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Half-Shabbos in Con“text”

Posted by: Michael Berger

July 7, 2011

By: Michael S. Berger
The Jewish blogosphere and other media have been all abuzz these last two weeks since the New York Jewish Week ran a cover story on the phenomenon called “half Shabbos” – the reality that many Modern Orthodox teens continue to text privately on their phones (iphones and droids) even while they otherwise observe the Sabbath.  While the true extent of such behavior is almost impossible to determine, many Jewish educators in the New York area were aware of the practice, and several had already begun to address the issue internally with parents.  That, in itself, was reassuring.
Analyses of the phenomenon – including recriminations and “solutions” – appeared almost everywhere: in Jewish educational and rabbinic listservs, blogs, social media (#halfshabbos on twitter), Shabbat sermons, etc.  It’s still important though to put this in the context of religion in America, especially the developmental approach most social scientists now take in trying to understand an individual’s religious views and sensibilities during high school.
First, the religious life of Americans is highly fragmented, especially among young adults (and this now lasts into one’s 30’s).  Robert Wuthnow, the Princeton sociologist of religion, used the term “bricolage” – a notion coined by Claude Levi-Straus to denote “practical tinkering using all available resources to meet one’s current needs” – to describe the way young adults construct their religious lives.  Indeed, it is questionable whether most Americans ever achieve an integrated, holistic religious worldview.  For a society where “journeying” – searching and experimentation – characterize what most take to be authentic religious life, it is hard to conceive that most young Jews, even those growing up in Orthodox homes, would see their choices in all-or-nothing terms.  To them, “keeping Shabbat” and texting occupy different parts of one’s life (and self-image), and while most would probably acknowledge some inconsistency, it would not cause the cognitive dissonance necessary to bring about a change in behavior. (Perhaps studying in Israel for a year in a yeshiva or seminary alters that mental landscape sufficiently to create the dissonance and the subsequent need for resolution.)
Second, as educators (and seasoned parents) know all too well, young adults are works in progress.  We live in a society that has pushed off many of life’s crucial decisions – career, marriage and children – to the late 20’s and early 30’s (and for many in the educated classes, even later).  While we should always be on the lookout for “signs” of all sorts of negative and positive behaviors, teens are definitely on the “evolving” end of the developmental spectrum, trying on various sorts of identities and personae.  Indeed, the impact of many Jewish experiences are often felt years later when the individual has need of them – applying them in forming serious relationships, choosing how to spend one’s free time, picking a community in which to settle or with which to affiliate, or where to send one’s child(ren) to school.  Quite literally, some of these major decisions are being made 10, 15, even 20 years after the person’s own high school experience.  As much as we would like to see fully-formed commitment in the products of our Jewish high schools, such expectations don’t match current realities.  Jewish education, especially the later grades, is an investment that in many cases won’t see major returns for years.
It’s too soon to tell what Half Shabbos means and certainly what policy changes should be implemented to address it.  There’s also a need for hard data, some of which is provided by a recent study conducted by Yeshiva University’s Institute for University School Partnerships.  In this fast changing world provided by technology, how long do we take to see if an immediate response is needed or bears wide-scale watching?  For now, let’s put “Half Shabbos” in perspective.

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