The growing phenomenon of Orthodox Jewish teenagers keeping what’s been called “Half Shabbos” burst into the Jewish media several years ago. “Half Shabbos” describes someone who observes all of the Sabbath regulations except one: using his or her smart phone to send text messages.

Religious leaders reacted predictably to the revelation of what had been going on undetected right under their noses.

“It is universally accepted in the halacha-respecting community that electronics are off-limits on the Sabbath,” said Agudath Israel spokesperson Rabbi Avi Shafran.

Texting on Shabbat is “very distasteful and not permissible on Shabbos,” warned the Orthodox Union’s Rabbi Moshe Elefant.

The phenomenon ”represents only the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper apathy with respect to Hashem and His Torah,” lamented Jonathan Rosenblum in Jewish Action magazine.

But what if instead of seeing Shabbat texting as a scourge to be fought, the rabbis considered “Half Shabbos” as a kind of glass half full. After all, kids using their phones on Shabbat aren’t leaving the fold. As one teen told the Jewish Week in 2011, “I was not driving” on Shabbat. “I was not eating non-kosher.” Just texting.

Moreover, there are fascinating, phonological reasons why texting on Shabbat has taken hold. Texting is, in many ways, more akin to spoken language than writing.

“We speak in word packets of seven to ten words,” Columbia University professor John McWhorter explained in a popular TED Talk. Texting is similar.

“It’s much more loose, much more telegraphic” than the written word, McWhorter continued. Indeed, the very lack of proper punctuation, capitalization and conventional grammar in a text message reflects the speed and nature of real speech. ”It’s an expansion of [people’s] linguistic repertoire.”

Shabbat, of course, is all about talking, of building human relationships because you’re not at work or sitting in front of the television. Is it any wonder, then, that this new form of communication is so compelling davka on Shabbat?

At the same time, there’s been pushback against texting – and all use of electronics on Shabbat – from outside the religious world.

Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain is a member of Reboot, an organization which promotes the secular-friendly “National Day of Unplugging.” She opened her AOL web series “The Future Starts Here” with an episode advocating shutting down one’s devices on the Sabbath.

Shlain’s point: Marking Shabbat as a “day of distinction” has immense value for Jews who want to bring the most relatable traditions from Orthodoxy into a secular lifestyle.

But what if you can’t – or don’t want to – entirely turn off and stop texting?

Perhaps it’s time to create some guidelines for “observant texting” on Shabbat. Guidelines that can help Orthodox teens feel like they don’t have to hide in the bathroom while “sinfully” texting their friends, and that the rest of us can use to balance between WhatsApp and what’s for dinner.

First and foremost: no texting at the table during meal time. It’s hard enough during the week to get members of our family to not check their phones for a few minutes between bites of tofu and rice. On Shabbat, it’s essential.

Second, no texting in public – even if all present are Shabbat texters. It creates a safe space where everyone knows face-to-face conversation is paramount. That’s not religious coercion: Everyone can do what they want in their own rooms. And because the rule is clear, there’s no sneaking around.

Why not leave your phone at home while walking the dog or taking a Shabbat afternoon stroll? I admit this is a tough one for me and I don’t always stick to it. But you’d be amazed what a little mindfulness does when your attention is turned to your external surroundings, not the podcast voices of Jad, Ira and Sarah in your headphones.

Set “quiet hours” for texting. Just as loud music and outdoor ball playing is supposed to cease between 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm in Israel, try that with your phone. Tell your friends in advance: here’s when I’m taking a texting break.

No selfies: one day a week you can skip documenting (and sharing) who you met or what you ate. What happens on Shabbos stays on Shabbos.

If you leave your phone on at night at your bedside, put it on airplane mode once a week. Not only will you be spared eight hours of potential radiation danger, you will probably sleep better knowing you won’t be woken up in the middle of the night by an “urgent” text from a friend.

Extend these guidelines to your iPad and other devices where it might not be texting that’s the draw but checking the latest news. Sometimes there’s really important stuff that breaks over Shabbat. More often than not, it can wait (at least until quiet hours are over).

As reading increasingly moves away from print towards eBooks, it seems unfair to cut access to your online library. Try limiting your phone or iPad use to your Kindle or iBooks apps if you have the willpower. Keep Chrome closed.

The future will see our phones and our brains become ever more enmeshed. Direct feeds, smart contact lenses, bio implants, automatic real time translation ala Star Trek are not just the stuff of far off science fiction.

Jewish Law today would exclude Shabbat-observant Jews from all that. It’s time to start addressing not only our past but where we’re going.

It starts with a text on Shabbat.

These guidelines first appeared at The Jerusalem Post.

Picture of Klingon texting from istolethetv from NYC, USA (guest services) via Wikimedia Commons

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The election of Donald Trump has created a profound crisis of faith among some Orthodox Jews who opposed Trump’s candidacy.

How is it possible, they ask, that so many of their co-religionists allowed themselves to look past Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, his pathological falsehoods and moral failings that seem to go against so much of what Jewish ethical teachings are about, all because he was seen as somehow “better for Israel” than the other candidates?

The question was raised in a widely discussed Facebook post by a friend who lives in a religious settlement in the West Bank. He did not support Trump but most of his neighbors did.

“How ironic for men and women with families and children to casually look aside from Trump’s bragging about sexually harassing or assaulting women, his mocking of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski or his refusal to denounce the verbal and physical violence that were hallmarks of his campaign rallies,” wrote Tom (not his real name).

The crisis for Tom, who came to religion as an adult, comes down to this: “I found deep resonance and meaning in performing the mitzvot (commandments) in order to connect with a higher spiritual goal. The halachic system’s passionate detail to ensuring that the weakest members of society are protected convinced me that this system was, if not the only expression of God’s will, then certainly a perfect expression of it. But I fear that today those very same halachic requirements are, in the eyes of too many of my neighbors, little more than cute phrases uttered quickly during morning prayers.”

Tom’s greatest disquiet is that, “on a communal level, we have willingly created an illusion that sticking within the technical letter of a particular law excuses us from engaging with its social and personal messages; that our penchant for finding ‘creative’ solutions – selling hametz at Pesach, for example – has allowed us to rationalize virtually any behavior. If there is anything that the Trump phenomenon has taught us, it is that no bigotry, offense or comment is beyond the pale for our community. Support Israel and you’re OK by us.”

Tom ends by wondering whether he really has a home in his settlement “or in religious Zionism at all.” The pro-Trump events in Israel that he has observed over the past months “have been populated by, how shall I put this politely, individuals who look from the outside an awful lot like me.”

Janice (also not her real name), has a similar concern to Tom.

“I think as a community Orthodox Jews are focusing on the wrong things,” she told me. “We’ve forgotten the basic values of humility and being a mensch, which all the evidence – from Trump not paying his bills to the infamous ‘locker room talk’ tape – shows that the new president is not. At this point, I’d prefer to surround myself with people who don’t care how much of my hair is showing or if my daughter wears tights to school but who are willing to fight for a woman’s dominion over her own reproductive organs or compassion towards immigrants and the poor.”

I get where Tom and Janice are coming from. While I no longer define myself as Orthodox, 21 years ago when I did, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin triggered a comparable disconnect between the behaviors of many in the religious community and my humanistic moral compass.

To be sure, most religious Zionists condemned Yigal Amir’s actions and at least a temporary soul searching took place afterward. But the issue became a deeper, more abiding concern for people like me – and for Tom as well – who made a conscious choice to trade our secular upbringings for Orthodoxy as much for the values we perceived in its members as a feeling of supernatural commandedness.

What’s happening now with Trump is, in many ways, more disturbing. There’s been no reconsideration, no turning inward. The battle lines between right and left are now so entrenched that, no matter what Trump does, as long as he pays lip service to moving the American embassy or stays silent as Israel announces plans to resume building over the Green Line, he is on the path to becoming a non-Jewish Messiah.

“Belief cannot be predicated on the idea that all religious people will behave perfectly,” countered Laura, suggesting that I’m looking at what Judaism is about all wrong.

“We are not perfect,” echoed Miriam, “but we should try our best. That’s what Judaism is all about.”

Or to use a different analogy, added Kelli: “I’m a woman and I’m not reconsidering my gender because many women supported Trump.”

That may not be enough for Tom.

“My frustration doesn’t stem from the fact that people are flawed – that is true everywhere. It’s more the feeling that I’m alone in taking what others seem to feel are the ‘less essential’ parts of Torah seriously. That praying in a minyan where men and women sit together is considered unacceptable, but tax evasion, fraud and sexual harassment are not.”

Trump’s election didn’t precipitate Tom’s crisis of faith. But it’s strengthened it. It’s an experience that may spread with every new tweet from the White House. At least until Trump reverses all his currently stated positions. (Embassy in Jerusalem? Not so fast.) Which will launch a crisis of faith of an entirely different kind.

I wrote about Trump-inspired crises of faith first at The Jerusalem Post.

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Hebrew Union College Professor Steven M. Cohen published an essay last month with some startling conclusions about Jewish demography.

Reviewing figures compiled by the Pew Research Center over the past half century, he writes in The Forward that the number of Orthodox Jews in America has quadrupled in just two generations – with 79,000 “grandparents” (ages 56-73) living today but over 340,000 “children” (ages 0-17).

Among the non-Orthodox, by contrast, the number – while still greater overall – is trending downward: the current grandparent generation comes to 1.48 million Jews while the youngest is just 920,000.

Even more striking, the fraction of the American Jewish population that defines itself as Orthodox now stands at 27 percent among the “children,” compared with just 5 percent among the oldest generation.

To be fair, the total percentage of Jews who consider themselves Orthodox in the U.S. remains at 10 percent, the same as Pew says it was forty years earlier.

Cohen’s analysis, nevertheless, raises questions about what the Jewish Diaspora will look like in the coming decades. Will it be predominantly Orthodox, as Cohen is suggesting? Are we returning to the all-Orthodox demographics of the Eastern European shtetl?

The shtetl, tellingly, represents a powerful example of how the arrow of history never flies predictably straight and why Orthodoxy’s ascendancy is anything but assured.

That’s because shtetl life wasn’t Orthodox as we know it today – indeed, the terms “Orthodox” and “Reform” hadn’t yet been coined. Rather, everyone basically led an observant lifestyle because, well, that’s just what you did in communities closed off, either by choice or by outside restrictions, to the wider world.

Then along came the Enlightenment in the 18th century and the doors swung open to Jews to participate in non-Jewish society. What happened? Jews fled their communities and halacha (Jewish Law) as fast as they could, until we get to where we are today, with a 71 percent intermarriage rate among the non-Orthodox in America, and where the fastest growing group among Millennials is the “nones” (those who identify as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular”).

Diaspora Jewish organizations have for years been obsessed with “maintenance,” pulling out all the stops at their disposal to stem that tide. Controversial Israeli initiatives like Mosaic United have jumped into the fray as well.

They will never succeed.

Because here’s the thing: assimilation into a welcoming wider society is absolutely natural, utterly inevitable and totally unstoppable. It’s happened to every other religious community that comes in contact with the West; there’s no reason the Jews should be any different.

If that’s the case, we need to accept and embrace the changing nature of the Jewish Diaspora and stop vilifying people for simply doing what’s normal under the circumstances – including dating and marrying outside the faith. That means opening up whole heartedly to non-Jewish partners, reconsidering patrilineal descent for all Jews and easing conversion for those who want it.

Israel, by contrast, represents the next iteration of the classic Jewish shtetl. While that’s a description the country’s Zionist founders would be loath to hear, think about it: the shtetl thrived because it was a cloistered society where everyone was Jewish.

Isn’t that what Israel is today?

(I’m not discounting Israel’s 20 percent of non-Jewish citizens, but intermarriage between the communities is so small, it doesn’t play into the Jewish State’s demographic future.)

Back in the European shtetl, other than a few scholars and community leaders, most Jews didn’t spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about the nuances of keeping kosher or what was or was not permissible on Shabbat. They did what their neighbors did; observed how their parents and grandparents observed.

Israel has taken that concept and secularized it. Most Israelis don’t think a whole lot about what it means to be Jewish or whether their children will marry out. They just live their lives as Jews – or rather as Israelis.

Citizenship has replaced Jewish Law as the defining attribute of the new Jewish shtetl. Halacha has been transformed into nationality without observance. And that’s just as natural, inevitable and unstoppable as assimilation in the West.

It’s not without its downsides. Secular Israelis have forgotten too much of their Jewish heritage. (Non-coercive programs to reverse that trend are certainly welcome.)

Nor is it black and white. Not everyone in Israel is secular – indeed, the same demographic direction among the Orthodox in America is happening in Israel too.

To be clear, neither the new Jewish shtetl in Israel nor the open Jewish Diaspora in the West is somehow “better” than the other. My wife and I opted for the shtetl; most of our friends and family did not. No one was “right” or “wrong.”

That does put the two communities on somewhat of a collision course. But they can learn from and help each other.

Shtetl Israelis would benefit from more exposure to the pluralism and universalism that defines the majority of Judaism in the Diaspora. And Diaspora Jews should keep sending their kids on Taglit-Birthright programs to get a concentrated kick of what modern shtetl Judaism feels like.

Ironically, the way some Orthodox groups are trying to keep their Jewish character today is by recreating an idealized version of the European shtetl of 200 years ago.

It won’t work: the dual pulls of western assimilation and Israeli nationalism are too strong and, over time, will break down even the strongest walls. Demography is not destiny. The Orthodox surge Cohen describes is not sustainable.

Those looking for an authentic shtetl would be better off taking the plunge into the real thing: modern Israel.

I went back to the shtetl originally over at The Jerusalem Post.

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Can religion boost your immune system?

by Brian on January 13, 2017

in Food,Health,Science

Thomas B. EllisWhen I was young, I remember being taught that the laws of kashrut derived from a pre-modern understanding of hygiene. Pigs were “dirty” and you took the risk of contracting trichinosis if you ate raw or undercooked pork.

Keeping kosher, as a result, was a way of staying healthier. Indeed, today even non-Jews will buy food with kosher certification because of the perception that it’s more nutritious.

As I grew older, that simplistic explanation gave way to a more Talmudic approach: there were no medical or scientific reasons why we should eat cows and carp but not pigs or kangaroos. Rather, keeping kosher was a deliberately inscrutable sign of our faith and devotion to God.

But what if that first idea was actually right? What if kashrut does have its roots in helping us avoid illness?

To go one step further, is it possible that religion in general developed in part as a pre-conscious strategy to help humans steer clear of disease?

That’s the thesis of Thomas B. Ellis, a professor in the department of philosophy and religion at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Ellis was in Jerusalem last week to present a talk on “The Immunology of Religion” at the third “Judaism and Evolution” conference, held at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Populations living close to the equator or closer to sea level, he told the conference attendees, tend to suffer from greater numbers of infectious diseases. Spend any time in South and Southeast Asia, for example, and you know the risk of getting sick from all manner of parasites, mosquitos and food-borne maladies.

In order to strengthen their immunity, Ellis says, humans in these areas have historically formed tight knit “collectivist” groups which strictly prohibit eating or sleeping with members of another group. The Indian caste system as it was originally conceived is perhaps the epitome of keeping people of different groups apart.

These “breeding isolates,” as Ellis calls them, block disease transmission and help those in the group boost their immunity against outside illnesses, giving them an advantage over groups from another valley, for example, that might not have developed the same resistance to local diseases. Over many generations, it can even alter DNA, Ellis adds.

The Middle East, where Judaism first developed, was in the past warmer and wetter than it is today “and thus more conducive to an infectious disease ecology,” Ellis says. It’s not surprising that a collectivist approach took hold here too.

Religious practice, Ellis asserts, developed organically on the back of this immunologically-savvy group organization. Early religious leaders weren’t aware of the public health benefits on which they were building their new spiritual systems. They hadn’t developed a science of how germs work.

But like physical evolution, the evolution of ideas doesn’t require conscious thought. Dogs learn to stay away from parasite-infected meat through natural selection. The dog doesn’t “think” about what it’s doing.

Religious customs could have evolved similarly.

Jewish Law – which has much to say about what you can eat and with whom you can sleep – is in many ways the philosophical descendent of millennia of trial and error honed first while fighting disease.

In this respect, the halacha mandating abstention from pork is not because the pig itself is inherently unhealthy or “impure.” Rather, it’s a byproduct of a bigger system that aims to strengthen physical fitness by relying on boundaries between religious groups.

Ellis presented another example of how religious customs act to inadvertently promote immunological health: the blood sacrifice.

Like many ancient societies, the Jewish Temple was awash with animals being killed as part of religious ritual. Today most of us see that as barbaric. But Ellis argues that watching the blood and guts of animal sacrifice is intrinsically stressful – and that’s a good thing.

While chronic or long-term stress has been shown to depress the immune system, “acute or short-term stress…can enhance innate and adaptive immune responses,” according to Stanford researcher Firdaus Dhabhar. Seeing blood apparently tells the body to get prepared to fight off a trauma that could be coming its way.

“Does killing a chicken actually cure people?” Ellis asked. “No. But watching a blood sacrifice is a non-pharmacological way of upregulating your immune system and the immune systems of people around you.”

It helps explain why so many religions call for some sort of blood sacrifice when someone gets sick. Among the Torah’s prescriptions for curing leprosy, for example, is sacrifice.

Ellis’s hypotheses can help us understand our past, but what about the future? We don’t need to watch an animal being slaughtered to boost our immune systems today; we have drugs and vaccines for that. Ditto on not eating or sleeping with people outside our group – science and modern hygiene have that covered too.

Has religion reached the end of its usefulness, then? Hardly.

Ellis also spoke at the conference about the value of religious practice as a technique to mitigate another classic chronic stressor: uncertainty (something we have in abundance these days). And religion, of course, has evolved to be about far more than just health.

But if we take seriously the latest understandings into the possible immunological origins of religious law and ritual, it may very well change the modern Jew’s commitment to some of the stringencies of halacha or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, lead us to generate new reasons for why we continue to do what we do in the light of science.

I first wrote about Tom Ellis and the immunology of religion at The Jerusalem Post.

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chuck-davidson-wedding-in-israelRabbi Chuck Davidson is on a holy mission to end the Israeli Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage.

Nearly every night of the week, Davidson conducts wedding ceremonies that the rabbinate deems “illegal.” His goal: to get arrested.

That’s the only way, he says, to force the courts to rule on what he considers one of the greatest absurdities in the clash between religion and state – where if a couple marries in a Jewish ceremony that’s not registered through the rabbinate, both the couple and the rabbi that married them can face up to a two-year prison sentence.

“It simply can’t be that a Jewish act like getting married is criminal in the only Jewish state,” Davidson says.

I got to know the renegade Orthodox rabbi while writing about my own daughter’s wedding that bypassed the rabbinate. I wanted to know if she was in any danger of being arrested herself.

“Yes,” Davidson told me, “but the chances are miniscule. Imagine what would happen if the police arrested a young couple for getting married. The rabbinate is not that stupid.”

Davidson says that the current law – which came into effect only two and a half years ago – is really intended to scare off other Orthodox rabbis from going around the rabbinate.

It’s worked.

“There are only two Orthodox rabbis left that will conduct a wedding ceremony outside the rabbinate above the radar, and I’m one of them,” Davidson says. “There are a few others who will do it, but only rarely and very quietly.”

The U.S.-born Davidson, who moved to Israel in 1991 and lives today in Beit Shemesh, is anything but quiet.

He first broke into the news with the establishment of the Giyur Ke’Halacha alternative conversion court, an idea he says he pushed for five mostly fruitless years until finally Rabbis Shlomo Riskin, David Stav and Nachum Rabinovitch signed on.

Giyur Ke’Halacha adopts a friendlier, less rigid approach to conversion that is still compliant with Jewish Law.

Weddings were a logical next step.

“When they passed the change in the wedding law, that was a red line for me,” Davidson says. “I immediately started doing weddings.”

When Davidson officiates at a wedding, he doesn’t charge – after all, how would he give out formal receipts? “It’s kind of hard to open a ‘criminal business,’” he says, only somewhat jokingly.

Word is spreading – mainly through word of mouth and the Internet – so much so that Davidson says he now has another rabbi “who’s agreed to join me” to help handle the volume of requests.

While Davidson doesn’t expect my daughter or any of the other couples he’s married to ever get arrested, he is concerned “that the rabbinate could take revenge on a couple’s kids. The rabbinate could, for example, call into question the Jewishness of the children” of a couple marrying outside its auspices, “even though there is absolutely no basis in Jewish Law for this.”

This already is happening for couples who wish to marry through the rabbinate but whose parents were wed overseas.

In such cases, “it doesn’t matter if it was an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform ceremony,” Davidson says. “For the rabbinate to register you, they have to call a special investigative court.”

The court will ask to see your parent’s ketubah (marriage contract) and, if you were married by a non-Orthodox rabbi, you may be asked for more documentation – all the way up to pictures of family members’ tombstones to “prove” you’re Jewish, Davidson says. It can take months.

“The whole process is very degrading,” he adds.

Davidson became Orthodox in the 1980s, pointing out that, “if I were getting married today in Israel, I might be declared not Jewish myself because my parents were married by a Conservative rabbi.”

My daughter could very well have been put in the same position if she’d contacted the rabbinate.

My wife and I got hitched in a fully Orthodox ceremony in the U.S. There was nothing egalitarian in it, no women said sheva brachot and the dancing was strictly segregated. By the rabbi who married us, who 40 years ago adopted an Orthodox lifestyle, received his ordination from the Reform movement.

Despite avoiding the rabbinate, my daughter is registered with the Interior Ministry as “married” – she and her husband had a civil ceremony in Cyprus beforehand. Many couples don’t go that extra step, opting to live under the category of yeduah b’tzibur – Hebrew for a common law marriage.

Davidson is not a big fan.

“I personally think the institution of common law marriage is not healthy on a societal level,” Davidson says. “No one knows who’s married to whom. You could conceivably be married to three or four people. It can create polygamy. I’m in favor of chaos regarding religion and state, but not societal chaos.”

Davidson’s chaos is all about breaking the rabbinate’s monopoly. While Davidson is doing his best – including trying to get arrested – to force the issue, he concedes that ultimately it’s up to the Orthodox establishment to heal itself.

“What’s missing is the destruction from within,” he says. “There are Orthodox rabbis who despise the rabbinate but are afraid to do anything. That’s the piece I seek to fill.”

Read more about breaking the rabbinate’s monopoly at The Jerusalem Post.

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The blessing of the broken toe

December 8, 2016

Three days before our daughter’s wedding, my wife Jody broke her toe. She dropped a large plata (a hot plate we use to warm food on Shabbat) on her foot. The toe turned purple and I rushed Jody to the nearest Terem emergency center for an X-ray and some advice on proper bandaging. After the […]

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Wedding in Cyprus – the modern Zionist irony

November 28, 2016

When my daughter Merav married her high school sweetheart Gabe last month, the date they set for their wedding just happened to come out on the 22nd anniversary of our family’s aliyah. When we made the decision to move to Israel, one of our greatest hopes was that our children would find nice Jewish Israelis […]

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When God offers you a raft, take it

November 16, 2016

My wife Jody and I recently spent a relaxing weekend at a small vacation bungalow in Poriah, a moshav overlooking the Sea of Galilee, with our friends David and Shelley. On Friday afternoon we had a few hours to kill before we needed to get ready for Shabbat and we wanted to go on a […]

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How are you still Jewish?

November 11, 2016

I didn’t go to synagogue this Yom Kippur. To be frank, I didn’t even fully fast. My ongoing rebellion against religion has turned into a full-fledged insurrection. As my wife Jody left the house without me for Kol Nidre, she turned and said, “I can understand that Jewish Law and prayer don’t speak to you […]

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Lowest common denominator

November 6, 2016

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu buckled under haredi pressure in September and canceled 20 long standing Israel Railways permits to do regularly scheduled repair work on Shabbat (leading to the cancelation of train service the following Sunday morning that inconvenienced tens of thousands of commuters and soldiers), he probably wasn’t thinking it would reignite Israel’s […]

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