Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Baby Steps toward Shabbat

Mrs. Yid and I are, if not "huge" comic nerds, then at least seasoned readers. Our college was lucky enough to have a long-established comic book reading room and we both spent many pleasant hours there reading whatever caught our fancy (in fact I think one of our first awkward conversations happened there. If memory serves I was attempting to ask her what she was going to be doing over the summer. Not surprisingly, she was more interested in reading her book). In the five years post-college, we've diligently acquired a small collection of favorites that proudly adorn two large shelves on our biggest bookcase (titles upon request).

The reason I bring this up is that while comics often give me food for thought, rarely do they inspire me towards an act of religious observance.

Mrs. Yid recently bought and started re-reading Transmetropolitan, an excellently-written series about a foul-mouthed reporter named Spider Jerusalem living in a semi-distant future that's, well, it sure ain't Star Trek, for starters. While the future has technological wonders ranging from matter synthesizers to clones to androids to amazing medicine, the City, where Jerusalem lives (a dig at the fact that every large city thinks it's the only city in the country) is for the most part a teeming mass of greed, filth, and sleaze. Despite having brilliant technology, the bulk of people's time seems to still be focused on the same old issues of violence, drugs, sex, and mindless TV. (It really is a great read, although I'd classify the language and themes as NSFShul.)

One thing I had been thinking of the last week while thumbing through Transmet is that while Warren Ellis' future is clearly exaggerated for effect, in the 15 years since he originally started the series, we have continued to have incredible leaps forward in technology. We may not have machines that give you food out of thin air or surgical procedures to transfer someone's consciousness into a cloud of nanites (read the books!) but in terms of where technology is and where it's going, it's clear that we're whizzing right along. One area where this is readily apparent is in the sphere of entertainment. It is possible to be completely plugged in 24/7-- and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, for me, anyway, the fact that technology makes so much media available also means that I need to make sure that I'm making some active choices about what I will and won't spend my time on.

This is part of the reason why though Abbot and Deacon Yid have been nudging me to get a smart phone (they ordered theirs last week), I keep resisting. I have structured my life in a way where I don't particularly require a smart phone. My commute is a 25-minute walk each way. My job requires me to be "on" for 8 hours a day with three 20-minute breaks. Once I'm home, I have access to the internet if I need it. That's it. That's my day. There's almost no down time, which can be a little tiring, but it also means I don't really spend any time sitting around "bored" and needing to be entertained by a smart phone. And really, I rather like that.

Here's where things segue into Shabbat.

Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, Mrs. Yid and I decided it was time to finally start actually doing some text study together. So we ordered some bibles. Or rather, in our typical overly-academic way, we ordered six bibles. For the past two Friday nights, after dinner and candles and kiddush, we have sat down with our six bibles, and we've studied the weekly parsha. It's interesting, it's stimulating, and it's fun. Last week we went for three hours.

So we've got the very early germinations of some text study, and that's good. But we've been discussing another piece, still in its embryonic stage. Namely, how should liberal Jews treat Shabbat as a day of rest?

One piece we discussed was the halacha. We don't really hold by halacha, but it's always good to have the background. A really important element that came up was the fact that in order to not have to cook on Shabbat, you have to have a significant amount of preparation beforehand-- which, while following the letter of the law, struck us as being a little odd-- work a ton on Thursday and Friday because you're not allowed to work on Shabbat. Not exactly restful. So we decided that "no fire or electricity" is not going to be our main focus, because that would inherently create more work, not less.

However, we were intrigued by the concept of making Shabbat special and distinct. I had recently read a HuffPo article advocating an electronic "day of rest." (I was actually surprised by how much backlash it generated.) As we discussed it further, we discovered that the idea of limiting electronic entertainment on Shabbat was actually somewhat appealing. I tried it on Rosh Hashanah afternoon after shul, and while it was a bit of a temptation, I also  enjoyed spending some time doing non-screen related activities. So I think we're going to try this for a while-- no TV, no computers, basically no glowy-boxes. And we'll see where it goes.

I like the idea of carving some time out for human-to-human contact. I like making a space for slowing things down-- maybe not to the point of Heschel's Cathedral in Time, but at least a bit of a change from 24/7 infotainment explosion. I like the idea of spending time with my wife or friends and keeping my focus on them. And I think Mrs. Yid and I both like the idea of starting something that we can continue to develop when we have spawn running around.

There are plenty of things we are going to keep in place as is. Unfortunately, at this stage given our scheduling differences, it isn't quite possible to rule out running random errands on Saturdays, so in that respect it still will involve a certain degree of "work." We also won't be turning off our (non-smart) phones. Being able to stay in touch with people in case of an emergency is important, and given time zone differences, it would be impractical to demand that Mrs. Yid's parents only call us on Sundays. Rather than a firm ban on phones, I think we'll just try to limit phone use to what's necessary-- most likely, answering calls from friends or relatives. I also won't rule out leisure activities that might involve a TV-- say, getting together with friends to see a movie. We're not interested in having this become a barrier to spending time with people that are important to us. This is supposed to be about helping us be more thoughtful and present, not blowing people off.

After thinking it through, I've decided I'm not that interested in having an Orthodox-style Shabbat, strictly speaking. But I also think that unplugging your brain once a week is probably a good thing.

Here's to a more mindful future.


Mrs. Yid: "You were reading Transmetropolitan and it made you think about observing Shabbat?"
Me: "Yes."
Mrs. Yid: "I don't think anyone's ever said that. Ever."

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