Can We Not Talk? Sermons and cell phones

In the weeks before my first son was born (yes, the one who just became a father last week), I wore a beeper on my belt, like all expectant fathers did when their wives were due any minute. It was before cell phones, and for those few days when we really needed to be reachable, the hospital would rent out beepers so that our wives could call us. I actually remember bringing a roll of quarters with me to the hospital, and sitting in my scrubs in a phone booth in the hospital lobby, calling family and friends to tell them the good news.

Ah, for the good old days… Fast forwarding into the present, it is hard to believe that there lives a breathing soul in March of 2009 who does not have a cell phone. It doesn’t even pay to enumerate the different categories of people who have one. Everyone has one. And I, both as a rabbi and as a parent, will be the last one to dispute their utility, and even their importance in a variety of circumstances. I just want to make one point:

There are times and places where they just don’t belong, aren’t necessary, and the world would go on just fine without them.

I do a lot of public speaking. It’s an integral part of my work. Without any exaggeration, I can truly say that it is a rare eulogy, wedding talk, even sermon, that goes uninterrupted by the (LOUD) ringing of a cell phone, usually to some ridiculous tune that the proud owner downloaded from iTunes.

Aside from the fact that it’s just plain rude- a nicety that seems to be lost on many otherwise reasonable people- the ringing of a cellphone at an inappropriate moment invariably serves to disrupt people’s concentration and train of thought.

When I’m speaking to my congregation on a Shabbat morning or delivering a heartfelt eulogy and a cell phone goes off, there is a very predictable chain of events that unfolds. The person whose phone it is usually doesn’t realize it at first, so the ringing persists. Then said person, when reality finally kicks in, needs to locate the offending phone, which could be anywhere, but is usually deep in a pocketbook or a coat pocket not easily reachable. As this tracking exercise is going on, the other people in the room are fixated on the offending party with glares of ever increasing intensity.

All of this I understand. I also understand that while they’re doing all this, they are completely forgetting what I was talking about, and for all intents and purposes, I’ve lost them. Actually, I usually lose my own train of thought too, trying to imagine why exactly it is that the person whose phone is ringing needed to have it on during the eulogy, or sermon, or wedding talk.

Are they, I wonder to myself, carrying the codes for a nuclear response to a surprise attack on America? If so, I guess they need to be reachable at any time. Ooh, you’re thinking, he really is mad. Well…. Yes , I am. People who REALLY need to be reachable, like obstetricians and other physicians on call, long ago learned how to put their phones on “vibrate.” Most people can master that skill in about, say, thirty seconds. Maybe Congress, which seems in such an angry mood this week anyway, could pass a law requiring that all people purchasing cell phones register for a mandatory training session in how to put their phones on vibrate, or- dare I say it- turn them off!

I know this little rant will accomplish nothing, but I must admit that it feels awfully good. Once upon a time in America, not so long ago, people actually went for more than a few minutes without talking to each other. And they lived to talk another time.

I miss the good old days.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.