Conservative Movement Issues Opinions on Driving Electric Cars on Shabbat: One in favor, another against.
NEW YORK, NY (July 28, 2023) – The Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has issued two rabbinical opinions (teshuvot) on the new question of operating electric vehicles during Shabbat, one does not allow it and one does allows for it. In the movement’s tradition of religious pluralism, the CJLS approved two seemingly contradictory opinions, although in practice the two opinions are not far apart. One by Rabbis Mordecai Schwartz and Chaim Weiner hold a traditional approach to Sabbath observance, advising Jews to abstain from the use of either gas or electric vehicles, even for activities such as synagogue attendance. They do recognize that in special emergency circumstances vehicular transportation may be used. Rabbis David J. Fine and Barry J. Leff hold that electric vehicles may be used for the Shabbat-related purposes and is more Shabbat appropriate than gasoline powered cars. Nonetheless, both groups of rabbis reaffirm the centrality and sanctity of Shabbat in Jewish religious life.
The movement is addressing this now for two reasons: 1. Restoring Shabbat to a position of centrality in our lives is rendered all the more urgent in the 21st century with our incessant connection to electronic devices; and 2) Addressing the question of electric cars is necessary in order to be ahead of the curve. Electric vehicles are the future..
Back in 1950, Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob Agus, and Theodore Friedman wrote their groundbreaking work, “A Responsum on the Sabbath,” which was approved by the Law Committee, allowing driving for the first time to the synagogue on Shabbat. They sought to restore Shabbat to its rightful place in modern Jewish life. This is also reflected in the very titles of the two papers, “A New Responsum on the Sabbath” by Rabbis Schwartz and Weiner and “A Renewed Responsum on the Sabbath” by Rabbis Fine and Leff. While both are nominally about driving electric cars on Shabbat, in truth, they are both addressing the fundamental question that was raised over 70 years ago, the question of what the Conservative movement can do to bring Jews back to traditional Shabbat observance, a practice that has served the Jewish people well for millennia.
It is the hope of the authors that both of these papers can be used in a pedagogical fashion to launch discussions of Shabbat observance that go far beyond the technicalities of whether it is or is not permitted to drive an electric car to enhance one’s Shabbat experience.
At the heart of both papers is the concept of “shvut,” rabbinic prohibitions on certain activities because they are (or were) seen as not in keeping with the spirit of Shabbat. And that is truly the heart of the discussions the movement must have: what is the spirit of Shabbat? How do we, both communally and individually, deepen our Shabbat experience?
The papers can also be used as vehicles (no pun intended) for discussions on related topics, including the understanding of melakhah, work, on the Sabbath, carrying, Shabbat boundaries, and more.
Shevut, Rabbinic Prohibitions Tied to the Spirit of Shabbat
While the authors all agree that operating an electric vehicle on Shabbat for non-Shabbat purposes is a shevut, an infringement on the spirit of the day of rest, yet not an act involving outright forbidden labor (melakhah). The substantive difference between the two responsa is that Rabbis Schwartz and Weiner see the shevut nature of electricity as significant enough to claim that a prohibition exists on using electric cars on Shabbat, while Rabbis Fine and Leff see the shevut nature of electricity as opening up a heter (dispensation) for regular use of electric cars when performing activities in the spirit of Shabbat. They hold that a shevut prohibition may be overridden when conflicting with the positive observance of Shabbat. Rabbis Schwartz and Weiner agree that a shevut prohibition may be overridden in special circumstances, such as emergency circumstances such as preserving health, saving a life, or maintaining safety and security. However, in their judgment, regular, mundane use of electric cars on Shabbat, even for Shabbat-oriented activities, does not override shevut.
In writing their paper, “A New Responsum on the Sabbath,” Rabbis Schwartz and Weiner argue that the more lenient of the two Conservative-movement precedents on driving to synagogue on Shabbat, embodied in the 1950 paper, “A Responsum on the Sabbath,” though learned, cogently argued, and well-intentioned, missed the mark. Rabbis Schwartz and Weiner argue that driving on Shabbat is prohibited, no matter what the power source. Rabbis Fine and Leff, in writing their paper subtitled “A Renewed Responsum on the Sabbath,” seek to renew and expand the 1950 paper. They argue that driving an electric vehicle is easier to justify than an internal combustion engine and should be seen as a kal vahomer (logical inference) from the 1950 decision. Rabbis Fine and Leff argue, as well, that even if one does not permit driving an internal combustion engine on Shabbat, one could permit the electric vehicle because it is an easier halakhic argument to justify.
Additional Halakhic Concerns Related to Driving Not Considered in 1950
Additionally, Rabbis Fine and Leff consider a number of halakhic concerns regarding driving on Shabbat that were not considered by the 1950 responsum. Their conclusions, specifically regarding observing the tehum Shabbat (Sabbath boundaries) and avoiding hotza’ah (carrying on Shabbat where there is no eruv), apply to all types of vehicles, including conventional internal combustion engines. This means that there are limits to how far a vehicle may be driven and what may be carried in a vehicle.
Whether disagreeing with or renewing the teaching from 1950, movement leaders agree that Shabbat observance should remain a hallmark of the teachings of Conservative Judaism. Accepting halakhic diversity is also a hallmark of Conservative Judaism, and this joint comparison of the two papers is offered in the spirit of affirming our common goal of strengthening Shabbat observance while acknowledging our differing views on how that is best accomplished. As we learn in the Talmud, “Both these and those are the words of the living God” (B. Eruvin 13b). Rabbis Fine, Leff, Schwartz, and Weiner are colleagues who view each other with great mutual respect and admiration despite their disagreements.
The movement is committed to encouraging Shabbat observance among our congregants and constituents. These two teshuvot have been issued with study guides and other pedagogical materials to facilitate their teaching.