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Teens, Torah, and autonomy in an iTunes era
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Teens, Torah, and autonomy in an iTunes era

Editor’s note: Rabbi Eliezer E. Rubin is the Klatt Family Rosh HaYeshiva and principal of the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. The following essay is adapted from a letter he wrote to parents following the publication of an article in New York Jewish Week on the phenomenon of observant Jewish teens texting on Shabbat. The article was reprinted in New Jersey Jewish News (“Half Shabbos,” July 7).

Ever since the Jewish Week published an article about observant teens texting on Shabbat, a broad, communal dialogue has ensued. A cross section of people responded to the issue and offered explanations, observations, apologies, and exhortations. Whereas I cannot confirm the research presented by academicians nor can I validate the observations gleaned from anecdotal data, I do believe that the discussion needs to be refocused.

Looking at teen texting on Shabbat in isolation and analyzing its acceptance and prevalence without looking at teens’ social milieu oversimplifies the problem and misdirects our educational energy. Teen Shabbat texting must be seen within the context of the broader social community in which teens and adults live.

American culture promotes and celebrates autonomy. Teens have enjoyed independence and individual freedoms in ways that their parents, when they were younger, never experienced. Whereas parents of teens purchased CDs — or even records — when they were younger and learned to tolerate non-favorite songs that came with the CD, teenagers can purchase one song at a time from iTunes and ignore the rest of the album. Parents of teenagers used to select radio stations closest to their tastes and music preferences, but had no power to select individual songs. Today’s teens can personalize their radio stations using Pandora or RDIO; they “own” their stations. When they were young, parents of teenagers may have visited a video store that offered limited choices; today, teens can stream any of thousands of TV shows or videos directly into their computer, X-Box, or television.

Some may perceive the myriad choices and options that teens have as meaningless perks of modern society, but to me they reflect a profound shift in teens’ perspectives and their decision-making attitudes.

The teen texting problem is much more about the pervasive culture of individualizing lifestyles. Some teens see observance in a similar way to how they see society. They can mix, match, categorize, and select what they want and how they like it. For observant Jews, extreme individualism is in contradistinction to communal expectations. We strongly believe that there is room for individuality within Torah observance, but our observance of mitzvot grows out of our heritage, history, and community. Mitzvot are not song tracks on iTunes, nor do we support genre-based observance.

One unintended consequence of teen autonomy is their compelling need to get what they want, when they want it. Earlier users of the Internet can remember the clanging of the modem and the passing minutes of a download. Young people have instant access to every download, real time chat, instant messaging through BBM or What’s App, and ongoing connectivity to their virtual worlds.

It is no wonder that many teens reported that they text on Shabbat. They are accustomed to setting the parameters of their lives, according to their rules, instantly, and immediately. Delayed gratification may become as obsolete as a main frame or DOS.

Achad Haam explained Shabbat eloquently when he stated that more than the Jew keeps Shabbat, it is Shabbat that keeps the Jew. The stakes are high if our teens undermine, albeit unknowingly, one of the most fundamental aspects of Torah and community.

We need to better identify the issues in order to search for responses. Platitudes and mantras won’t help us educate kids about the centrality and importance of Sabbath observance.

Solutions are not simple. Many people have written and commented that we need to increase our efforts to attach spirituality and meaning to ritual observance. Agreed. But in addition, we must be able to identify the new shifting paradigms of society and discuss with our children the tension between uniformity and individuality. We need to better understand their new world and their new rules. It is a challenging task because we are shooting at a moving target. The rules are always changing. We need to look carefully at how our kids interact with technology and their peers, and how they are shaping culture.

As Jews, our enormous strength comes from our commitment to each other and our shared beliefs. For many in this generation those commitments may be an anathema. Besides teaching about spirituality and observing mitzvot in a more consistent way, our attention must be focused on helping our teens understand the power, both constructive and destructive, of the technology that they use. We must help them understand that their commitment to Shabbat and community creates meaning and connection more than any fleeting text message. We have a daunting responsibility to empower our teens to be the next generation of the Jewish community.

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