I was sitting in a café and talking to a friend on the phone while naturally checking text messages that kept popping up on the little screen, when I got a tweet with a link to Jonathan Safran Foer's article, the one on how each new form of electronic communication leaves us less in touch, more alone. I was so captivated that I didn't respond to several incoming emails, and my friend hung up. He was talking about his marriage, or maybe it was his divorce. Whatever. I wasn't quite paying attention.
Most of our communication devices, Foer writes, began as "diminished substitutes" for activities that were otherwise impossible. The telephone allowed us to keep in touch when we were too far apart to talk; then the answering machine allowed us to talk when no one answered. Email eliminated the voice; text messages could be sent quicker but shrank the mail. Each invention communicates less, which people often treat as an advantage. "Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat," Foer writes. To which I'd add: Each step forward marches us further into misunderstanding. The voice on the phone has no unhappy shrug of the shoulders; the email has no ironic tone; the text message has no room for politeness. And the more easily a message can be forwarded, the less wise it is to say anything that matters.
Foer didn't have to convince me; I merely enjoyed how well he said what I already knew. Yet I, too, am checking all of my devices, eagerly and desperately, as long as I can keep my eyes open at night and then from the moment I awake, as if the next burst of characters will somehow connect me.
The one mitigating circumstance I can offer the mute court of existence is that I am only tuned in (and turned off) 24-six. Belonging as I do to a strange Luddite sect that claims to derive its rules from a 305,000-character text on parchment, I shut my miscommunication devices on Friday at sunset and only turn them back on Saturday at nightfall. As Walter would have told the Dude, had The Great Lebowski only been filmed a couple years later, I don't text on Shabbas.
I'll mention just two responses I've encountered. Once, when I spent a semester teaching in America, I had several very worldly students who had never met an observant Jew before. Intensely, they questioned me about how a person gets through a day without texting. I learned from them. They pushed me to articulate what I had not yet put together: During those 25 hours a week, every person who speaks to me or to whom I speak is present, right there with me. She has a voice, and a face. It struck me that when I'd read Emmanuel Levinas, who says that the most important thing in life is seeing the face of another person and responding to it, who says that another person's face is the beginning of ethics, philosophy, and faith—when I read Levinas, I hadn't noticed how important it is to have a day in the week when everyone has a face.
Then there are the Jews I've met who are very aware of Shabbat, but who tap their touchscreens. Some see this as personal weakness, and call themselves half-shomer shabbat; they can't stop texting. Others, whether almost-Orthodox or dismissive of Orthodoxy, take a position of principle: Checking email couldn't possibly be what an ancient text means when it says not to labor on the seventh day. The rabbis who ruled that we can't use an electric switch on Shabbat already went too far. Later rabbis who prohibit relaxing with the screen have most definitely failed to respond to the times.
That's a mistake. This is one case where rabbis have responded wisely to the dilemmas of our age. They have carved out a space where—to use Foer's words—we ourselves are not "diminished substitutes."
Nearly 2,000 years ago, in the Mishnah, rabbis puzzled out 39 activities that constitute work and are forbidden on Shabbat. It's a list of pretty much everything that was then basic to producing goods and doing business. If you didn't do those things, for one day you ceased being an economic unit. To put it anachronistically, you didn't belong to the constrained world of Marx and Milton Friedman. You were human.
In the 21st century, you also have to turn off the touchscreen to become human. I'm not claiming that Shabbat is the only way to hit the off switch, nor that it automatically makes you pay attention to the real unpixelated people around you. It does provide an opening, a doorway. In a world of people hidden behind screens, a doorway is a gift.