Shabbat as a Mirror to Our Relationship to Digital Technology: A Unit for Teens and Adults

Below is a two part adult learning unit on the relationship of philosophies of Judaism to our digital lives and technology.

Session One: Heschel, Kaplan, and Soloveitchik on The Sabbath

Our relationship to digital life is embedded in a lattice of larger assumptions about human beings and their relationship to tools and technology. Even as we place the world in our hands with our smartphones, there is a world within us that interprets what such a powerful tool means to us. We need to play what Stephen Brookfield calls “the assumption game” to flesh out these assumptions (Brookfield, 2017)

To sensitize ourselves to the multiplicity of our potential views about technology from a Jewish perspective, I have placed below three short statements related to the Jewish Sabbath. These will help us utilize the worldviews of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, and Joseph Soloveitchik to deepen our exploration of how technology plays a role in shaping our existential selves.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, (prologue)

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual labor and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.

Mordechai M. Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (chapter on Sabbath)

In pursuit of other aims we frequently become so absorbed in the means as to lose sight of the goal…. Here the Sabbath comes to our aid.An artist cannot be continually wielding his brush. He must stop at times in his painting to freshen his vision of the object, the meaning of which he wishes to express on his canvas.

Living is also an art. We dare not become absorbed in its technical processes and lose our consciousness of its general plan… .The Sabbath represents those moments when we pause in our brushwork to renew our vision of the object. Having done so we take ourselves to our painting with clarified vision and renewed energy.

Joseph B. Soloveitchik , The Lonely Man of Faith, chapter 2

Adam I

…dignity was equated by the Psalmist with man’s capability of dominating his environment and exercising control over it. Man acquires dignity through glory, through his majestic posture vis-à-vis his environment.
[This] dignity cannot be realized as long as he has not gained mastery over his environment. [It is through rational, logical, and mathematical operations that this mastery begins to unfold.] Man of old who could not fight disease and succumbed in multitudes to yellow fever or any other plague with degrading helplessness could not lay claim to dignity. Only the man who builds hospitals, discovers therapeutic techniques, and saves lives is blessed with dignity…

Soliveitchik continues in his praise of Adam I by indicating that

to conquer space, he boards a plane at the New York airport at midnight and takes several hours later a leisurely walk along the streets of London…. Man of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who needed several days to travel from Boston to New York was less dignified than a man whose mastery has made it possible for him to act in accordance with his responsibility… the Biblical promise of being creatures b’tzelem elohim made in the image of God.

Adam II is different

He looks for the image of God not in the mathematical formula or the natural relational law but in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the stillness of a starlit evening. In a word, Adam the second explores not the scientific abstract universe but the irresistibly fascinating qualitative world where he establishes an intimate relation with God.

Here are some questions we might pose relative to these portraits:

  • Beyond the Sabbath, which of the three reflects the most positive appreciation of the role technology plays in our lives?
  • Conversely, which has the most negative view?
  • How would each have us evaluate the impact of technology on our lives?
  • What phrases or sentences within the quote would you give the greatest emphasis? Want to know more about? Challenge? (TMW)

Of course these quotations are merely the ripples of deeper currents of thought running through the three thinkers. Going deeper reveals additional complexity.


Session 2: Going Deeper

Of course the initial foray into the views of the Sabbath are merely the ripples of deeper currents of thought running through the three thinkers. Going deeper reveals additional complexity and is the focus of the second session..

Perhaps, Heschel provides the most consistent message. His equation of technology with the conquest of space stands in stark contrast with the “palace of time” that is the Sabbath. Though he clearly recognizes that one must live in technical civilization as well ,(“Six days shall you labor…”), the Sabbath remains the prize. Heschel notes that in the liturgical poem Lehah Dodi which welcomes the Sabbath as a bride and queen, the Sabbath is praised, “first (in God’s thoughts) though last in creation”. It transcends the rest of creation because in some sense it is the purpose of creation.

Yet, Heschel acknowledges multiple paths to discovering God’s presence in the world. Labor is one thing if it is in service of more skyscrapers and monuments. It is quite another if during the six days of labor we are addressing issues of social justice and human harmony. These are deep and passionate concerns of Heschel. Famously, one engages in the prototypical Sabbath act of prayer with one’s feet (“I felt as if my feet were praying”, he said as he marched alongside Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama in 1965 for the civil rights of African-Americans).

Arguably, one needs to turn to another of Heschel’s volumes to understand his views on our relationship to technology. The Earth is the Lord’s is Heschel’s tribute to life in seventeenth and eighteenth century Eastern Europe. A reviewer of the volume notes that Heschel assiduously avoids any reference to the physical architecture of the buildings of the time. It is all about the spiritual architecture of the Ashkenazi world that is his spiritual home. It seems fair to say that Heschel’s worldview is not anti-technology, but rather, transcends it. The material world— so much the body of technology– is of minimal interest to him (Byron, 2007)

This provides quite a strong contrast to the work of Soloveitchik. At first glance, one might say that Soloveitchik represents a pro-technology stance,given his exuberant praise of Adam I’s achievements in the realms of math, science, and technology (remember that he flies from Boston to London in a few short hours rather than trudging step by step to his intended destination).

In teaching Soloveitchik in various settings I have noticed how easily he can be interpreted as the embodiment of a problematic hubris, the elevation of human beings above the rest of creation. Arguably, this elevation leaves the natural world open to subjugation, rape, and pillage. Admittedly, there are structures of Jewish and civil law mitigating the use of this power. Yet, the very placement of humanity on the highest rung of the chain of being can remain problematic. Famously in 1967 a group of theologians (none Jewish) meeting at Claremont College laid the impending environmental crisis at the foot of the twenty eighth verse of the first chapter of Genesis and the Judaeo-Christian tradition that views human beings as empowered by God to conquer and subdue the natural world.

In the interest of balance, one needs to recognize the dialectic nature of Soloveitchik’s views of human origins, purpose, and destiny. Adam II is created out of the very elements of the natural world. He embraces that world as a source of inspiration, apparently with no interest in conquering it.

The intricate, reciprocal relationship between Adam I and II is captured by Soloveitchik in one of final chapters of The Lonely Man of Faith:

The Biblical dialectic stems from the fact that Adam the first, majestic man of dominion and success and Adam the second, the lonely man of faith, obedience and defeat are not two different people locked in an external confrontation as an I opposite a thou, but one person who is involved in self-confrontation…. God created two Adams and sanctioned both. Rejection of either aspect of humanity would be tantamount to an act of disapproval of the divine scheme of creation

Soloveitchik recognizes that this dialectical tension can easily be thrown out of kilter. He notes near the end of the volume the crude and crass materialism that might be confused with Adam I’s mission in mid-twentieth century life. On the other hand, one senses he would have had little sympathy for the metaphoric hugging of trees that arguably strips Adam I entirely of his dominance over nature. A colleague and student of Soloveitchik once quipped that eventually Soloveitchik comes to favor Adam I because the skills of logic and technical mastery best equip people to engage in Talmudic study.

Mordecai Kaplan falls in the middle of a continuum that can be constructed— at least for heuristic purposes– as having Soloveitchik and Heschel representing the pro and anti- technology points along the spectrum. Kaplan is a philosophical pragmatist and likely to be found in the middle on any number of issues. He sees the value of technology in the uses to which we put it. It is a means to an end.

Kaplan’s sense of balance leads him to remark about technology throughout Not So Random Thoughts (Kaplan, 1966):

In the present emphasis of knowhow and know what we overlook the importance of “know-what-for”.

All one needs to do to explode the myth of technology as always positive is to realize without Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1794 there never would have been a Civil War.

Similarly he remarks:

Ancient civilization was all ends and no means
A modern civilization is all means and no end

This last remark seems to mirror a constant lament of Einstein that we have a plethora of means (technical skills) and a dearth of wisdom about how to deploy them.

Yet this is the same Mordecai Kaplan who as a child marveled at the new uses of technology demonstrated at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 (Scult, 2002) Further , in an excerpt from his diaries Kaplan takes deep issue with his colleagues’ opinion that technology could be ultimately at odds with Judaism. The presenting issue in the diary excerpt: The number of Jews who stayed home to watch the international premier of Peter Pan on television rather than attend Purim services.

This attitude frustrated and angered many of Kaplan’s Conservative colleagues, but for him the enduring challenge was how to revitalize Jewish culture, religion, and civilization through all means possible including technology. There was no room for kvetching (complaining) or whining in this vision. The challenge was to do Peter Pan in Hebrew with great technological flare.

So what does it mean to take a pragmatic position about technology in our world of digital abundance? Clearly, it means to engage in something like what, in organizational change and management circles , is called values based decision making. In any given situation the multiple and interactive Jewish and human values at play must be weighed and considered. Any path chosen should reflect the interplay of these values.

Here decision making is neither simple nor binary. A point of contrast with the most traditional views of Jewish learning and purpose might be helpful here. For millennia when a Jew would complete a section of Talmud study he would celebrate with a khadran / declaration of intent to return to these very same pages and learn more (and at the same time return to her divine source of inspiration). The language of the khadran is paraphrased below in terms of what kind of activities meet the criteria of Jewish purpose and salvation.

Some people waste their time gambling, hanging around street corners and other blasphemous activities. We (the Jewish people) study your holy Torah and constantly return to this task.

This view of the purpose of human activity is linked to a Jewish value concept of bittul reman /refraining from activity that is a waste of time (here operationally defined as deflecting us from Torah study). It is precisely such a dichotomous position that Kaplan is most likely to reject. Like the philosopher John Dewey from whom he borrows, every ethical decision is an experiment shaped by the consequences of our action.

This suggests a different challenge for our relationship to digital technologies. The key is whether they help fill our lives with worthwhile activities or not. Kaplan creates a high bar for this assessment. Both Judaism and postmodernity have to provide “salvational” opportunities, opportunities to engage in activity that is spiritually the equivalent of the holiness Jews derived from Torah and prayer in their more cloistered pre-modern environments. Certainly creative arts, literature, drama and music are “salvational” within this framework. So too our activities that lead to tikkun slam /world improvement and transformation.

When we turn to technology in general and especially digital technology, within this framework, there is, unsurprisingly, great complexity. It is possible that some of the uses of screen time are ethically neutral (or even positive), yet still divert us from more worthwhile activities. One takes seriously for instance the work of Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our World from Nature- Deficit Disorder (Louv, 2005, Introduction) If the digital world displaces, rather than supplements, our time in the natural world it is a cause of deep concern.

Though the previous analysis is focused on the individual, the application of philosophical pragmatism also applies to the community. Synagogues need to develop positions about their relationship to technology. Often this has to do with permitted or forbidden use of various forms of technology on Shabbat and holidays.

Consider this tale of three synagogues where I have made presentations about Judaism and technology. In one, the professional staff told me that it was fine and good to go through some process of values based decision making so long as it ended up permitting the use of their smartphones and other devices. They could not imagine being without their phones for personal or professional uses on Shabbat. Conversely, in one of the shuls that I belong to there is a weekly reminder to turn off your smartphones in order to protect the sanctity of the Shabbat. But in a third— I imagine more reflective of the majority of liberal synagogues in North America– things are a bit up in the air.

Here is where Kaplanian pragmatism seems to be most helpful. Below are I present a number of possible uses of a smartphone on Shabbat. Examining the specific personal and societal contexts in which philosophical principles are at play is at the heart of philosophical pragmatism. It allows the possibility of the ideal and the real entering into dialogue with one another and generating more vibrant and meaningful principles to guide the community in their decision making. (TMW).

Potential Uses of a Smart Phone on Shabbat

Rank order these potential uses of a smartphone on Shabbat from most permissible to least permissible within your own values framework.

___ Finding relevant resources related to machlokot /divisions of opinion that occur during a Torah study session

___ Completing an urgent piece of business not completed during the week

___ Calling 911 when a congregant has a heart attack

___ Placing a bet on the Sunday’s football game

___ Watching a Jewish movie

___ Making sure that a playdate for a child is still on later that afternoon

___ Playing a most amazing new tune of the Maccabeats for Chanukah

___ Responding to a text from a long estranged relative


A group exploring this dilemma might also discuss whether there should be unplugged zones in the synagogue that are space dependent (rather than time, Shabbat dependent). Are there types of synagogue functions (study, spirituality groups) where the agreed upon norm is that phones are collected before the activity begins?