay.
The attention span of 13-24 year olds has changed. No longer do they have the time or interest in writing a one or two-paragraph email communicating their thoughts. Many are more inclined to send lengthy audio messages via WhatsApp than to write, and few of their contemporaries have the time or patience to read such messages.
Parents of Generation Z children may not find this surprising. For some of us, any communication — verbal or written — that is longer than one or two sentences may not register.
It is not for nothing that we are known as ‘Am Ha-Sefer’, or ‘People of the Book’. And while the classic works of Judaism, such as the Bible, Talmud, and Midrash have all made the transition from print to digital form, the numbers cited above indicate that the coming generation does not have the time or interest to write, or to read a large amount of text. Will the next generation be capable of studying, and absorbing all 24 books of the Bible? What about the 63 tractates of the Mishnah? For that matter, can they handle all Ten Commandments, or will they lose interest after the first five?
To illustrate this point, one need not look any further than the concept of ‘Shu”t SMS’, which has taken hold among some religious youth in Israel. The acronym ‘Shu”t’ stands for She’elot U’Teshuvot, questions and answers, usually pertaining to Jewish law, and SMS, of course, refers to text messages sent by phone. Teens send questions via SMS to noted rabbinic authorities, such as Rabbi Shlomo Aviner and Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who respond with brief answers indicating if the matter is permitted or forbidden. Many of these questions involve not only questions of Jewish ritual law, but also more involved topics concerning faith and human behavior.
In the classic Responsa literature, these types of questions frequently require a great deal of Halachic analysis, and sometimes the answer is not black and white. Yet, in a reflection of the times in which we live, the answers that these rabbis provide via SMS, are often terse and to the point — ‘Yes’, or ‘No’, and at their longest, no more than a sentence or two. Undoubtedly, these rabbis, at least, have realized that a long discourse will lose their audience, and so they make the best of it.
Some are critical of this approach, because they feel that it is difficult, if not impossible to reduce complex subjects to one-word answers. Others feel that while it is not ideal, it is meeting the youth of today on their own terms, in a medium with which they are most comfortable.
Perhaps I am too much of an optimist, or perhaps I am a bit naive, but I think that when it comes to Judaism, even a short message, or even observance of just a few commandments can be a good thing, at least to start. Because if just one short Jewish-oriented tweet or SMS to a teenager can pique his or her interest, then that person will want to learn more.
Passover, with its myriad attendant customs and customs is fast approaching, the highlight of which is the Seder. While reading the text of the Haggadah is inspiring and meaningful for many, some, undoubtedly, do not find it that interesting, especially on an empty stomach. This year, then, pick a section of the Haggadah — even just one idea, or just one sentence — in advance, that your children may find relevant. If things get slow, skip to that section, and discuss it. It is not the length of the Seder that is important, but rather, the content that is discussed that is more significant.
One needn’t look any further than the Talmud for perhaps the ultimate Jewish tweet, or short message, that embodies the value of a short, concise idea. The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat page 31a) recounts how a non-Jew came before Shammai and said to him, “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai was incensed at his question, and pushed him away. When he addressed the same question to Hillel, he replied, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor. The rest (of the Torah) is commentary. Go and study”.
Hillel, in 100 characters, well under the 144-character Twitter limit, conveyed his idea, succinctly and clearly. Had he not been satisfied with a short message, he might not have succeeded. The student would have picked up and left. But with the short answer, he got him started, and eventually, interested in Judaism.
So to those are worried that our teenagers may not have a long enough attention span to eventually study and appreciate those weighty Jewish tomes, I suggest, start them out slowly with a taste — even with just 144 characters. Eventually, they will become interested. Go and study!