There’s a saying that if you ask two Jews, you get three opinions. Apparently, if you ask 25 Rabbis whether you can drive an electric car on Shabbat, you get two.
Of the 25 Rabbis on the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards - the decision making body of the Conservative Jewish movement in the USA, ten voted in favour of endorsing driving electric cars on Shabbat. Six voted against.
By a very similar margin, a second, competing opinion, also passed, which rejected the use of electric cars on Shabbat. Two rabbis – including one of the co-chairs – voted for both papers.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who voted in favour of both, said: “Both of these responses articulate the preference for walking to and from the synagogue on Shabbat, and the more of us Jews who can do that, the better, not only for halachic reasons, but also for creating a close-knit community on Shabbat”.
However, he said: “Jewish laws must be applied to the realities that Jews face”.
Driving on Shabbat has historically caused halachic difficulties. Although driving is not explicitly banned, it is not permitted to travel beyond the borders of one’s communities on Shabbat, or perform repairs. It is also not permitted to light a fire – which includes turning the ignition in a car.
The first motion passed decided that if you stay close to home and drive only for Shabbat-related reasons, you can use electric cars without violating halacha.
The motion in favour of driving electric cars on Shabbat may not be all that impactful.
Conservative Jews in America, similar to the Masorti movement in the UK, already tend to drive to shul, and despite this numbers of American synagogue attendees are falling.
In 1950, the CJLS passed a motion permitting the use of cars on Shabbat for Jews who have no other way to get to shul. This was contentious, with the Israali Conservative movement rejecting the position entirely.
Unlike in the US, British Masorti authorities have never permitted driving on Shabbat, even in the case of attending shul. They maintain that “driving on Shabbat is not permitted by Jewish law” although they said: “We respect the personal choices of each individual”.