Many years ago, while living in New York, I studied with a young, dynamic rabbi who had recently received smicha from Yeshiva University. Still in his 20s, Rabbi Allen Shwartz of Congregation Ohab Zedek had taken over the pulpit of a formerly ageing congregation and had begun to make it a go-to shul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
He was a charismatic and deeply knowledgeable speaker; on one particular occasion, I found myself struck by a certain physical explanation he gave for the essentiality of Shabbat.
He emptied his pockets.
Out came the cell phone (this was the pre-BlackBerry ’90s), the overstuffed wallet, and the clusters of heavy keys. He lay each down on the table before him with a loud thump.
“Shabbes,” he said, sliding his accoutrements to one side with a dramatic flourish, “is disconnecting from this in order to connect with HaShem.”
I was reminded of that image recently after watching a TED lecture by the psychologist Sherry Turkle. A tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Turkle has been studying the psychological and cognitive effects of computers on human beings for more than three decades.
What started as ground-breaking work into how we interacted with the earliest of computer games and email transactions, her research has snowballed to keep pace with burgeoning technological advancements. Tapping into thousands of hours of therapeutic experience, Turkle covers the full spectrum of interactive engagements – from FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube and all the social media options – up to, and including machines with such high degrees of artificial intelligence that they now seem, well, human.
While it is impossible to distill Turkle’s three-volume study into a three-line précis, her key observation is this: human beings have become – especially children and adolescents, for whom the technology has become fully normalized – more connected to the edited and carefully profiled ‘robotic moment’ than they are to living people.
Think of it: our first ‘hello’ of the morning and ‘good night’ of the evening is more often with our ‘smart’ phone than it is with our spouse, partner, or family member. More and more, Turkle’s research shows, we actually prefer such robotic moments where we can compose, craft, and project the person we want to be – as opposed to ‘real’, messy, improvised, and uncertain human interactions.
While Turkle’s work is arguably disturbing for the way it conjures up a host of psychological unknowns, Turkle importantly offers two antidotes: a deep psychological need to regularly ‘unplug’ and a commitment to return to the art of conversation.
In so doing, she suggests, we can again cultivate and become comfortable with solitude – forgoing electronic interaction in favour of reconnecting with live human beings in all our unscripted, emotional unpredictability.
Luckily, as Jews, some of this ‘back to basics’ is already part of our tradition. Rabbi Schwartz was right: Shabbat is all about disconnecting.
Even more so are the High Holy Days, culminating with what the machzor calls shabbat shabbton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, or Yom Kippur.
This, then, is a time of the year to disconnect – from our on-line avatars and our virtual, electronic world. When we do, it enables us to reflect and to carve out a piece of solitude where we can hear the kol d’mama daka – the ‘thin small voice’ – of God, our selves and others.
Sherry Turkel is equally right: In so doing, only then we will be able to truly reconnect: with our families, around the table in conversation, in memory, and in prayer.
L’shnah tovah tikateivu. May each one of us be inscribed for a year of health, reflection, and wellbeing.