Tiffany Shlain: Judaism Unbound Episode 189 - Six Days A Week


Tiffany Shlain, author of 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about her weekly practice of “Tech Shabbat.” [1]

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(0:01 - 17:54): To begin the episode, Shlain gives an overview of her family’s Shabbat practice. Calling it a “tech shabbat,” she talks about the impact that refraining from digital screen technology has on her life. [3] She looks back at the “origin story” of her practice, describing the National Day of Unplugging initiative, pioneered by Reboot [4] — an organization committed to supporting Jewish arts and culture. Shlain gets down to the nitty-gritty, in terms of the specific kinds of technology that she will use on Shabbat (pens and other writing implements, land lines for phone usage, Alexa, and other electronics that lack screens), along with those that she won’t (smart-phones, TVs, computers, etc). She also looks at ways in which her practice is on the one hand very ancient (built on thousands-of-years of Shabbat observance) and on the other quite specific to our time. [5]

(17:55 - 30:54): Lex poses some contemporary scenarios (framing them as 21st-century Talmudic conversations) that open up further conversations about screen technology on Shabbat, through Shlain’s lens. In particular, he highlights the segment of the Jewish population that is physically unable to access many forms of Jewish community, except through digital technology (like streaming services). He also asks why, if the goal is to be present in the world, many people’s screen-shabbats involve reading fiction — a form of entry into an alternate universe. Shlain expands on why a patterned observance, on an every-week basis, is meaningful for her — as opposed to taking on tech shabbat on a once-in-a-while basis. [6] Continuing, she critiques our society, which has made work a 24-7 affair, where people are expected to be “on” — available via email and more — at virtually all times of day and night.

(30:55 - 45:28): Shlain explores the common ground that she shares, both with Jews who consciously have a Shabbat practice, but do use their phones, and (on the other hand) with Orthodox Jews who refrain from a variety of other tasks on top of screen usage. Dan shifts gears slightly (though…it’s also a continuation of this Shabbat conversation) to Shlain’s work on personal growth, including the Jewish tradition of Mussar. [7] He asks about the distinction between “values” and “habits,” arguing that perhaps one of Judaism’s strengths historically has been the latter more than the former. Closing the episode, Shlain gives her thoughts on the question of habit, and she reflects on the fact that — despite her self-identification as a cultural Jew — rabbis have told her that she is “the most religious Jew I know.”

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[1] Tiffany Shlain is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and creator of the Webby Awards. She is the author of the newly released book, 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day A Week. More info on her work at 24SixLife.com She invites everyone to introduce Tech Shabbats into their lives through her global initiative Character Day this fall. Learn more at CharacterDay.org Follow Tiffany on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram.

[2] Hear from another practitioner of “Tech Shabbat” — Casper ter Kuile — who is also a past Judaism Unbound guest, at this link! Listen to his guest appearance on Judaism Unbound (along with his colleague Angie Thurston) here: Episode 18: How We Gather

[3] At a number of points in this episode, Shlain alludes to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea of a “sanctuary in time.” Hear more about this by listening to Elul Unbound #2: A Wrinkle in (Jewish) Time, and for a recent episode that looks at that framework as well, see Episode 185: An Army of Translators - Sarah Hurwitz.

[4] Learn more about Reboot by heading to Rebooters.net.

[5] Shlain mentions The Webby Awards, which she founded in 1996. Learn more about them here.

[6] To read the article Shlain references, which she wrote in August 2019 for the Boston Globe, making a case for Tech Shabbat, click here.

[7] Learn more about Shlain’s film, The Making of a Mensch (and watch it!) by clicking here.

[8] One of Tiffany Shlain’s best-known projects on contemporary Judaism is a short film called The Tribe, and it takes a deep dive into Jewish life through the lens of the Barbie doll. Watch it for yourself here.