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Rabbi’s Update 8/25/23

Dear Friends:

I’ve previously discussed, in several messages and talks, the role of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS or Law Committee) of the Conservative Movement. The CJLS consists of 25 rabbis and decides on halachic questions for the Conservative movement.

Unlike a Supreme Court, the CJLS can and does validate multiple opinions on the same subject. If a proposed responsum receives six votes, it is considered a valid opinion and can be relied upon by Conservative rabbis and congregations. So it is not unusual for the CJLS to pass contradictory opinions on the same issue.

Whether or not CJLS opinions acknowledge it, sociology plays an important role in the committee’s decision making. When the COVID pandemic began, the CJLS swiftly approved the use of Zoom and similar technologies for broadcasting services and counting a minyan over Zoom. There were indeed multiple opinions, from complete prohibition to complete permission, and I chose a middle ground for our shul -- we count online participants for most purposes but not for the Torah service.

Recently the Law Committee passed conflicting opinions on the use of electric cars on Shabbat. The Conservative movement first officially approved driving to synagogue on Shabbat in the 1950s despite the fact that the use of an internal combustion engine creates a fire, which is a forbidden labor on Shabbat. The postwar migration of Jews to the suburbs made this ruling a necessity as many synagogue-going and otherwise observant Jews no longer lived within walking distance of a synagogue.

The responsum by Rabbis David Fine and Barry Leff argues that the use of an electric car is highly preferable to the use of a gasoline powered car since it avoids the creation of a fire. This strikes me as self-evident. What surprised me to some extent is that Rabbis Leff and Fine expanded their permission beyond driving to synagogue and allow driving to attend a Shabbat meal, a Torah study session, and even a park or a museum as long as no handling of money is involved.

At the same time the CJLS passed another responsum by Rabbis Marcus Mordecai Schwartz and Chaim Weiner reiterating that driving on Shabbat is prohibited, whether the vehicle in question is powered by gasoline or electricity. There is also a study guide which explores the differences between the two responsa in somewhat less technical language.

I have not yet had the opportunity to read these two responsa in sufficient depth to teach about them but I look forward to doing so at some point after the fall holidays.

As a reminder, I am having drop-in hours on Thursday afternoon from 2 to 4 at the shul. You do not need to make an appointment -- that would negate the whole point of drop-in hours -- but I’d urge you to check and make sure I am there regardless as sometimes there are unavoidable pastoral or other emergencies which might take me away from the building.

As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Charles L. Arian

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