eBooks and Sex

by Brian on January 26, 2010

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture,Technology

I’ve written in the past both about eBooks and sex, two of my favorite subjects. My stated position on eBooks is that they will supplant printed books entirely within 20 years, probably less; newspapers and magazines will be entirely digital as early as 5 years from now. My recent article on sex explored how premarital relations can fit into an Orthodox Jewish perspective.

eBooks and sex came together this past weekend over a Shabbat meal when I was asked to explain my contention that Jewish law will ultimately bend to allow digital readers to be used on Shabbat and holidays.

A quick recap of my post from last year: what happens, I asked, when most reading goes electronic and it will no longer be possible to buy a printed newspaper or the latest paperback to read on Saturday afternoon when turning on an off electricity is forbidden by halacha?

While there will still be printed material for the more ultra-Orthodox community, it will comprise religious texts and newspapers. The more modern community will be left without a print option for Haaretz…or The New York Times.

The subject is particularly relevant this week as Apple is strongly rumored to be releasing its long-awaited and much drooled for tablet computer on Thursday. The “iSlate” (or whatever it will ultimately be called) could, if not entirely ushering in a new era in digital reading, at least give it a serious kick in the pants.

To wit: at this month’s Consumer Electronic Show, there was, for the first time, an entire pavilion just for e-Readers. Devices that have already been announced include the Plastic Logic Que, the EnTourage eDGe (yes I capitalized that correctly), two devices from Samsung, the Booken CyBook Orizon, the iRiver Story, and Hearst’s Skiff which is focused entirely on newspapers, including dynamically targeted ads. And all that that doesn’t include already shipping products like the industry-leading Amazon Kindle, the Sony E-Reader, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook.

It seems we may have already reached the tipping point.

Now, when it comes to using e-Readers on Shabbat, there are a number of options. Certainly we could see the Tzomet Institute, which has already created weekend-friendly telephones and other devices that can be used on Shabbat, applying its know-how to e-Readers. But with the plethora of non-observant choices in the digital reader market, religious consumers may be reluctant to forego their iSlate for a frumSlate.

In my previous article, I suggested that another approach might be to re-think the entire concept of why electricity was forbidden on Shabbat and holidays in the first place. There is at least one rabbinic authority who ruled that there was no prohibition against turning on a light if it doesn’t heat a metal filament until it glows (I go into much greater detail in the article, including why that same rabbi said that electricity should nevertheless be avoided otherwise “the masses (may) err and turn on incandescent lights on Shabbat”).

Now, here’s where eBooks tie in with sex. Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld wrote her doctorate on sexuality in the Orthodox Jewish world. Speaking in October in Jerusalem, Rosenfeld – while not condoning sex outside of marriage – suggested that there may be paths towards leniency in times of need (for which religious singles, who now often remain unmarried until well into their 30s, may qualify).

Taboos against relations (from touching to intercourse) are dropping, in practice if not in published responsa. I posit that the same thing will happen with e-Readers. When faced with a choice between a page of gemara and the next Dan Brown bestseller (OK, maybe that should be prohibited on Shabbat), many religious Jews will opt for the latter.

The main question may turn out to be: will it be clandestine or public? Will the observant community come out of the closet and bring their Kindles to shul? Will the rabbi, instead of saying, “please turn to page 152,” instruct congregants to “enter 152 and click ‘go?’” Will the e-Reader bark commands as you scroll (“stand here, now bow, take three steps backward!”)

Or will the march of e-Reading technology simply serve to widen the gap between those who observe halacha to the letter of the law and the more flexible modern masses? Already young people from non-haredi streams are fleeing observance with increasing rapidity. Can Jewish practice change to keep up with the times? Will this time be different than the schisms that in the last century pushed apart Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and all the rest?

Or put another way: will the quest for a faster, smaller hard drive generate the same attraction as an insatiable sex drive? Stay tuned…

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 shoshana kleiman January 26, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Funny article, as in it made me laugh. The question of electronic reading came up in a meeting I had about 10 years ago. It seemed then, and seems now, that soon the only repository for regularly used and bought printed books will be the Orthodox community. And within that there is certainly a range along the “electricity-on-Shabbos” spectrum. Just as there are now tekanahs against non-work related Internet in the home, there will certainly be tekanahs against eBook readers – just give it some time to filter (pun intended) through. Or maybe the prohibition is already taken care of by the “no-PalmPilot” tekanah.
Your prediction is wild – but not so wild. I can see it coming to that. And it is a funny picture.

2 Rachel January 28, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Very interesting – the title was certainly an attention-grabber! Will you do an update in 20 years’ time….?

3 Jen van Stelle January 29, 2010 at 1:30 am

I only wish Apple had named their product the “iSlate”, as you referred to it in your blog. The new “iPad” has some unfortunately connotations, amusingly anticipated by MadTV — see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsjU0K8QPhs

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