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When the rabbi talked tech with the Amish

How do we wrestle with our faith in the 21st century, asks Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum - who has recently taken his family to see how the Amish live in Pennsylvania

    Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
    Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Utente:TheCadExpert via Wikimedia Commons)

    There’s a well-known story of a modern, smartly dressed Jewish man who sees a gentleman with a full beard and hat, dressed in old fashioned clothes walking down a New York street. Sidling up to him, he remarks: “Don’t you think it’s finally time to join the 21st century? You embarrass the rest of us walking around in clothes like that.” The bearded man responds, “Actually, sir, I’m Amish”. “Oh”, says the first man, turning red, “I’m so sorry, please forgive me. I think that the way you preserve your traditions is wonderful!”

    We may not be of the Chasidic variety, but my family and I have long been fascinated by the Amish, a religious enclave of 19th-century farmers living in rural America, who eschew modern technology and still use horses and ploughs. So, as we are currently in Boston on sabbatical, we decided to spend the night on a genuine Amish dairy farm near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

    After a very long drive, we arrived at our hosts, Anna and Ben. An elderly lady wearing a black shawl came scurrying out of the house to meet us. When we told her that we had booked to stay the night at her guest cottage, she looked surprised. “You want to stay the night? No one told me!” Our first introduction to life disconnected from technology. Our hosts rely on a middle man who does the online booking and Anna had somehow forgotten to write down when we were coming.

    The problem was quickly solved though, and Anna rushed inside to light the solitary gas stove that would heat the cottage in the frigid January weather. To our kids’ disappointment, however, we discovered that the cottage did in fact have electricity. But there was a twist. In line with other local Amish farms, the entire place was off-grid. Instead, they power a generator through the milking process every morning and evening which provides light at night. If the charge runs out, they sit in the dark.

    This made me even more curious. Almost without exception, the Amish refuse to drive cars — although many will accept a lift in a car driven by others, except to go to church on Sunday when the classic horse and buggy is de rigueur for all.

    They wear distinctive clothing, of which perhaps the most interesting detail is the lack of “modern” buttons. And in private they speak their own language, which they call Pennsylvanian Dutch, actually a mixture of German and English. Yet, clearly, some Amish do allow some forms of technology. Our hosts, for example, would use a basic mobile phone when necessary. So, what was the logic behind the automobile, national grid and internet ban?

    That evening, our host Ben paid us an unannounced visit. An impressive man, with a long white beard, we had a fascinating conversation during which we compared notes on maintaining a religious lifestyle in the modern world.

    “At the end of the day,” Ben said, “we do these things to prevent us becoming distracted. They allow us to concentrate on the important things in life.”

    So that was the key. Nothing wrong with modern technology per se. Instead, the Amish are engaged in a constant dilemma over how much of the outside world to let in and how much to shut out. How can they maintain their distinctive religious identity in an ever more interconnected and interdependent world?

    Ben, and the 300,000 or so other Amish living across America today, answer this question by limiting what they perceive to be “invasive” forms of technology. In particular, they are wary of those forms of technology which connect them to the wider world, like cars, smartphones and the national power infrastructure.

    As Jews, I think that we should try to find different answers to this dilemma. I know of few Jews who rely on a temperamental generator for their regular electricity supply or refuse to go in a car all week long (although I know of many who won’t even use a horse and buggy on their Sabbath). Yet, riding around the pristine fields of Pennsylvania in said horse and buggy was more than just another tourist experience. It was an object lesson in how people of faith wrestle with the preservation of a distinct, faith-based identity in a world of “cultural sameness”, to borrow the phrase of 20th-century German Jewish philosopher Max Horkheimer. And, like the Amish, this is certainly something that is on the minds of many contemporary Jews, too.

    Yoni Birnbaum is the rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Community

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