Unplugging On The Sabbath
By AUSTIN CONSIDINE • New York Times
THE Fourth Commandment doesn’t specifically mention TweetDeck or Facebook. Observing the Sabbath 3,000 years ago was more about rest and going easy on one’s family — servants and oxen included.
But if Moses were redelivering his theophany today — the assembled crowd furiously tweeting his every sound bite — one imagines the frustrated prophet’s taking a moment to clarify what God meant, exactly, by a “day of rest.”
For starters, how about putting down the iPhone? Easier said than done in an age when careers rise and fall on the strength of one’s Twitter prowess. But that’s exactly what a group of Jewish tastemakers is trying to promote this weekend with its first annual National Day of Unplugging.
The experiment, which lasts from sundown Friday, March 19, to sundown Saturday, is the brainchild of Reboot (rebooters.net), a nonprofit think tank of hip, media-savvy Jewish professionals, based in New York, with staff members in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was founded in 2003, and its members include television executives, Web developers, writers, filmmakers and C.E.O.’s: people for whom the act of “unplugging” could well be most difficult — and most needed.
Jill Soloway, a Los Angeles-based writer, television producer (“United States of Tara,” “Six Feet Under”) and mother of two, said that unplugging for a day was “next to excruciating,” particularly since she got an iPhone about a year ago. “Somebody once said to me that a computer fits with anxiety like a lock in a key,” she said. “And that’s exactly right. You have an anxious moment out in your life, or in your world, and you want a little hit, and your e-mail can do that.”
Organizers hope the day of unplugging will draw attention to Reboot’s “Sabbath Manifesto”: a set of 10 “core principles” introduced earlier this year to guide tradition-seekers in ways that are meaningful in an information-driven world. Dan Rollman, president and a founder of the Web site Universal Record Database (urdb.com), which tracks its own set of “world records,” conceived the manifesto at a 2008 Reboot retreat, in part to “reinvent the Jewish ritual and make Judaism a little more modern and contemporary.”
“The topic that was on my mind was whether there was room for a weekly day of rest within our increasingly hectic lives,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I was feeling like, as we were getting more and more plugged-in, and our interactive experience was getting richer, there was something that was disappearing as well.”
The manifesto’s guidelines were written in broad terms to leave it open to nonpracticing Jews, and even non-Jews, Mr. Rollman said. “Nobody wanted those rules to be like, ‘We should insist that everybody goes back to synagogue.’ ” Instead, the manifesto offers instructions like “avoid technology,” “find silence” and “drink wine.”
“There was a very conscious decision made in creating these principles to write them using the most plain, simple language possible, and to make them open for vast interpretation,” Mr. Rollman said. He cited an example of a person who uses a cellphone to call grandchildren, noting that rules like “connect with loved ones” and “avoid technology” could mean different things to different people.
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove, of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, said the idea of unplugging for the Sabbath was “incredibly important.”
“As a rabbi, and as a contemporary American, never before in my life has there been such an awareness of the way that technology and contemporary culture have a tug at every aspect of our being,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “I don’t think we’re aware of the manner in which technological innovation is changing the way we think and read, the way we process information, the way we engage in relationships with meaning." Unplugging for a day was “a powerful action in the face of a fast-paced way of living,” he added.
“The Sabbath has some really important lessons for how we live our life and use our time,” said Judith Shulevitz, whose book, “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time,” is to be published this month.
Ms. Shulevitz said Reboot’s organizers had “done a really good job of boiling down some of the points that are made through Sabbath law for the secular world.” Among them was the contemporary act of unplugging, a rule she and her family strictly observe every Sabbath by turning off all electronic devices.
Reboot’s organizers are promoting the National Day of Unplugging via (what else?) Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. But the manifesto also emphasizes direct personal interaction. As such, Reboot has planned intimate gatherings this weekend in New York and Los Angeles, where members will dine and share their views on the manifesto. Cellphones must be checked at the door, where they’ll “sleep” in miniature sleeping bags.
Mr. Rollman said he estimated a few hundred people around the world would participate in various ways, but hoped the hype would increase those numbers in coming years. Observers are being encouraged to share their experiences online at the Sabbath Manifesto Web site (sabbathmanifesto.org) once the day is over.
Ms. Soloway, who has tried to unplug on the Sabbath for several years, said there was something about preserving “the dignity of one day” each week that was compelling on an emotional level.
“The need to be in two places at once, to me, is like the birth of this anxious feeling among everybody in our culture,” she said. “You can take six days for your relentless ambition, but you can take one of those days and say, ‘O.K., I have done enough.’ ”