Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Half" Jews

The issue of "Half-Shabbos" is still on my mind, months after it broke in the media – but my approach has changed. At first I thought in terms of peer pressure and brain development, and then I blamed individualism/consumerism and the way that people of all religions are re-defining their beliefs and practices to suit their personal wants. But now I'm thinking again.

The aforementioned elements are important, but I've come to think that a major factor, perhaps The major factor, is that the kids who text on Shabbos are emulating their parents, who go "Half" in many halachic areas even as they tell their children to go "Whole". Herewith some examples:

Slumlords and insider trading, home-based daycare centers operating without licenses, sheitel machers and at-home barbers taking cash only.

"The Vaad says that's not kosher, but I think it's (a) a shift to the right, (b) just politics, (c) ignorance of 'real' halachah, (d) all of the above. I use it anyway – and Rabbi X says that's fine." "This bug thing is crazy." "They've gone too far this time." Sound familiar?

Movies and television shows which rebbeim tell their children are inappropriate for them – but which adults freely watch. Off-color jokes traded with a smirk. Sarcasm about school dress code policies.
When I was 12 or 13, a friend of mine babysat for a respected community figure. He was inappropriately curious, and he opened some cabinets he shouldn't have opened – and found some reading material which we had always learned didn't belong in a Torah-observant lifestyle. Of course, he told the rest of us… and what kind of message did that send us, as children?

Coming to shul late, or leaving early, so that we only catch half of davening. Going out for a drink in the middle. Spending the repetition of the Amidah schmoozing with our neighbors. What is this, if not "Half-Tefillah"?

Half-Kavod haTorah
Complaints or slander about parents, teachers, and rabbis, both in the media we watch and in the words coming out of our own mouths – even as children learn that they are obligated to show respect to all of the above.

I could go on with more "Halves", but I think/hope the point is made – if adults are comfortable leading a "Half" Jewish lifestyle, why are we surprised that children do the same?

The irony is that adults are troubled by this. When I was a late teen, the constant refrain I heard was that mature adults understand that the world is not Black and White, but Gray – and that we teens had to grow up and learn to be Gray, too. I still hear that today; kids come back from Israel with an un-nuanced perspective, and their parents are frustrated.

Well, here we have a problem of a different stripe. Children absorb the justification offered by "Half" adults for their own conduct, that the world is Gray, and they make it their own.

For that matter, kids do it in many areas – sexual activity, davening, and more. So why are parents surprised and upset? Just because it's Shabbos?


  1. I've been thinking a lot about this 'half shabbos' thing too. Do you think that there's something substantial that educators can do, or is the onus largely on parents?

  2. Some of your examples are clear cases of hypocrisy (dirty jokes) or deceit (slumlords), but i don't see how your kashrut examples fit in -- there are multiple valid shitot in the halakha when it comes to different policies or bug-checking methods, and people naturally get frustrated when they're told that their family or community mesora is suddenly by fiat not good enough anymore.

  3. Mrs. Pom-
    Thanks for commenting. I do think teachers have a role, at least in terms of having frank conversations with kids. Some of the more "with it" teachers might be able to get groups of kids to turn off their phones.

    I don't deny that the Gray zone exists with some validity in certain areas [including some of the Emes areas]. Nonetheless, kids absorb the Gray outlook and apply it recklessly [as do their parents].

  4. We ought to realize that, over time, errors that objectively verge on Torah violations can enter family and community traditions---simply due to prevailing ignorance.

    Our yeshivot and kollelim are one line of defense against this ignorance.

  5. Bob Miller:

    Unfortunately that can also happen within yeshivot and kollelim, too.

  6. I absolutely agree with your sentiments, and I was also puzzled as to why people were so surprised and disturbed by this issue when many of these others have been going on for years (incidentally, this whole half-shabbos thing was commented on knowledgeable blogs a year before the main story broke, which means it has been going on for a while). I think society has its own illogical way of setting its own priorities and of creating its own self-image. "Shemiras Shabbos" is so central to this image that people were shocked by this specific issue, as opposed to others. On the other hand - while I don't deny that inconsistent parents and authority figures can create an environment in which mitvot are not taken as seriously - I wonder how much of that is necessarily going on here. Some of this may be related to simpler issues, in some cases addiction, and in many cases kids who communicate via text as normal conversation (and many kids in this generation do) might simply consider texting on Shabbos to be normal conversation as well, without stopping to think about the implications.

  7. I would also add that it's not fair to put immediate blame on the parents, even as parents and rabbis do have the responsibility to learn from this issue. Kids make their own choices, and these often have nothing to do with parents' inconsistencies or other shortcomings.

  8. Joseph-
    I agree that kids make decisions, but I dispute the idea that these decisions are their own. At this stage of development, much that kids do is a conscious or unconscious reaction to their environment. They are not yet shaping their world.

  9. fyi - Rabbi Dr. Abraham J Twerski has said and written similar thoughts a number of times on TorahWeb

  10. I tend to lean towards the addiction angle, bolstered by the "half" attitude of the parents as discussed by TRH. Maybe the need to keep up and communicate with friends is like an addiction.

    But if it's mainly because of the lackadaisical attitude of the parents, why is the problem we hear about just texting? Why not about listening to MP3s or watching movies on their iPODs? (Or are those also happening, but we don't hear as much because it's done in private whereas texting, even if done in private involves others & the word gets out).

  11. Related to the topic of kids picking up on hypocrisy(in the other direction)R. Benzion Shafier described at a recent Torah Umesorah Convention how as a Rebbe in a boys high school, he would stop to make a beracha, very conscious that he was being watched, and spent a lot of time himself working on that("Teaching Yirat Shamayim", 51:00 in the link below).

    He also adds (58:45)that if one is sometimes honest with children that one is not infallible, but at the same time is still growing, that's a powerful lesson.

  12. Very interesting points.
    Reminds me of:
    "Nicht Shabbos Geret - BUT...."

  13. Rabbi Torczyner,

    I would agree with you had we been talking about 8 or 9-year olds. But many of these kids are teenagers whose sense of right and wrong is more developed. Just because they are still heavily influenced by environment an their ethical sense is still developing doesn't mean you can trace every decision back to environment. I think Orthodox culture has adopted a behaviorist mindset, that if they provide their kids precisely the right educational environment, they can determine future decisions. I don't think that's true.

  14. Except that half Shabbos isn't real, at least not among the people reported. I had a chance to speak to the girls interviewed for the story among numerous other boys and girls in their click. In the interview they were speaking of the number of kids who are mechalelei Shabbos altogether either already, or in the near future.

    There may be a few who do keep half-Shabbos, but not of epidemic proportions. Or it may be happening in other communities. But the report itself reflects a misunderstanding of the population they were actually trying to describe.

    It would seem that fewer of our teenagers are hypocritical than of us adults. Which is how the world usually is.


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  16. jd, Shades-

    Don't know.


    I hardly think that viewing parental conduct as a major influence on early adolescents is the same as claiming the control you mention.

    R' Micha-
    It was a fairly large sample size, as I recall. Was the whole study that flawed?

    (And re: your other question - Sorry, but I don't know.)

  17. The original article was anecdotal, not based on a study. And I learned that the girls interviewed for the study, were part of a clique that frequents my house. Steve Lipman spoke to 17 students. This is the same social group R' Burg was speaking of; and in fact he recommended those two girls to the reporter.

    As for YU's follow-up study, what we're discussing is the difference between two numbers -- the 17% who admit to texting, using the phone or the internet on Shabbos vs the 10% who admit to being mechalelei Shabbos.

    The arcana in there about paired t-sample test is about the sample size possibly not being large enough to be sure of the mean of a bell curve. The result they show does show the difference between averages is real, but the potential is there that the difference is smaller than 7%.

    I raise that because you asked, not because I think it's the likely cause of error. I think the real error comes from two other sources:

    We can take it for granted that both numbers are underreported, but that the 10% is more grossly underreported. (Most other studies show numbers more to the order of 15%. More than one out of seven!!!) I don't mean that the teens are lying in any real numbers on an anonymous form; I am talking about inaccurate self-image. That texting on Shabbos is part of who they are is easier to admit to oneself than that they really gave up on Shabbos altogether.

    Second, I am also excluding those of the 7% who are on their way to joining the 10% full mechalelei Shabbos in a matter of weeks, who actively on the slippery slope.

    (The way back to observance generally involves either "flipping out" in Israel or simple maturation, and mid-points in that process won't show up in a survey of HS students.)

  18. R' Micha-
    I see; thanks for taking the time to spell that out.