11/01/2010

Half Shabbos, Big-Tent Orthodoxy, Texting, and eBooks

About two months ago, R. Dr. Alan Brill wrote about a phenomenon called "Half Shabbos," which describes Orthodox kids who text on Shabbat. The distinction between "half" and "full" Shabbat has been around for a while, but as part of the vocabulary of the Syrian community. This was the first I had heard of it penetrating to the J-dubs as well.

That this type of vocabulary existed among Sephardim before Ashkenazim world should be no surprise, and might actually be somewhat encouraging from the perspective of Orthodoxy. Sephardic communities never experienced the fragmentation that Ashkenazic communities did, and so even though there was and is a spectrum of observance in the Sephardic world, there was never any secessionism or denominationalism. In this sense, even if we agree with R. Brill, against Gil and Heshy, that "half Shabbos" is a new phenomenon, it might mean that Orthodoxy has become more tolerant of non-observance in its ranks as much as it might mean that there is increasing non-observance in its ranks. In other words, there may or may not be a greater attrition rate from Orthodox observance, but even those people who give up observance are increasingly likely to remain within the Orthodox orbit. I saw a lot of this during my years at UMD.


I believe that these are the first stages of a return to a "Big Tent Orthodoxy" - an (ironic) Orthodoxy that will be far more welcoming and tolerant of a wide swath of observances and ideologies, or lack thereof. Not in the kiruv-y love-bombing way, but in the Sephardi (and certain brands of non-American non-Israeli Judaism; or pre-WWII American Orthodoxy) way that simply acknowledges that everyone entitled to a place in shul without having to undergo a tzitzis check.

The return to Big Tent Orthodoxy will have halakhic ramifications as well, as Big Tent halakha functions vastly differently from secessionist halakha (see the fantastic ongoing series by Ben Chorin for more on that, though five minutes in Israel should convinve anyone of the basic truth of the assertion).

I'm afraid, though, that sending text messages on Shabbat will never be given a hetter. Even if all the arguments about low voltages and non-grounded sources are accepted (see the comments on the Brill link above), writing text messages is writing (I would argue, based on a Ran in Masechet Shabbat, that the more ubiquitous texting becomes as a form of written communication, the more of a melekhet machshevet it becomes, which overcomes the fact that the letters are stored as binary bits; this is beyond the scope of the present post, though). Ebooks, on the other hand, like the kind you read on a Kindle or Ipad, I can see some eventual hetter for, especially as the printed word will be almost completely replaced in the next generation.
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