Conservative driving teshuvah reexamined

Many people criticize the Conservative Jewish movement in regards to it’s – poorly understood – decision which allowed Jews to drive to synagogue on Shabbat for the purposes of worship. But while the criticism is sincere, we need to carefully think about the claims made by the critics:

Aerial Beverly MA suburbs driving
A suburb in Massachusetts, from Maine Imaging. Most families in the United States can’t afford to live in cities with Jewish communities. The result is urban sprawl.

The major criticisms is that it supposedly caused an increase in the amount of people who no longer fully observed the Sabbath. But while that claim is popular, it unfortunately confuses correlation with causation.

In reality, from the 1900’s onward, there was a growing trend of less religious observance and more assimilation in most Jewish communities, across Europe and the United States. Even the briefest of surveys shows that heavilly Orthodox Jewish communities such as Chelsea, Mass, with over 16 Orthodox synagogues, were unable to sustain an observant population. (Today Chelsea has just one Orthodox synagogue.) The decision made by the Conservative movements law committee – the CJLS – wasn’t made until the 1950’s, and it certainly had no overnight effect.

Despite simplistic claims (indeed, bordering on ad homenim attacks) it is clear that compared to observance in the past, in somewhat isolated Jewish communities, the decreased percent of Jewish people who were fully Shabbat observant by 1960 had very little to do with that one responsa.  The decreased observance was actually part of a long term philosophical, social, geographical and economic change, one which both Orthodox and Conservative rabbis grappled with.

Consider: While Orthodox apologists proudly proclaim that Orthodoxy has a superior hashkafah, educational system, and religious school building program, they too have always had equal voice in the American Jewish community – they too have newspapers, advertisements, synagogue growth, and outreach. Yet they have had little effect on the majority of Jewish people living in suburbs.

In the last 50 years Chabad Lubavitch emissaries have made tremendous strides in establishing hundreds of religious communities across the United States. But their effect on improving halakhic Shabbat observance hasn’t been much greater then from the Conservative synagogues. I’m not saying there’s no effect, but most people who donate or go to Chabad events will drive on Shabbat.

Instead of blaming Conservative rabbis for the massive changes in belief and observance since the Enlightenment, it is time for Jews to work together to address the practical issues. One of the issues that a huge change occurred in the American economy, making it almost financially impossible for many people to live in the densely packed urban Jewish communities that once had been affordable. The economy and geographical home distribution isn’t a matter that one can ignore.

In The Driver’s Seat: Rabbinic Authority in Postwar America, by Jenna Weissman Joselit

Unless we can find a way to build Jewish communities with upon nearby affordable housing, with outreach and subsidies to encourage Jews to move there, I don’t see the present situation changing very much.

For more on this topic please see

Judaism’s Community Problem – How Hyper-Suburbanization is Hurting the Jewish Future, Marc Dreyfuss

Rebuilding Jewish Communities: The New Generation, Marc Dreyfuss

References

“Responsum of the Sabbath”, CJLS Responsa, Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob Agus and Theodore Friedman

(title?), Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, CJLS Responsa

Full text of “A Responsum on the Sabbath” (PDF document)

Travel on the Sabbath: A statement unanimously adopted by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, on 2/17/60

Riding to the Synagogue on Shabbat (OH 305:18), Rabbi David Golinkin, Rabbinical Assembly of Israel/Masorti Movement

Responsafortoday.com/vol4/3.pdf in Hebrew

Conservative Head Calls Sabbath-Driving Rule a ‘Mistake’, The Forward, 11/7/2003

“Reflections on the Driving Teshuvah” by Avram Hein, Spring 2004, “Conservative Judaism

David Fine, Susskind Goldberg, Kassel Abelson, and Ismar Schorsch, Conservative Judaism Vol. 56(3), pp. 21–50.

The Conservative driving teshuvot: Fifty-five years later

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