SA: Hi Jonathan. It’s a real honour at The Shabbat Project to have this conversation with you. Thank you for giving us your time in the midst of a very hectic press tour promoting your new book.
JSF: Sure, no problem. It’s my pleasure.
I’d like to start with a recent comment you made in an interview in The Forward. You said: “I’ve become probably less ritualistically Jewish in a certain way, and more devoted to the rituals that have remained. Shabbat is important to me.” Can you go into that more? In what way is Shabbat meaningful to you, and what does that mean practically?
Gosh, I don’t know how to answer that in a way that isn’t completely trite. It means pausing, stopping, reflecting, stepping back, creating context – allowing space for the things that just wouldn’t exist without context. Like rest. It’s about allowing a little distance between you and your life, a bit of forced perspective. It’s also about togetherness and presence; today especially, it’s so easy to be ‘elsewhere’ – either literally, or just emotionally.
I should say, I don’t do Shabbat as regularly as I might like to. Sometimes every other week, sometimes every third or fourth week. I’ll buy challah and Kedem grape juice and all the other accoutrements for Shabbat. As a family, we will have a meal together, followed by certain unique rituals we’ve kind of created for ourselves (and which I’ve projected on the family in the book), like wandering around the house blindfolded. Shabbat is something everyone looks forward to and appreciates, yet it’s the easiest thing in the world to skip over. It falls into that vast category of things that – despite wanting to do them, despite enjoying them – are very easy to forget about or neglect. But certainly, it’s something that I value.
The Shabbat Project aims to do away with labels such as Orthodox, Reform, religious, secular – which only crept up fairly recently in Jewish history – in the service of Jewish unity. Do you think Jewish unity is valuable?
There are times when it’s not just valuable, but a necessity. In Here I Am, a war erupts in the Middle East, with Israel at the centre (an occurrence unfortunately not completely removed from the realms of possibility), and the prime minister calls on Jews all over the world to come to Israel to fight. That, of course, would be an instance in which unity is necessary.
But, having an awareness of a shared history is also something that can be very moving. Take Passover, for example; an awareness that Jews of every variety, all around the world, are saying the same things at the same time – that’s extremely powerful. And that they’ve been saying the same things at the same time for thousands of years. By conducting a Seder, you’re participating in the perpetuation of one of the oldest of practised rituals, and this is a large part of what gives the Seder meaning; it’s not just something that’s additionally interesting – it’s an essential part of the experience.
This is one of the reasons why I want my kids to have a Jewish literacy. In part, because of the way it can be useful to them in their lives, and in part because I believe in the perpetuation of these narratives and these values.
In a recent article in the New York Times (“How not to be alone”), you wrote: “Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat.” What did you mean by that?
We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. Each step forward has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.
Everyone wants his parent’s, or friend’s, or partner’s undivided attention – even if many of us, especially children, are getting used to far less. Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.
You also wrote that your “daily use of technological communication has been shaping me into someone more likely to forget others”...
The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits. Psychologists who study empathy and compassion are finding that, unlike our almost instantaneous responses to physical pain, it takes time for the brain to comprehend the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation. The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care.
Things are obviously progressing on the technological front, but do you perhaps see the smartphone revolution and ubiquity of social media as more devolution than evolution? As the diminishment of civilisation which has always relied on interdependency and altruism and collectivity and compassion?
I think it’s easy to oversimplify. None of these things are either essentially good or bad. They offer different uses. Some of these uses bring us closer to the people we want to be closer to, and some of them distance us from others and from ourselves. Some are indifferent. Unquestionably, they make our lives easier.
It’s not an either/or – being anti-technology is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly pro-technology – but a question of balance that our lives hang on.