Can you drive an electric car on Shabbat?

Can you drive an electric car on Shabbat?

Local Conservative rabbis come to differing conclusions in their Law Committee papers

This 1950 Cadillac could have been driven to a Conservative shul.
This 1950 Cadillac could have been driven to a Conservative shul.

The world was very different in 1950 than it is now.

It’s not really that people were more innocent then — World War II had ended just five years before; most of the Holocaust survivors who’d already made their way to the United States didn’t talk about what happened to them, but their tattoos were visible — but the future beckoned then in ways it no longer does now.

The State of Israel was just two years old, a newborn nation bursting with hope. (Poor, yes. Besieged, yes. But so very hopeful.)

The horrors of Nazism had driven antisemitism back to the sewers, where it mostly remained until fairly recently. (Yes, it slithered up occasionally, but almost always was shoved back down.)

Returning GIs and their families moved in droves from cities to suburbs, helped by the GI Bill, energized by the green lawns, blue skies, and white picket fences that had not yet become cliché, and excited by lives that had not yet been satirized as stultifying.

Jews moved to the suburbs with as much zest as anyone else.

But once they were there, a new problem appeared.

Halachically — that is, according to Jewish law — you are not allowed to drive on Shabbat or chaggim; you must live within fairly short (and variously specified) walking distance of a shul. Most suburbs featured single-family houses on big lots. Often there were no sidewalks. Synagogues tended to be big buildings that housed big congregations and there was not a shul every few blocks. New Jersey did not resemble Brooklyn.

Orthodoxy was not a flourishing part of the Jewish world then — its growth came later and would have been surprising to sociologists in the 1950s — and most Orthodox Jews stayed in cities or moved to the inner suburbs, where the population was denser and it was not hard to stay within walking distance of your shul. Driving was then — as it continues to be now — out of the question.

Reform Jews do not see halacha as binding; for the Reform movement, the many benefits of driving to services far outweighed what they saw as the weaker benefits of walking there. Huge, often beautiful (and not infrequently more ambitious than aesthetically pleasing) buildings drew people from miles around; the size of the community enabled its leaders to provide more services.

And then there were Conservative Jews, then the country’s biggest Jewish stream, committed as they were — and still are — to tradition and change, devoutly centrist, cleaving to the middle of the road.

Rabbi Marcus Mordecai Schwartz

It was hard to get to shul by foot once you’d moved to the suburbs, and it was not okay to drive. You’d already moved. You had a car. You couldn’t drive? What could you do?

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the group of rabbis who met at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan to define and refine halacha for the movement, considered the question of driving to shul in 1950. In “Responsum on the Sabbath,” the committee decided that it was acceptable to drive to and from shul — nowhere else — on Shabbat and holidays. (The idea that Conservative Jews were allowed to drive only to the closest shul, rather than to their own, “is an urban myth,” Rabbi Dr. David Fine of Temple Israel and JCC in Ridgewood said.)

That paper was accepted by a majority of the committee; a minority did not accept it.

“The decision always was controversial,” Rabbi Fine said. Over the years, a split developed between the movement’s leaders and its members; leaders walked while members drove. That split was exacerbated by JTS’s insistence that its rabbinical students pledge not to drive on Shabbat while they were in school, “Responsum on the Sabbath” notwithstanding.

There have been skirmishes over the rule. In the early 1990s, Conservative Jews in Israel — they’re called Masorti there, as they are outside North America — decided that they could not ride on Shabbat. Questions about the use of electricity also came up.

This year, the committee received a straightforward question that gave it a chance to reexamine the issue.

The question was “Is it permissible to drive an electric car on Shabbat?”

Four rabbis answered that question in two papers — one two-rabbi team, including Rabbi Fine, said yes, and the other, including Rabbi Marcus Mordecai Schwartz of Highland Park, said no.

Because the 25 members of the committee can accept, reject, abstain, or absent themselves from the vote, and because each member can vote to accept apparently contradictory papers, both were accepted.

Rabbi Schwartz, who is the Ripp Schnitzer librarian for special collections at JTS, writing with Rabbi Chaim Weiner of London, director of Masorti Europe, said no, driving an electric car on Shabbat is not allowed, but they were careful to classify doing so as a shevut rather than a melakhah; to oversimplify, it would be a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

Their paper is called “A New Responsum on the Sabbath,” its title an echo of the 1950 paper.

A melakhah, Rabbi Schwartz explained, “is a negative commandment that forbids any kind of creative, thoughtful, or planned labor.” It entails “making an abiding physical change — for example, harvesting a plant, something that once was connected to the land but isn’t anymore. Or, for example, dyeing a piece of cloth; taking something that had been white but isn’t anymore.

“A shevut doesn’t rise to the level of melakhah but is prohibited nonetheless because it is a failure to rest.”

His decision is that driving on Shabbat, no matter how you’re fueling the car, is a sin — that’s his word — but to borrow language from another tradition, a venal rather than a mortal one.

“It’s important to make sure that everyone knows that I am not accusing anyone of being a grave sinner,” he added. “I want to uphold that part of the 1950 paper that said it is not melakhah but a shevut to drive.

Rabbi Schwartz felt compelled to write the paper because “having spent a lot of time with JTS rabbinical students, and with more traditional students at Rutgers Hillel, I know that people often feel demoralized when they are becoming more religious, and they don’t want to go in the car to go to shul, and their parents say, ‘Why not? The Conservative movements says you can!’

“Rabbi Weiner and I want to support people who want to have a more traditional expression of Shabbat,” he continued. “To be able to say yes, the movement believes in what you’re doing. It’s not silly piety. It has an understanding of Shabbat behind it that is powerful and motivating. It is a passionate understanding of Shabbat as a day of full rest.

“My theological motivation is that for me, the fullest vision of Shabbat — the Shabbat that Hakadosh Baruch Hu” — God — “wants from us is complete rest. What looks to me like a failure to rest doesn’t get Shabbat in the fullest way.”

That demands trade-offs, he knows, but they’re worth it. Even if you live in the suburbs, and the nearest shul is a hike, “I think that those who want a more traditional Shabbat experience would see praying at home by themselves, and avoiding getting into a car, as a more powerful way of keeping Shabbat. It’s a way that accords more closely to their view of Torah and mitzvot.”

What if you want community? What if, say, you have children and want them to spend Shabbat in the company of other families? “My hope — and my goal — is that people will be motivated to move to walking communities,” Rabbi Schwartz said, and “in the end, it’s up to community rabbis to convince people of the value of a tight, physically close, realistically walkable community.”

But he’s glad that Rabbi Fine and Jerusalem-based Rabbi Barry Leff wrote their paper, he added. He wants people to know their options. “We all are committed to pluralism, even when we disagree about walking or riding,” he said. “We want to be in community with everyone who is a member of the movement. That is really important to us.”

As he discusses the paper he wrote with Rabbi Leff — it’s called “A Renewed Responsum on the Sabbath,” yet another callback to the language of 1950 — Rabbi Fine also talked about his respect for Rabbis Schwartz and Weiner. Like Rabbi Schwartz, he said that while there are four Jews and two opinions, there also is collegiality and respect.

This 1952 Chevy was on the streets just two years after the teshuva was written.

Rabbi Fine quickly dispatched the idea that an all-electric car could be worse to drive on Shabbat than a conventional one, which is fueled by an internal-combustion engine burning gas and also needs electricity to spark the fuel and to run its other systems. If a gas-powered engine — which is closer to creating fire, the directly forbidden thing — and its electricity-driven accessories was ruled acceptable in 1950, how much easier is it to say that a car that runs on electricity alone is okay.

As he talked about his thinking, Rabbi Fine returned to two incidents from the beginning of his rabbinate.

The first one happened at the seminary, where he worked for the Rabbinical Assembly — the organization of Conservative rabbis that’s housed at JTS — right after rabbinical school. At times, he said, when the pulpit rabbi who had been invited to be there couldn’t make it, he was asked to sit on the committee interviewing rabbinical school applicants.

One of those applicants was a man who was planning to leave his successful career to devote six years to becoming a Conservative rabbi. “He looked perfect,” Rabbi Fine said. “He had become observant, was interested in Jewish learning, was involved in his synagogue, worked closely with his rabbi.” He was smart, committed, and driven. “But he didn’t live in walking distance from his synagogue.

“The committee said that he couldn’t drive to synagogue while he was in rabbinical school. He told them that he was willing to make a major life change for himself, but he couldn’t do that to his family. He couldn’t make them move.” He had kids in school. The committee suggested that he live somewhere else, by himself, every Shabbat and holiday. He rejected that idea as well. So although the committee accepted him, with that caveat, he could not take the offer. He could have tried another movement’s rabbinical school — “but it was Conservative Judaism that was burning in his soul,” Rabbi Fine said.

The problem, Rabbi Fine continued, was that yes, the school had that rule — but the movement for which the school trained and ordained rabbis explicitly did not have that rule. “The dissonance really bothered me,” he said. It haunts him still.

The second incident was when he took his first pulpit, in Scarsdale, Rabbi Fine said. “I was walking home from synagogue, my house was nine-tenths of a mile from there, and it was raining cats and dogs.

“One of my very committed, very serious congregants pulled up to me and said, ‘Rabbi, do you want a ride?’ My instinct was to say no — but then I thought about it, and I said yes. Because what message would I have been giving if I said no? That I am holier than thou? She knows that I walk, but the official position of the movement is that we can drive.

“I still walk,” he said. “But we always respect pluralism, with the bounds of halacha.”

Those experiences influence his position today.

The 1950 paper embarrasses the movement leaders, Rabbi Fine said. When he wrote about it in 2004, “my argument was that this is probably the most important paper in the history of the Conservative movement, but in all my years in rabbinical school we were never assigned it to study.

“Why are we so embarrassed by it? I read it through; it is a serious, legitimate, and powerful argument.”

He found the discussion about the two papers in this year’s meeting fascinating. “Rabbi Leff and I found that from our perspective, ours was the more conservative paper; we were defending precedent. The other paper might be more conservative — but it is radical.”

Yes, he agreed, the echoes of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision were unmistakable; when Dobbs overturned Roe v. Wade, the impetus to do so was the conservative (small c this time) belief in the inherent wrongness of abortion, but the court’s willingness to overturn almost 50 years of precedent was not conservative but radical.

The papers presented to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards ended up doing something different, though. It rejected precedent — and it also upheld precedent. As Rabbi Fine said, it upheld pluralism, within the bounds of halacha.

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