In a departure from the longstanding policy of Conservative Judaism, the rabbis of Israel’s affiliated Masorti movement have issued a religious ruling prohibiting travel to synagogue by car on Shabbat.
The decision by the Halacha (Jewish Law) Committee of Israel’s Rabbinical Assembly means that members of Masorti synagogues, as the Conservative movement is known here, are prohibited from doing something that Conservative Jews everywhere else are permitted to do.
Until the Halacha Committee’s decision was published last week, the entire Conservative movement was governed by a 1950 ruling of the New York-based Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which stated that automobile travel is allowed if the distance between home and synagogue is too far to walk.
The 1950 ruling permits driving only to and from synagogue, without stopping for any other purpose.
The Israeli Halacha Committee, in its ruling, stated that many people have come to mistakenly believe that driving on Shabbat is permitted for any purpose.
“In the State of Israel, no one works on the Sabbath. Every Israeli can open a siddur (prayerbook) and pray, and there is sure to be a synagogue in his locality,” stated the Israeli decision.
The question of whether rulings made by the New York-based law committee are binding on Israel’s Conservative Jews, or whether the Masorti movement is free to come to its own conclusions has yet to be worked out, according to Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the New York committee.
“The Conservative movement’s law committee has no policy on it,” he said in New York. “It has come up as an issue in principle but not in fact before.”
The nature of the relationship is “being talked through now, and with this psak (halachic ruling) will have to be discussed even further,” he said.
But he made clear that “the impact of the Masorti movement’s psak is limited to the Masorti Jews of Israel.”
The three members of the Masorti Halacha Committee who issued the ruling included its chairman, Rabbi David Golinkin.
According to the ruling, driving is prohibited on Shabbat because igniting a fire, as when an engine is turned on, is a transgression specified in the Torah itself.
And in case the car breaks down en route, the driver is likely to try to fix it and breach other prohibitions.
In addition, according to the ruling, Talmudic sources say that leaving one’s own city is forbidden on Shabbat. And the car’s driver would be compelled to take along a wallet and money, which is prohibited under Jewish law, as is buying anything, including gasoline.
The ruling also states that permission to drive to synagogue is likely to be interpreted by Masorti Jews as permission to drive anywhere on Shabbat, and that driving can create stress and tension, which are not conducive to the Sabbath spirit.
Praying in synagogue after driving there, the ruling concludes, is a mitzvah that comes from a transgression.
The rabbinic decree was issued in response to a question submitted by a Masorti family in Petach Tikvah. They asked if they could drive since there is no Masorti synagogue in their area and they feel uncomfortable in the local Orthodox synagogues, where men and women are treated unequally.
The family was advised by the Masorti Halacha Committee to find a relatively egalitarian Orthodox congregation in their city or, failing that, to move elsewhere.
“People for whom Shabbat observance is important will move to another home in order to live close to the synagogue of their choice,” the ruling said.
(Contributing to this report was JTA staff writer Debra Nussbaum Cohen in New York.)
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