I chatted with a friend recently about what it was like in “the old days” when someone had to take a cellphone call during synagogue. This is when there were only big, clunky cellphones. I remember seeing a doctor on call pacing in the lobby. He – and it was usually a man – looked apologetic as he listened carefully. It was an emergency. It was a doctor who needed to attend to a patient, even though it was Shabbat and he was at services.
Given the circumstances, we recognized it was OK, because it was pikuach nefesh. He was helping save a life and that level of emergency is allowed, no matter how observant you are, on Shabbat. You put a person’s life above everything else.
The media has done many features where they reflect on research that shows how social media and being attached to a cellphone or other device has affected our health. It can keep us from interacting in the real world with other people, from sleeping or focusing properly. Social media increases our anxiety levels and, sometimes, it’s an addiction. Waiting to get that next update, from a friend or a news source, can sometimes seem more important than any actual person or event taking place in the same room.
My kids know the lesson from Sesame Street and the classic song, “Put down the ducky!” Ernie wants to play the saxophone, but Hoots the Owl tells him, “Put down the ducky if you want to play the saxophone!” It’s a lesson that we must break habits – like carrying a cellphone or the rubber ducky – to learn something new, make music and interact with others.
In the Jewish context, I see it everywhere. It’s at services, lectures, at the Passover seder or Shabbat table, at the kids’ events and play dates. It’s so pervasive that those doing it don’t even realize they are blocking out the world to engage with their electronics. It’s like a body part for those folks, while its noise means others can’t concentrate.
I was at a family service on Shabbat when we were interrupted with what sounded like a radio playing. It seemed to drift on and off and it was terribly distracting. Are we hyper-aware of such things? Absolutely. I am always tired and it makes me extra sensitive to noise and stimulation. There are some folks in my family who are also noise-sensitive. Too much noise and chaos often means we just have to leave. It’s too much.
Meanwhile, while the radio-like sound continued to compete with the prayers, adults in the back kept talking over it all. My husband, usually immune, looked bothered. I encouraged him to get up and ask someone to shut it off, since I sat with a kid on my lap. I thought it might be somewhere outside, but I was wrong. It was one of the talking adults, who failed to even notice that her phone was making the noise. Even when it was finally shut off, the adults continued to talk.
The interference was so pervasive and distracting that I couldn’t wait to leave. At Kiddush, at the end of the service, I heard someone say to a kid, “You can go ask the rabbi, he’s not praying now.”
That was it in a nutshell. I found myself wondering what the heck we were doing there. Are you coming to synagogue to play live-streaming radio and talk loudly? If you aren’t praying, or even sitting quietly, as a role model for kids, why bother coming to disrupt everyone else?
Some might say this is just an isolated incident, but it’s pervasive. On Yom Kippur, there was a grandfather who thought it was OK to hop up and snap photos with his phone during the service.
As I looked at the Torah portion, Behukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34, for the first week of June this year, I remembered this experience. It’s a portion that emphasizes all the amazing things offered by the Divine Presence “if you follow my laws and observe my commandments.” It’s a carrot-and-stick story, it clearly states the bad things that will happen to those who don’t follow the rules.
Our understanding of the laws and commandments may have changed, but social norms still exist. We live in a society with clear tension between individuality and the common good. If you judge someone else’s behaviour, you can be told that judgment is inappropriate – even when the individual isn’t behaving in a considerate or safe way for the community. If you feel uncomfortable with someone’s behaviour, we’re taught “we can only control ourselves and our response to it.”
You may not want to stop social media use on Shabbat or want to pray at services, and that’s your choice. However, it’s probably not your place to keep others distracted with your phone so they cannot concentrate on prayer. If you’re set on having it your way, and don’t want to think about others, why join a community Jewish event to do it? Stay home to use your cellphone instead.
Winnipeg prides itself on being a friendly place, and inspired other places to adopt a United Way campaign day of “conscious kindness.” It might be time to live the slogan and think of others – if you can’t put down the phone for your own sake, please do it for ours.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.