Shabbat Shalom Week 12: Civil Disobedience and Driving on Shabbat

We’re driving during Shabbat tonight.

Even to most of my Jewish friends, this would not be a big deal. The Conservative movement itself — in which both my partner and I were raised — issued a ruling in the ’50s allowing driving on Shabbat, because how else could the far-flung Jews of American suburbia get to synagogue? Orthodox Jews were shocked by this relaxation of the law, certain that it would lead to widespread abandonment of religious observances that conflict with modern sensibilities — including living in the close-knit, insular neighborhoods that make it possible to have all of Shabbat life within walking distance — and they were pretty much right. Now most American Jews just treat Shabbat as Saturday.

Ariel and I don’t, though. We keep Shabbat pretty strictly, even more so than most of her classmates in rabbinical school. We have some liberal allowances — I’m pretty okay with turning off appliances that are wasting energy, though I won’t turn them on, for instance — but not driving has been a hard line for us since we started this practice last year. We don’t even have the faintest desire to drive on Shabbat. The highways of L.A. are spiritual poison. Traffic is the opposite of prayer. And that’s one of the reasons we chose to live on the outskirts of L.A.’s densest Jewish neighborhood, so we can walk to synagogues and friends’ homes on Friday nights and Saturdays.

So why are we breaking this rule this time? How could we do it? Actually, it wasn’t even a hard decision. This is the MLK Shabbat at Sinai Temple. It’s a powerful, musical, interfaith service in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The national holiday in his honor is on Monday, so that can be a day of action. Sinai’s MLK service lets us praise and remember and celebrate the ongoing civil rights struggle on our day of rest, charging us up for Monday’s work.

I’m not enough of a Jewish scholar to be able to pull out a source for you, but I’m confident in my understanding that the struggle for the freedom, dignity, and civil rights of all people is a primary Jewish mission. Joining together in community to celebrate one of our country’s greatest civil rights leaders is worth a great spiritual price. I’m sure there are stories from during Dr. King’s life when Jewish activists compromised their Shabbat practices for the sake of the movement. I would have been one of those people.

I think it’s specious to object to us driving to this service on the grounds that cars are a proscribed technology on Shabbat. This is just a matter of comparing spiritual technologies and deciding which one will do the most good. The technology of this majestic synagogue, Temple Sinai, the structure of the service tonight, and the longstanding Jewish technique of gathering the community on Friday night are going to achieve the highest possible religious result: a congregation of people fired up about the cause of social justice. The car is just going to have to be part of that practice.

It’s not ideal — ideally we would all live in walking/biking communities with public gathering places on every corner and organic farms on our roofs — but it’s important that we drive to be there. We’re turning this religious transgression into an act of civil disobedience, breaking the law to call attention to a far greater injustice. I’m not worried about being forgiven. Sometimes breaking the law is the righteous thing to do.

Shabbat shalom,
Jon