“Half-Shabbos”

The Jewish world was briefly aflutter again with the recent exposure of what some of our youth have termed “half-Shabbos.” It is a more “casual” observance of Shabbat, involving the adherence to most Shabbat laws but not all. Teens being teens (and today’s teens have lost the capacity to talk using their mouths and actual words), some will text each other on Shabbat, texting being the most prevalent form of communication, or otherwise access the internet.

I received “honorable mention” in the initial article on this imbroglio in a secular Jewish tabloid having written on the subject of “Orthopraxy:” “Children will text each other in stealth. Their divine service is external; if no human being sees them, it is as if it hasn’t happened.” Of course, I wrote this in March 2010, which is more than 15 months ago, so it is not exactly a new phenomenon. Nor did I write with any first-hand knowledge of the matter. I had only heard such reports, did not know how widespread it was, and spoke about it (then) to our teenagers in shul. Many indicated they had heard of it also; none confessed to doing it him/herself.

As is typical, the response to the article was sheer panic, eliciting the “where did we go wrong?” mantra, the “how could they – don’t they know how expensive Yeshiva education is?” trope, and the frequent lament of the failures of Modern Orthodoxy, etc.

I was a little more sanguine about the matter when it was publicized several weeks ago, perhaps because I addressed it long ago, but also because I think the issue is not necessarily rebellion (in some cases, it probably is) but primarily ignorance. And ignorance is easier to deal with than rebellion. Some perspective is in order, because, as always, the anecdotes are worse than the data. The data show that less approximately 17% of students who attend a Modern Orthodox high school are not fully observing Shabbat. Sad but true, until we ascertain how many do not come from observant homes? Answer: roughly 10%. Many of these teenagers may be simply embracing their parents’ level of observance. And of those who do come from Orthodox homes, what is the parents’ level of observance – not in public but in private – behind closed doors, where there might be a television, a radio, a computer, or an I-phone that do not always remain shut on Shabbat. Nor is this problem limited to the “Modern Orthodox” community.

There are many parents who observe “half-Shabbos” as well – as if Shabbat ends after shul and one can then don casual dress (Dockers and sneakers) and engage in activities that, if not outright Torah prohibitions, are certainly uvdin d’chol – weekday matters. But the way we walk, talk, dress and act on Shabbat has to be different – for all of Shabbat, not just half of it. And, for sure, parents who come late to shul and converse during the davening do not increase their child’s respect for tefila or the Bet Knesset by any measure.

So what are we talking about ? In some cases, children who don’t learn from their parents, and in other cases, children who learn too well from their parents. And we will never know in any individual case. What we do know is that the Gemara says (Nida 31a) that there are three partners, three contributors, to every human being – father and mother provide the physical components and G-d provides the soul and the spirit (life force). Every thing that follows is a consequence of what the parents invest in their children. Too often, we expect our children to be miniature reflections of ourselves, and embrace our looks, personalities, world-views, religiosity and behavior. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. But parents cannot bequeath their religious level to their children – as in a common refrain: “just be like me, not more frum, not less frum. Be like me!” Life is not that simple.

What is sometimes missing from Torah education – both school and home? The internal experience that cannot be taught but only absorbed. The Gemara says (Brachot 7b) in relation to the study of Torah from a teacher that attending to one’s teacher is more important than learning from him; developing a personal relationship has a greater impact than the book knowledge one will acquire. We seem to know that, but we forget it, and we don’t implement it as often as we should. We can learn a lot from books – and we do – but we learn more from people.

We have cultivated a climate where our focus is – on the highest level – finding out what to do, as if all of Torah is just a “how-to” booklet or a “how-not-to” manual – how not eat treif, how not to desecrate Shabbos, “how to appear to be davening,” “how to hold a lulav, etc. We are great at transmitting the external experience of Torah, but not as proficient at conveying the internal experience – but without the internal experience, the externals begin to unravel, until people choose what works for them (and for as long as it works for them) and reject what doesn’t work for them. We cannot long transmit an observance of mitzvot that is technically proficient but is lifeless, and does not animate the soul.

That internal experience cannot be adequately or accurately spelled out in a lesson plan, nor can it be obtained from a book, but only through prolonged exposure to a qualified Torah teacher – and especially through parents. And parents transmit this not through doing or saying anything particular but through a lifetime of observance and commitment.

Certainly, it still surprises me that yeshivot do not emphasize the fundamentals of Judaism. When I spoke to our teens about these matters, I sensed that few knew the philosophical underpinnings of the laws of Shabbat; hence the conclusion: “if I communicate through speech or through texting, what’s the difference?” There is a huge difference, as on Shabbat we commemorate G-d’s creation of the universe by abstaining from any technologically creative acts ourselves. To unlock the riddle is to give meaning to the entire structure.

But it is far easier to obsess on externals and superficial matters, which has become the bane of Jewish life. Too many people look the same – wear the same outfits – as if there is an official uniform of the male Jew beyond tzitzit and kippa. We learn the reality to our chagrin. We can wear the costume of the frum, but that is not the same as being frum. Even psychos, murderers and thieves can wear the costume of the frum.

     Undoubtedly some teens are just rebelling, as teens are wont to do, but statistics – anecdotes and data – inform the extent of our successes and not just the occasional failure. We are mostly successful in transmitting the mesora to the next generation. We mourn every failure, to be sure, but even someone who knows how to swim can still drown. Nevertheless, we still teach our children to swim. But we must teach them Torah in a way that reflects the depth and substance of Torah, in a way that shapes their inner world and does not merely control their external conduct, and in a way that enables them to enjoy, benefit and see the beauty of G-d’s word.

     Yehoshua was selected as Moshe’ successor because he absorbed the personality of his master, served him faithfully, and related to Moshe’s outer and inner worlds. If we want our children to fully embrace the Torah, we have to provide them both with the internals and externals of Torah – the sounds and the earthquakes of Torah, but also the thin, small voice that shapes our inner world and heralds the presence of G-d in our lives.

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4 responses to ““Half-Shabbos”

  1. Well discussed and well argued.

    As for teaching the “fundamentals of Judaism,” I would fully agree except that there are precious few sources for doing so. I am personally enthralled by R’ Hirsch’s “Nineteen Letters” and the Sefer Hachinuch, but I can’t imagine that those works would necessarily inspire many of today’s youth. It’s much easier to teach a blatt gemara than to teach the Kuzari, even assuming that the rebbe himself has read and understood it. Understanding the “fundamentals of Judaism” has been a task undertaken by giants of each generation, and I don’t know that it’s possible to reduce them to a curriculum even for the best and brightest, let alone the average student. The need to inculcate a love for mitzvot at home, however, cannot be overemphasized, as you noted.

  2. lintfarmingjb

    I totally agree that it’s important for teens to learn the why in addition to the how. In my limited experience, it’s also essential that they have a real shabbos experience. Even kids from homes where the parents “keep” shabbos and don’t always get a shabbos “experience” can be inspired by being invited into someone else’s home.

    About six years ago I saw this first-hand in Far Rockaway. While I came from a traditional MO home, there was one guy in the community who seemed to attract just about everyone on Friday night. He had literally 20-30 people at his shabbos meals. He wasn’t doing anything out of the box, he was providing great food, absolutely no judgement and incredible warmth. The meal wasn’t flooded by divray torah and there was a lot of singing and most importantly laughing. These meals often went into the wee hours of the morning as teens, both those “on the track” and “off the track” further packed the table to the tune of about 40 people by midnight.

    I know this isn’t typical, but it speaks to a warmth and emotional need that today’s teens demand. This is about more than the occasional kumzits,. it’s a lifestyle. One that I’m trying to foster in my own home.

  3. Rav Hirsch’s book is excellent but there are others in a more modern idiom. Rav Emanuel Feldman wrote “On Judaism” in a similar style, Rav Mordechai Katz wrote “Understanding Judaism,” and I give out a book to our Bnai Mitzva called “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” by Rav Shmuel Waldman. All are available and recommended.
    -RSP

  4. Jordan Hirsch

    Rabbi Pruzansky, I am quick to disagree with you when I feel you are mistaken. Let me be just as quick to agree with you and thank you for your excellent perspective on this issue.