Shabbat and My Internet Selfhood


     Welcome to the blog ‘Torah and Societal Change(s)’, a blog about how changes in society affect our ability to ‘do religion’.

    For example, the Israeli national religious media, over the last month, has found itself engulfed in a discussion over the ‘newly exposed’ phenomenon of religiously affiliated young people socially texting on their cell phones on Shabbat (thus violating a basic Sabbath observance prohibition). Some texters say that they do it out of a sense of boredom or social loneliness. Others say that they do it because  they see themselves as ‘post modern traditionalists ‘,  keeping primarily the aspects of the Shabbat  tradition that they find to be personally meaningful, while refusing to obligate themselves to an ‘absolutist rabbinic legal tradition’.

     Why the uproar? Why the semi-defensive reaction by national religious rabbis, educators and publicists? For the last one hundred and fifty years a whole range of secular and liberal religious (Reform and Conservative) leaders have been advocating that a Jew can have a live, vivacious relationship with God and Jewish tradition without the intermediary instrument of rabbinic law. So what is new? Where is the ‘chidush’ (innovation)? Is there a difference between the phenomenon of Shabbat texting, and previous traditionalist mixtures of Shabbat morning services and Saturday afternoon visits to the mall, beach or sports stadium?

    I would like to put forth for discussion that there is something ‘precedent setting’ in Shabbat texting by religiously affiliated individuals. Shabbat texting is an ‘innovative Shabbat violation’ because it highlights the dilemma that the internet has created, the dilemma that a great tension seems to exist between an internet induced ‘sense of selfhood’ and religious obligation.

    Up till thirty years ago, one’s selfhood was primarily determined by the surrounding social frameworks into which one was born: such as one’s gender, religion, nuclear and extended family, ethnicity, nationality and social class. Developing a sense of selfhood required that the individual adopt, adapt, struggle with, and even rebel against, these heavy weight sets of traditions and obligation.

Through the process of struggle and adaption, one trained and developed a sense of selfhood and social competence.  One developed a singular identity that went ‘narrow but deep’, an identity that was inherently restricted (narrow in its loyalties) and constricted (by punishments and demanding social/moral obligations), but also deep (daily mining truths and traditions of hundreds/thousands of years).

     In contrast, the internet web has created a revolution in understanding selfhood (as the Gutenberg press created reading by the masses, and then, in turn, political action and revolution by the masses). The internet has created a sense of selfhood and domain of individuality that is ‘both very broad/wide, and also very shallow and transit’. Surfing the web, buoyed by the waves of postmodern moral relativism, creates a selfhood based on ‘trying on, and taking off’ a multiple set of transient self definitions with regard to gender, religion, family  environments, ethnicities, careers, and nationalities. The internet has created a selfhood that is accompanied by a ‘lightness of being’, unfettered by the heavy weight of thousand years of tradition and legal restrictions. Internet selfhood is served from a buffet of multi social cultures.

    Now let’s again look at the Shabbat social texting of a religiously affiliated generation that socially matured, since their bar mitzvah, over the internet, our first generation of religious internet graduates.

    Yes, the national religious rabbis and educators are correct to sense a lurking threat of an over the horizon crisis concerning the acceptance of religious obligations amongst an internet educated generation. Shabbat texting is indeed a sparrow heralding a spring of a changing mode of relationship between an internet formed selfhood and ongoing religious obligations. The practitioners of Shabbat texting are right: Shabbat afternoon texting contains a different message than Shabbat afternoon mall, beach or sports tripping. Mall shopping is a statement about giving into one’s inclinations, while Shabbat texting, granting minimal immediate pleasure, is a statement about selfhood: ‘I’m the boss, and not my inherited religious tradition.

    The internet has thus created an awesome educational challenge for parents and educators straining to help their children/students develop a selfhood based on self fulfillment within the restrictions of ancient religious obligations. How can we teach the certainty (absolute truth) of religious legal tradition, when the internet conveys the message that there is no distinction between reality and virtuality? How can we teach a generation to choose a selfhood based on fulfilling legal obligations, when on the internet self identity is composed of an endless list of favorites? After years of click-on surfing, the natural inclination of an internet generation is not to sign up at the ‘ bar mitzvah   recruitment center’ for a lifelong set of religious obligations.

    Thus selling (educating) the internet generation on a selfhood of lifelong obligations is a very imposing, uphill battle. But it is doable. Now I turn to you my readers to send in comments and ides with regard to the two basic questions raised in our discussion. One, it is possible, or desirable, to educate to a selfhood based on lifelong obligation to restricting traditional truths and practices? Second, if it is desirable and possible, how do we do it in the virtual world of internet based relationships?  (In future blogs, along with other topics, I will share my ideas on the subject.) Please bring answers other than the obvious one of restricting access and use to the internet. This option is in fact a ‘band aid’, primarily ‘virtual’ and not real. It is not real because that we all live in a Wi-Fi zone where business life requires computer use, and academia preaches moral/ value relativism. There is no exit. We have to have, as parents and educators, the courage and honesty to stare virtual reality in the face, and struggle to meet its revolutionary religious educational challenge.



About the Author
Chaim Charles Cohen was born in the USA in 1947 into a liberal, middle class secular family. He attended Cornell University in political science, studied three years to become a Reform pulpit rabbi, then gradually became Orthodox, made aliya with his family in 1978, practiced social worker, and settled in Psagot in 1982.