The Answer To ‘Half Shabbos’ Is Whole Judaism

A front-page article in last week’s print edition of The Jewish Week introduced the greater Jewish community to the idea of “half-Shabbos-” a version of Shabbat practiced, it would seem, by a not insignificant number of Orthodox teens.

The term has nothing to do with the amount of time in which Shabbat is celebrated, but rather the extent to which its myriad rules and regulations are considered inviolable and binding. Specifically, the issue at hand is texting on one’s cell phone. It seems that a large number of teenagers who are otherwise Shabbat-observant are so incapable of functioning for twenty-five hours without texting their friends that they have simply decided that texting on Shabbat- forbidden by Jewish law- is a violation they can live with. Their parents, they say, make their own compromises. Why can’t they?
Under any circumstances, teaching children to appreciate the pleasures of disconnecting (pun unintended but not bad!) from civilization- something a traditionally celebrated Shabbat offers- is not always easy, and it has nothing to do with denominational label. Particularly in today’s age of new media and cutting edge technology, with communication instantaneously and easily accomplished no matter how far the physical distance between the two parties might be, it’s not at all hard to imagine that “doing without” that kind of connection might be challenging for young people who thrive on it. But the fact that otherwise Shabbat-observant teens are “picking and choosing” what they will or will not observe- a charge often leveled far too cavalierly at the members of my own, Conservative movement- should give us all pause.

Could it be that the “sovereign self” so familiar to contemporary sociologists has finally asserted itself in a public way even within Orthodoxy? We Jews who are honest with ourselves know that, in more private and discreet ways, the sovereign self- in a religious context, that piece of one’s sense of self which prioritizes personal autonomy above all rules and governance imposed from without- has been part of the Orthodox experience in America for a long time. Orthodox people- at least the ones that I grew up with- that I grew up as– have been picking and choosing for a very long time. But this story is truly remarkable for its open and youthful challenge to conventional lines of religious authority as expressed in the public domain.

Apropos all this and completely by coincidence, as part of JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen’s “Mitzvah Initiative”- a project designed to bring increasing numbers of Conservative Jews into the world of serious and increasingly committed Jewish observance- I attended a seminar this week, held at JTS, for rabbis who are teaching the curriculum specially designed for this purpose. Although our challenge in the Conservative movement is quite different from what Orthodoxy is now confronting- in some ways the opposite- I was struck by the relevance of a text included in the source book. The source of the text is the great Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man, in the section on “A Spiritual Order”…
“…Some people are so occupied collecting shreds and patches of the law, that they hardly think of weaving the pattern of the whole; others are so enchanted by the glamour of generalities, by the image of ideals, that while their eyes fly up, their actions remain below… The order of Jewish living is meant to be not a set of rituals, but an order of all man’s existence…”
As one of the seminal Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, Heschel had a sublimely macroscopic view of the challenge of living an authentic Jewish life. To paraphrase his elegant prose in a very few brief words- it’s all about balance.
There is a dialectic built in to Jewish living and practice, richly rooted in our tradition. It features an unending but constructive state of tension between kevah and kavanah– the strict adherence to the formal requirements of the law, and the desire to have one’s compliance with that law be meaningful and devotional.
Texting on Shabbat on the one hand, and alienation from the formalities of Jewish religious life on the other, are manifestations of the same fundamental issue. They simply represent different sides of the aforementioned dialectic. The issue isn’t solely about doing or discarding one particular mitzvah or the other, or regarding meaningful Jewish living as what Heschel called “the glamour of generalities”- reducing all of Jewish life to vague sentiments about charity and social action. The issue is about balancing them. If texting on Shabbat is merely a question of Jewish law, it ignores the larger issue of the grandeur of Shabbat and its rest, and how it fits within the Jewish understanding of human existence. And if the quest for social justice is understood merely a noble impulse, and not as a divine imperative- a commandment, if you will- then we are depriving Jewish law of its capacity to address the larger issues of our time.
Though we are coming from very different places, the “Half-Shabbos” issue and the larger goal of the Mitzvah Initiative share a common need: to find a way to fashion a Judaism that is a single, unified whole, and not merely a strand of unconnected do’s and don’ts.
Cynics may say that one has nothing to do with the other. I respectfully disagree. We Jews have more in common that we might care to admit.
About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.