Monday, June 27, 2011

Torah or Technology

An obsessive preoccupation among many modern orthodox rabbis and educators is dealing with the slackening of Sabbath observance among many of its member’s progeny. Not surprisingly many young modern orthodox people today are using electricity on Shabbat, perhaps not in the traditional sense of turning lights on and off, or operating electrical equipment but text messaging. For many of these young people, staying connected in this manner is a life style choice that they choose not to disconnect from, even on the Shabbat. Many of them not wishing to see themselves as desecrating the Shabbat refer to their observance of “half Shabbat” rather than “whole Shabbat,” mitigating the ostensible sin (I am aware of half hallel and half kaddish, but half Shabbat is something new). Some community psychologists aware of this phenomenon treat it at an addiction thereby relieving the young people of their responsibility, as well as minimizing the failure of the educational/religious institutions. The fact that this has become an issue within the modern orthodox community is indicative of the continued erosion of their viability.

For years modern orthodoxy has been unfortunately but unavoidably on the denouement. Its apex was from 1960 through the early 1980’s, with a downward trajectory from the mid 1980’s onward. This was inevitable because within modern orthodoxy were the seeds of its own destruction sown unwittingly by its founder, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik. By suggesting that one can be fully engaged in society as a halachically observant Jew and at the same time embrace secular education is a prescription for conflict and failure. The two value systems are mutually exclusive and cannot with any integrity dovetail.

If the purpose for attending college is solely to gain a profession with never the intention to engage in the peripheral arts and humanities available than the conflict is at a minimal. But then again, if that is all the person is coming away with is a profession, than how is that person different than a tailor, plumber or butcher of the pre war Eastern European shtetel. He’s in effect a tradesman, because his skills are limited, lacking the critical intellectual skills necessary for understanding the wider world. On the other hand, if one enters university with the intent of acquiring a profession but in addition wishing in earnest to be exposed to the full panoply of western culture than he is subjecting his modern orthodox value system to challenges that may not be able to withstand the probing questions arising from critical analysis.

A student fully engaged in western ideas and values is proscribed from fully embracing the demands of torah values. These two value systems are tectonic plates butting up against each other with only one able to gain primacy. They clash because each one represents different, incompatible and irreconcilable value systems. Orthodox Judaism rests fully on faith in a creator, the divinity of the Torah as well as the oral tradition. Western value systems rest on philosophic and scientific inquiry where every assumption can and will be tested and examined from every possible angle. It is a value system, which traded faith for science and philosophy; it is the combination of scientific and philosophical inquiry, which has given us this prosperous society, bestowing upon western man, increased dignity, healthier living, and quality of life.
This then is the legacy of western civilization, which modern Orthodox Judaism is hopelessly struggling to engage. For the custodians of modern orthodoxy to preoccupy themselves with youth texting on Shabbat is missing the point entirely. Texting on Shabbat is merely a symptom of a much greater problem these young people are struggling with: the awareness that they have arrived at the threshold of understanding the clash between two societies, two irreconcilable world views, two tectonic value systems pitted against each other.

The true issue isn’t texting or whether they are observing half or whole Shabbat as much has the underlying realization that these young people are products of the 21st century, a generation of children raised totally on and by technology, who not only value it but embrace it. Texting is no more of an addiction than reading used to be an addiction. It isn’t fair to expect from our young people to remain in a state of suspended animation, dangling out there, paralyzed with the inability to choose between the old and the new, Torah or technology. To be sure many will be packed of to yeshivot in Israel for their gap year: some will return home super religious, others will struggle with their faith. What isn’t clear is the percentages. What is clear is that Modern Orthodoxy is on the steady continuum of decline.