Praying at services often seems like it is designed to make me bored. The usual device I’ve conditioned myself to turn to in futile attempts to distract from boredom — my phone — is prohibited; I get the feeling of the rabbi mentioned in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The Sabbath,” whose constant urge to smoke cigarettes recedes when Friday evening rolls around each week. Obviously I cannot read a book or take out my phone during services.
In this way, Judaism is a (perhaps unintentional) defense of that maligned condition: being alone with oneself. A defense of uninterrupted thought, which is so easily disrupted by a vibration in a pocket and the ensuing algorithmically-assembled cacophony of others’ consciousness. It is a permanently sedentary condition, but one in which it is impossible to reflect. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but not this sort of brevity, which hampers the slow and steady development of relationships (including the most important one, relationships with ourselves) over time.
Aby Warburg, a German Jew and academic who was active at the turn of the 20th century, lamented the disorder he saw caused by the invention of the telegram and telephone. To him, these two technologies — primitive by our contemporary standards — collapsed the protective nature of physical distance and reintroduced chaos into the world. Imagine how he would feel today with all of these beeps and buzzes. There is, he wrote, a necessary distance from it all for thoughtful study.
Now, this distance can be achieved in any which way— for me, it comes in the shower (at least when my roommates are not blasting Astroworld) and on long walks around our wooded campus. These are normal places — people shower and walk every day. The differentiation is in what is absent from my hand or pocket: my phone.
I study computer science, the soul of the attention economy and the constant buzzes and notifications on our devices. Perhaps they are here to stay, perhaps tech companies will change their ways. But if we come to understand behavior as the product of agreements made with ourselves, this is irrelevant. (As well as our reactions to it — I’ve seen Twitter transform a nice Jewish boy into an ideologically driven Sid Vicious. It seems that an on-campus rage cage or de-stress event, doesn’t have to involve beer and Red solo cups.) In the constant external redirection of our attention in potential moments of solitude, we give up critical thought to a short-lived news cycle. The news covers seemingly important developments in the tech industry and about the attention economy, which simply distracts us from the simple fact that the most powerful agent in our lives and behavior is ourselves. There are already enough tools to take control — what is necessary is some time away from our devices to diagnose the problem and recognize agency. Though Heschel would not have Shabbat as a time for any worldly pursuit, in practice the occasion for this is provided by Shabbat.
In college, this isn’t the easiest thing by any measure. Students get into universities like Princeton by successfully jumping through hoops schools and exam providers set up for them. For many, including myself, real world success had little/no influence on acceptance. And while we are here, we are instructed by professors who make bold claims without putting them on the line or having skin in the game; just last week I spoke to a sociology professor who was very animated when discussing the importance of Americans moving back to farms in the Midwest. Only later did she tell me that she grew on a farm in Minnesota and moved away to become a professor in New Jersey.
When jumping through hoops in adolescence, it is hard to have a self-identity; one is essentially fulfilling others’ definitions of how to live a life and not exploring this most important of ideas for oneself. So it is hard initially to reflect on Polonius’ more useful turn of phrase, “to thine own self be true,” when that shelf has not been nourished.
But praying on Shabbat allowed me to start somewhere. Though I might not always actually read the Amidah, its accompanying silence — a canvas for internal conversation, what Harold Bloom termed “overhearing oneself” — is what brings me back
Isaac Hart is a sophomore at Princeton University. He is a 2018 Write On For Israel graduate.