Picture the scene: two grandparents and two grandchildren seated at a table in a fast food restaurant.
The grandmother, a journalist, is texting a response to a copy editor. The grandfather, a rabbi, is texting his synagogue president in answer to a query. The older grandchild is tweeting how his parents are late and dinner is delayed. The younger one is texting a classmate about a homework assignment he forgot to write down earlier.
Suddenly, the grandmother looks up, shuts off her cell phone, and says, “What’s wrong with this picture? We haven’t seen each other in weeks, and yet here we are sitting together but talking to other people who aren’t here and whom we can’t see.”
The scene is real. It did happen. Unfortunately, such scenes happen all too often these days. Our day schools worry about the phenomenon known as “half Shabbos,” in which otherwise observant Orthodox and Conservative teenagers see nothing wrong with texting on Shabbat. These educators seek effective ways of getting the message across that texting on Shabbat violates Shabbat.
The schools are missing the point. We all are. The real problem is texting, period. It is fast replacing face-to-face (or ear-to-ear) communication, among adults and teenagers alike. Teenagers, however, text much too much (sometimes even while they are talking to other people). Just when they need to learn the positive social skills they will need in adulthood, our teenagers are learning a seriously negative one.
And we adults are the ones teaching it to them by example.
One of the reasons Judaism survived millennia of travail is its commitment to community, to social interaction. Texting in lieu of contact is impersonal and antithetical to normal life, and certainly to normal Jewish life.
We do not dispute the value of new technology, but it must be used as an adjunct to social contact, not as a substitute for it.
“Half Shabbos” would not be a problem if our teenagers were not so addicted to texting. In many cases, they would not be so addicted if we, the adults in their families, were not similarly glued to our smartphones.
Perhaps that is something else we need to do t’shuvah for this High Holy Days season.