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An App that Breaks more than Halakha

“I know it when I see it” is the phrase that became immortalized in the famous Supreme Court case Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), which dealt with the threshold for obscenity in pornographic material and how much obscenity is protected by the First Amendment which protects freedom of speech.  Rather than attempt to define such a complex matter, Justice Potter Stewart took a more ambiguous approach, creating the standard “I know it when I see it” as a determinant for what lewd material would be beyond the pale of protected speech.  And it is with this same attitude that I seek to approach the Shabbos App and its Halakic status.

To be clear, I am not comparing the issues of viewing obscene material and violating Shabbos.  However, given the predictable firestorm that the introduction of the app brought to the Modern Orthodox community and the debate that followed soon after, I find the “I know it when I see it” standard fitting. I know what Shabbos feels like, and this app certainly feels like it is violating the day of Shabbos.

I don’t primarily seek to explore the halakhic debate, which entails analysis of many opinions, sources, and immovable forces, nor do I intend to contribute to the minefield of vile personal attacks against the creators of the app. Rather, I think the more appropriate response is to address the app’s misguided intentions as well as its naïve understanding of the impact the app will have.

First, before I am suspected of misconstruing the goals of the app, I will quote directly from their website. After explaining that the smartphone has become an “integral part of a person’s lifestyle”, the website clearly states “The Shabbos App will give all Yidden (Jews) (emphasis added) a way to keep Shabbos with all the chumrahs (strict laws) and still take full advantage of the wonderful technology the world has to offer.” While defenders of the app, and even its creators, proudly declare the app is targeted at the sector of Jews (mostly teenagers) who keep “half-Shabbos” and use their phones on Shabbos, they outwardly state the app is meant for everyone who would want to use it.  This means that the app is not only meant to slowly wean people off their phones and into a more spiritual, inspired life of full Shabbos observance, but it is also an attempt to normalize smartphone use on Shabbos throughout our communities, or, at the very least, to destigmatize it.

However, stigmas are stigmas for a reason.  While we must understand that there will always be unfortunate cases of religious apathy, ignorance, and indifference, this does not mean we must stand idly by, or even grant approval, simply because we do not want to stigmatize anybody. How can we as a community effectively discourage sacrilegious behavior while simultaneously blinding ourselves to what we believe to be wrong? This question is particularly acute, given that so many cases of religious indifference result more from negative peer pressure than from ideology.  We can not simply bend over backwards to endorse a dubious, gray-area activity as a means to normalize smartphone use just because someone makes a tenuous case that smartphones are necessarily an integral part of our lives.  Stamping a hechsher (kosher certification) on treif  (non-kosher) meat won’t make it any less treif.

Furthermore, in my estimation, smartphones have been a part of our lives and communities for at most 8 years, yet our weekly breaks for Shabbos have not seriously impaired our ability to live in the 21st Century.  The standard experience of a “full-Shabbos” observant Jew involves turning off his or her smartphone before Shabbos and catching up on updates, emails, and news 25 hours later.  Besides for working adults bemoaning the state of their inbox, the only “disadvantage” Orthodox Jews experience is a forced pause in an otherwise constantly-moving modern life.

In actuality, it is more of a sanctuary of time than a pause in life.  Whether we welcome it or not, the ability to ignore all the distractions of modern society that are accessible via smartphones (i.e. everything) gives us time to recharge our batteries for the coming week, perhaps to enjoy the day God gave us to rest from creative work, or at the very least, to be present and to fully experience our surroundings.

I believe I speak for the vast majority of outraged members of the community as I voice these concerns.  For many of us, Shabbos transcends its nuanced halakhic guidelines and rules.  Shabbos frees us from otherwise endless toil, work, pop-culture, and social concerns, all under the thumb of technology.  It is a blessing, not a burden.

And for those who will not be swayed by my brief explanation of what Shabbos means and how it can be pleasurable absent a smartphone, or for those who still find it burdensome, we should remember that there is a very clear line between accommodation and rationalization. Unfortunately, too much of the discussion around issues in the Modern Orthodox community involves complaints about the “rigidity” of halakha and tradition, as if commitment and self-restraint are the afflictions of our community rather than our strengths. Many of us believe that if we have a problem with religion there must be something wrong with religion and not with our understanding of what our relationship with it should be.  Sadly, this approach only causes us to have more issues with religion and a greater desire to break the shackles of tradition in favor of leniency. As a mentor of mine once succinctly put it: “It’s Judaism, not You-diasm”.

I don’t mean to suggest that this should be our approach towards all societal problems, but rather, when the premise and pretext for leniency  are suspect enough that the majority has rejected it outright, such as with Shabbos App, we might be wise to second-guess the lenient approach. In fact, the Shabbos App’s creators have closed their Kickstarter campaign, after only receiving a small fraction of their stated goal (approximately $2,000 out of $36,000) and its failure illustrates this communal rebuff.

Despite the fact that the initial outrage over the App has subsided, the creators have still pressed forward, finding a private investor and lowering the app’s price.  Yet the idea of making Judaism easier won’t find refuge by sidestepping the greater Orthodox community. As long as the practice of Judaism remains contingent on communal affairs (as seen explicitly in the realms of prayer and life-cycle events), the court of public opinion will reign supreme.  In this case, the court of public opinion has seen the Shabbos App, and they know it is not for them.