Friday, June 24, 2011

Half Shabbos - A Failure of Modern Orthodoxy

What a sad development. Chilul Shabbos has now become an excepted norm among modern Orthodox adolescents. Many teenagers are now observing what is being called ‘Half Shabbos’. They violate Shabbos by texting on their cell-phones.

In my wildest dreams I could not have ever imagined this happening. I am not talking about kids going OTD. Most of them according to an article in the Jewish Week are observant in every other way. They are good and decent kids and aside from texting do not violate Shabbos in any other way. They keep Kosher and do all the other things associated with Orthodoxy. But for some reason they violate Shabbos in this way and they know it. What’s worse is that it doesn’t bother them.

Refraining from using electronic devices on Shabbos has become one of the hallmarks of Orthodoxy. No Shomer Shabbos Jew would be caught dead doing it.

Until now.

The question is - why is this happening? Is it a failure of modern Orthodoxy (MO)? I have to believe that it is. Not that they God forbid teach it. But that a modern Orthodox environment is more conducive to violating what is perceived (incorrectly) as minor Halachos.

Many people compromise Halacha. Especially those I would call ‘modern Orthodox Lite’ – which I define as those who are more modern than Orthodox. These are the people who are Orthodox by habit and by peer group affiliation – more so than by conviction. They are often more concerned with lifestyle than with Halacha and will sometimes compromise Halacha in favor of lifestyle.

This is the kind of Jew who when challenged about a laxity in Halacha will answer ‘everyone picks and chooses’ what they follow and what they will not. They do the best they can but they are not going to lose out on a lifestyle choice just because of a minor Halacha. This is not to say that they do not care at all about being observant. They do. But they do as much as possible to limit it from impinging on their lifestyles.

So – for example many MO-Lite women will not dress in accordance with the letter of Halacha and wears shorts in public, or wear skimpy bikinis at the beach. These are the people who will eat fish in restaurants. These are the people who might come to Shul on Shabbos and hardly say a word of prayer and instead talk incessantly with their neighbor.

But none of them drive a car on Shabbos. All of them keep two sets of dishes (meat and dairy) and buy Kosher meat. And most of them generally buy food products with at least some kind of Hechsher – at least in the home. (Like I said - they might eat fish out.)

But they also send their kids to a day school and religious high school. Partly because of peer pressure and partly because they do want to instill at least a little Yiddishkeit in their children.

The problem is that the level of accommodation to modernity these parents have via Halachic compromise is not lost on their children. They see their parents compromising all over the place and they figure, why can’t they compromise on texting? Even though they know it’s wrong, they see their parents doing the same kind of thing. They have simply ‘picked and chosen’ what they will compromise on. It seems like such a minor compromise, especially when everybody is doing it anyway. When doing it as part of a large peer group, most if not all guilt is eliminated.

I do not personally text all that much. But I am not unaware of the addiction texting has become to a great number of people. The addiction is so strong for adolescents that they cannot seem to get away from it even for the 25 hour period of Shabbos. Combined with the attitude of Halachic compromise learned from their parents – it isn’t too hard to see how this happened.

As noted in the article, schools are very aware of the problem but are equally stumped as to what to do about it.

I have no answers but, I do think it is a failure of modern Orthodoxy that this has happened at all. Just as there has been an under-emphasis in many Charedi schools of Bein Adam L’Chaveiro there is an under-emphasis in many MO schools of Bein Adam L’Makom.

That said, I would note that this phenomenon is not exclusive to modern Orthodoxy. From the Jewish Week:

According to interviews with several students and administrators at Modern Orthodox day schools, the practice of texting on Shabbat is becoming increasingly prevalent, especially, but not exclusively, among Modern Orthodox teens.

But I think it is pretty clear where the greater problem lies. It lies with the ‘Lites’ of which most are modern and some are Charedi.

This is a great challenge for modern Orthodox rabbinic leaders. Shul rabbis and school principals need to figure out how to tackle this problem before it spirals out of control – if it hasn’t already.

Adult education seems like the way to go with this. Parents who are ‘lite’ have to be shaken out of their comfort zone of complacency and urged to pay more attention to the Bein Adam LaMakom. There needs to be more Mussar in those communities taught in the Shuls on a regular basis.

And it can’t just be haphazard. There needs to be a coordinated and organized effort by all Shul rabbis to implement a program that will instill a more Halachicly committed mindset to the ‘Lites’.

That is the only way that children will learn not to text on Shabbos. They have to see similar commitments at home. The best teacher of values is not the word of the parent but the action. Parents are the most important and significant people to a child and must be role models for them. One cannot live a life full of compromises and expect their children to not have any of their own.

Updated: 6:09PM CDT