Thursday, December 23, 2010

Can you curl up with an e-book on Shabbat?

In a great piece, The Atlantic asks how Orthodox Jews are being affected by the rise (and rise) of the Kindle. As the reading device becomes standard, what are the yidden going to read on Shabbat?

Some, of course, claim that there are halachic arguments which would allow one to use the Kindle on Shabbat, but the majority seem to agree that even if it is technically permitted (and most people think it is not), using a Kindle violates the spirit of the day. And it certainly seems that at the moment, at least, frum Jews are treating the Kindle as if it is assur (forbidden) on Shabbat, even if the halachic arguments are still being hashed out.

According to the Atlantic, many Orthodox people are actually refraining from buying a Kindle because most of their reading takes place on Shabbat and they therefore have no use for it. Others simply revert to physical books despite using a Kindle during the week. Some wonder whether, with time, the Kindle will become acceptable - with the halachic arguments permitting its use gaining ground - because books will have become obsolete:

Fox thinks that if the Orthodox community comes to reevaluate its stance on electricity use on the Sabbath, it won't be a reaction to e-readers alone but rather a result of our homes, in the next 50 to 75 years, becoming so thoroughly wired that Jews will be left with no choice but to use electronic devices.

Nevins sees parallels between contemporary discussions about electronic devices and the Conservative movement's decision in the 1950s (when the automobile and television were the new technologies) to permit driving to synagogue on the Sabbath.

"As Jews were moving to the suburbs ... we said we're going to lose everyone if we don't let them drive to synagogue," he says. "To some extent it was true because people would drive one way or the other but, on the other hand, making peace with [driving to synagogue] formally undermined an ideal we have, which was the neighborhood community. There is a similar danger here. If we become too relaxed about this we could lose the distinctive flavor of Shabbat."

Now I don't really have any clear cut answers to how attitudes are likely to evolve in the future - only time will tell - but here are some initial thoughts.

1. Much of this depends on how the Kindle will develop. At the moment it's just a device for reading books and we are basically unsure whether it falls (emotionally as much as anything else) into the category of "fancy book" or "technology" - ie whether it poses a "danger" to the boundaries of Shabbat, and its spirit, or not. The fact is that even though I don't know anyone who uses a Kindle on Shabbat, I hear plenty of people debating whether it's allowed.
But just as the cellphone is suddenly also a camera and a music-player and a computer, it seems to me likely that Kindles and the like will also develop other uses - playing video, for example, or allowing readers to 'write' notes on the sides of the books, etc. At that point, it will fall much more clearly into the category of "technology", and our attitudes towards it might crystalise.

2. It's hard not to think of this issue in the context of the debate over 'half-Shabbos' - the teens today, across the entire Orthodox spectrum, who text and Tweet on Shabbat and yet still consider themselves (semi-) observant. If, in a decade or two's time, printed books really do become the exception; if tomorrow's youngsters really have no experience handling a proper book, they might simply perform whatever mental gymnastic they see necessary to allow themselves to continue using Kindles on Shabbat without removing themselves from the observant community, much as they have with texting. In this sense, the attitude towards Kindles might turn out to be generational. The youngsters who can't function without one will find ways/excuses to use it; the oldies (like me...) will revert back to "real" books, which they are in any case far more comfortable with, on Shabbat. Of course, with time, the norms set by the youngsters will naturally prevail.

3. The real radical scenario? If Kindles continue to be verbotten, but no one's comfortable reverting back to old-fashioned books any more, perhaps Jews will just not be able to read on Shabbat. In that case, two words: board games.

No comments: