Will we ever see the light?

April 30, 2015 12:36

Will Shabbat ever be the same? Over the past few days, the Orthodox internet has been furiously debating KosherSwitch, a device which allows electric lights to be switched on and off on Shabbat, without - its creators claim - violating halachah. KosherSwitch has endorsements from Charedi rabbis, although some have partially recanted. There is also demand: in recent weeks, KosherSwitch has raised $60,000 on crowd-funding platform IndieGogo. From comments left on the site, it appears supporters believe it will enhance their Shabbat experience, and make it more "accessible" to non-observant brethren.

Some objectors have genuine halachic arguments, while others admit the device may technically be permissible, but is not in the spirit of the holy day, and accuse its supporters of trying to "circumvent" Shabbat. Many of them are very, very angry. Personally, I'm ambivalent about KosherSwitch. I feel no great need to turn lights on and off. Nor have I explored the halachic arguments thoroughly enough to express an opinion either way. But the vehement reaction of some of the antis borders on the hysterical.

The argument that controlling lighting destroys the spirit of Shabbat is patently untrue. I do not know an Orthodox family that does not already do so, through a time switch set in advance. Like many others, I also use a Kosher Lamp - a recent invention which allows users to block the light from their reading lamp at will.

And what's so terrible about ''circumventing'' Shabbat? We do it the whole time - by using an eruv to carry in the public domain, although it's forbidden; by using a hotplate to warm our food; by leaving an urn on so we can have our hot drinks. Although these seem natural to us now, are they really any less radical a challenge to the "spirit of Shabbat" than controlling lighting?

Clearly, the reaction to the KosherSwitch is as much emotional as it is halachic. The one difference between the KosherSwitch and other devices, is that KosherSwitch gives every impression that an individual is controlling electricity (although its promoters would claim that's not what happens).

Avoiding technology may soon no longer define our Shabbat

Whatever the legal questions, many are offended by the KosherSwitch because looks and feels wrong to them. There is also fear of a slippery slope. If we allow people to physically move switches or press buttons on Shabbat, whatever might come next: Shabbat-friendly cellphones? Tablets?

Although the halachic issues between all these devices are varied, this is a live fear. There is reportedly already a swathe of Orthodox teens who text on Saturdays (they call it "half-Shabbos"). Before long, avoiding modern technology may no longer be a defining aspect of our Shabbat.

But emotion and sociology are not good enough justifications to condemn and demonise those who wish to take advantage of respectable rulings that permit KosherSwitch. Either it is technically allowable, or it's not. And on that there is no agreement. Perhaps - like so much else in Jewish law - there never will be.

The Orthodox world needs to be able to debate these issues calmly, and people must be able to live under one denominational roof even if they take different stands. Given the rate of technological advance, these issues are not going away. It's only a matter of time, for example, before someone works out how to pre-programme a Shabbat-compliant driverless car to take its owners to shul, and park itself. And I can guarantee that will raise far more than $60,000.

April 30, 2015 12:36

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