Leave technology alone for Shabbat

THIS past month of festivals afforded a glorious opportunity to indulge in that old-fashioned pleasure of reading real books.

I don't possess a Kindle. Computer devices do not spell relaxation for me. They are invaluable for work and research and even for super-fast addictive practices like playing Scrabble online.

But, in order to wind down and catch up with myself, there is nothing like a good old-fashioned book.

This Shabbat, thousands of Jews worldwide who have previously not tasted the beauty of Shabbat - when technology takes a backseat and we become human again, able to interact and think without our computers and phones - will enjoy the experience, which for us who have been privileged to be Shabbat-observant, is a part of life which we cannot do without.

The past month of Tishri with three Shabbatot being expanded into three-day festivals was, besides being a gastronomical feast, a literary one for me.

Focusing appropriately on an eclectic mix of Jewish works, I began with Eve Harris' The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, which was long-listed for last year's Man Booker Prize. Set in Hendon, the novel centres around the imminent marriage of a Hendon Chassidic couple.

Critics were surprised why a so obviously Jewish book should have won such general acclaim.

But I am not, because the whole shidduch system and charedi lifestyle, which Harris describes so graphically, is rife with dramatic possibilities.

How refreshing when literature set a new low with Fifty Shades of Grey, which plumbed the depths of sexual depravity, to read about an innocent couple who are not even sure about the facts of life.

But, as Harris graphically depicted, the charedi lifestyle is not one everlasting bundle of fun, as wedding and sheva berachot celebrations might imply.

Large families and strict laws barring access to the outside world inevitably bring their tensions.

I thoroughly enjoyed Harris' book but was disappointed with its ending.

Yes, there are problems with the charedi lifestyle. Large families bring their tensions with over-worked mothers and intense sibling rivalries and problem children and over-censorship often leads to outright rebellion. But the answer is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Also including in my yomtov reading was the ArtScroll biography of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who fought off the massive threat to German Orthodoxy of the extremely popular 19th century Reform movement by his Torah im Derech Eretz philosophy which spoke to his contemporaries by shedding a Jewish light on supposedly secular knowledge.

Reading about Hirsch's life nearly 200 years on, afforded me some interesting historical perspectives.

Until I read this book I had never quite grasped just how aggressive the early German Reformers were against the Orthodox community, using any means, including government intervention, to wrest communal power.

I could never understand why, in the late 20th century, British Orthodoxy was so fearful of the British Reform movement, which has always been marginal in this country.

What difference, did it make, I thought, whether or not you acknowledge that Reform exists and share a platform with one of its proponents? Not to do so, I argued, would hand the debate to the Reform side.

Banning Orthodox Jews from attending the cross-community Limmud only increased the latter's popularity.

But in 19th century Germany, especially in Frankfurt, if not for Hirsch, Orthodoxy would have totally disappeared and a similar situation arose in America.

Conservative Britain with a tolerant, middle-of-the-road United Synagogue headed off a Reform takeover in the UK.

But what struck me even more after reading the biography was what the 19th century Reformers and other Haskalah leaders, who wanted to confine Orthodox Judaism to history, would think of our Jewish world today in which, despite all its problems and challenges, the charedi lifestyle is the fastest-growing trend.

In every generation, antisemites of all descriptions from Pharoah to Hitler to Hamas, have tried to get rid of Jews, all at much cost to us, but ultimately to no avail.

The same would seem to apply to the charedi lifestyle. The more Haskalah and Reform leaders everywhere in the Jewish world, from Germany to Israel and the USA, tried to eliminate age-old practices, the more they thrived and grew.

But all of you who may be experiencing Shabbat for the first time this weekend, remember Judaism does not only come charedi-style.

Contemporary Jewish life is extremely diverse and British Jewry has enough options to suit every taste.

The more people, who experience the beauty of Shabbat and indeed any aspect of Jewish life, the better.


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