Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Driving teshuva III: USY

A bit of Conservative movement policy that I neglected to mention in either of my first two posts on the subject of the driving teshuva is the CJLS statement on students driving during United Synagogue Youth (USY) Kinnusim (Shabbatonim). I had thought it was more or less an irrelevant postscript, but, given the discussions in the comments to my last post about the movement's unenforced paper policy about driving by rabbinical students, I thought I'd throw this in to the mix too. Unfortunately, the photocopy sheets I have are completely out of context, so, I have no idea in what year these “suggestions” were proposed. They are attributed to Rabbi Seymour Siegel. It begins with an introduction that reaffirms that all agree that driving on Shabbat is forbidden, but that the prohibition can be set aside under “pressing circumstances.” It then continues with a list of guidelines, that I will reprint in full, with commentary. All emphasis has been added. I think that this set of guidelines, while stricter than the vast majority of congregants' practice, are not in keeping with the original 1950 teshuva or its 1961 addendum. They demonstrate the elasticity of later interpretation of the original heter.

a. The scheduling of USY kinsim which necessitate travel on Shabbat should be avoided wherever possible

You would think that the rabbinate would have reserved the driving heter for sociological “emergency” situations. You would especially think that if the author had written the following earlier:

However, the Rabbis decided that under unusual and pressing circumstances the prohibition could be set aside . . . It might be wise to eschew the term heter in speaking of the question of travel on Shabbat. This word implies abrogation.

that the emphasized words may not have been there. Can a voluntary gathering be “unusual and pressing?”

b. Full recognition should be given to those members whose rabbis do not approve of travel on Shabbat. These youngsters should be accomodated properly so that they will not be forced to use an automobile or other conveyance on Shabbat.

c. No kinnus should be scheduled which requires travel on Shabbat if the host rabbi objects.

These two guidelines bring up a point that I hadn't commented on from the original driving teshuva: It was instituted as an option, and it was expected that certain communities (read: certain community's rabbis) would adopt it and others wouldn't. So, even within the context of the 1950's teshuva, there is no contradiction in a contemporary Conservative rabbi answering that all driving on Shabbat is forbidden.

d. Travel should be limited to and from the synagogue. There should not be any other travel such as arriving after sundown, sightseeing, going to house parties, etc.

At first glance, this would seem to be in keeping with the 1950's teshuva. I don't believe that it is. The Adler-Agus-Friedman teshuva allowed travel to and from one's regular synagogue that is beyond walking distance only, and the 1961 addendum specifically rejected travel to other synagogues for social purposes. While it might be argued that the USY-ers are tagging along to the regular synagogue of the host families, the fact of going on the kinnus is a voluntary activity. While traveling temporarily, there is no indication that the driving heter applies. For that matter, I don't see how USY-ers committed enough to go on a Shabbaton would even be part of the emergency situation for which the heter was intended.

e. Every effort should be made to educate youngsters to recognize the fact that under ordinary circumstances it is a violation of Shabbat law ans spirit to travel on the holy day. An exception is made only for the sake of a mitzvah gedolah.

Perhaps this point just suffered from bad phrasing. There are only two “mitzvot” for which the prohibition against travel on Shabbat has been set aside. One is universally agreed upon, and that is, saving a life. The second is driving to synagogue and back, for the purpose of public prayer and maintaining a connection to Judaism that would otherwise be lost. Driving for the purposes of performing other mitzvot, even those that are arguably greater than public prayer, was rejected by the 1961 addendum.

f. The educative program should be coupled with an explanation of the possibility of divergence of interpretation within Jewish law. Just as those who do travel should not be looked upon as sinners because of the liberality of their understanding, those who insist on avoiding travel on Shabbat should not be labelled as reactionary of illiberal because of their interpretation.

Yay, pluralism!

And, I found this part moderately interesting, and wonder if it was ever done:

Though it is recognized as practically unfeasible, it was pointed out that from the strictly halakhic point of view, a bus driven by a non-Jew is less of a Shabbat violation that the use of private automobiles. If the proper safeguards and explanations can be forthcoming, in some instances this kind of arrangement might be perferable to privately operated vehicles.

It might make an interesting case of analysis for ma'arit ayin (the law that one should not do something that appears to be counter to halacha, even if it is really permitted; These issues are sometimes handled with by performing the particular action in some way that's different than it is normally done, such that an outside observer will notice that a Jew is not doing the prohibited action).

I was never a member of USY, so, I have no idea how these paper policies are handled in the real-world, or if USY took them as “suggestions,” “guidelines” or policy.

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Many people — in my experience, mostly those who hold by the heter — prefer to discuss "riding" on Shabbat rather than "driving." The final excerpted passage in your post is the only situation in which I can make any sense of this.
You write "For that matter, I don't see how USY-ers committed enough to go on a Shabbaton would even be part of the emergency situation for which the heter was intended." There is no basis for this statement. Most USYers who go on kinnusim are not shomer shabbat, nor are they observant. They go for purely social reasons.
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Granted, it's the weakest of the three points. The other two (that one can't volunteer himself into an emergency and that it would involve travel to synagogue for a social function, rather than one's regular synagogue) stand independently.

(The deleted comment was me having made a mistake writing this one).
It is the weakest of the three, but not invalid. A Jew who is not halakhically observant is not necessarily in danger of disengaging completely from the Jewish community, the latter being the motivating factor behind the heter.
lawrence --
That was my original thought when writing that third reason. But, it seems that the heter was written as an emergency measure to restore a small amount of Sabbath observance from nothing, rather than just preventing someone from moving away from Judaism completely. So, it's not entirely clear to me whether being a "cultural" Jew (strongly identified with Judaism but nonobservant) automatically exempts you from the heter, although it certainly is a long way from weak identification with Judaism. That's why I think it's a weak, but not invalid argument.
This "heter" is where Conservative Judaism lost me.

I should explain: I grew up Conservative/Traditional, and joined USY in 10th grade. One year, (I think in 11th grade, but it could have been 12th) there was a special Officer's Weekend, and the President of our chapter was unavailable. As Ritual VP, I was sent as a substitute. We stayed in the home of one of the few (mostly) Shomer Shabbos families in our USY region. I say mostly, because they would set a timer if there was something on TV they wanted to watch (like an important ballgame) and they didn't pre-tear toilet paper or switch to tissues for Shabbos. In all other respects, they were Shomer Shabbos. It was my first "real" Shabbos, and I loved it.

I decided to be Shomer Shabbos at least for USY Kinnusim, so for the next one I checked off the little box on my application marked "I'd like to be housed within walking distance of the shul." We all knew it was a euphenism for "I'm Shomer Shabbos." They put me in a different town. I complained Friday night (didn't realize until I was there to put my stuff away, couldn't complain until we were back at shul) and they dug out my application. Sure enough, I had checked off that box! It was "explained" to me that United Synagogue had "decided" that it was "okay" to drive to shul on Shabbos, as long as it was "the closest synagogue" and you "didn't pass any other synagogues on the way." But if I really wanted to, they could find some place to stick me for the night, and I'd just have to sleep in my clothes and wear them again the next day. I went back to my host's home for the night, against my own better judgement, and I was very upset. But I was even more upset that they tried to make it "okay."

Today I am a very Yeshivish Orthodox Jewess. And I wouldn't have it any other way, so I guess I owe this teshuva my thanks, for making observant Conservate Judaism a non-appealing option.
If you don't mind answering, what year did this happen? I just found out, through a bibliographic reference here, that the USY driving policy(?) was published in 1967. If the driving teshuva had been a recent, occurrence, that would put the event in the early 1950's. Events like it could have been what caused the CJLS to comment. If it was later, it could be that it was a failed implementation of the policies (the existence of the check box would seem to suggest that), and that someone at USY couldn't admit that he made a mistake or didn't understand the driving teshuva at all. It could potentially help answer the question in the last sentence of my post.
Sorry, didn't see your question until just now.

But no, it wasn't in the 50's or 60's: I wasn't even born then! Umm, it had to be between 1990 and 1992, because those were the years I was in USY. And they certainly made it sound like a recent decision. I still wasn't impressed.
I think it was pulled in to make me feel better about being "forced" to be mechalel Shabbos. They were very surprised when they pulled out my application and found I was telling the truth about having checked that box. (I was very insulted at not being believed.) They very much didn't want to have to find a place to stick me for the night, especially since it was already Shabbos and they couldn't call people. They very much wanted to encourage me to just leave things as they were, and this was a straw to grasp at, that would make it "okay." After all, they had put people that far away on purpose, so it must be "okay," right?

It was fairly standard practice in the early 90s, though, to purposely host people a town over with no other way to get to and from shul other than by car.

They did it to me again the next time. The third time, I asked before I went to anyone's house, to make sure, and was assured that it was indeed walking distance. Well, it was, but the older couple we (I and 2 not-Shomer Shabbos companions) were staying with refused to let me walk and wouldn't give me directions. But that time wasn't USY's fault.

Not until I got to college was I able to experience a real Shabbos again.
Thanks for responding!

I think the year (90's) says it all, though. At least then, 20-30 yrs after the policy statement, USY was operationally more inclined to allow/encourage driving to shul during the policy would indicate.

But that time wasn't USY's fault.

I would've expected more from people who were trying to accomodate you. Presumably, they had to ask the people you were staying with whether you could stay there in the first place. It wouldn't have been a horrible thing to ask them if they walked (or, at least, you could walk) at the same time.
Rest assured that many USYers after you have followed similar paths.
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