What the Conservative Driving Teshuva Represented
The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference starts this weekend. It comes at a time when the future direction and health of the movement is unclear. This series of posts will examine one of the factors behind the movement’s current challenges.
There is a certain variety of critique that tries to trace all the movement’s problems to the 1950 “Driving Teshuva,” which said it was ok to drive to synagogue on Shabbat. The usual line is that the driving teshuva was when the movement turned away from something-or-another, which led to its intellectual decline and eventual doom. The teshuva was a turning point for the movement. The Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards was only formed in 1948 [correction: CJLS was formed in 1927, but significantly reorganized in 1948]. This teshuva, in 1950, was a clear statement that Conservative rabbis were willing to publicly disagree with Orthodoxy. Still, placing the movement’s decline on a theological disagreement has always seemed weak to me. Despite current challenges, the movement has survived for 60 years since this decision and Conservative rabbis and leaders have played central roles in halachic and theological discussions that have affected all of Judaism. The link between saying it is ok to drive and the movement’s decline seems to be based more on wishful thinking among those who disagree, than on historical analysis. I do think the driving teshuva has hurt the movement in ways that are less often discussed, but this requires examining the text.
The driving teshuva is actually titled, “A Responsum on the Sabbath” (1950) by Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob Agus, and Theodore Friedman. You can read the full text as part of this pdf file. I am borrowing some explanation liberally from this 2005 blog post by elf’s dh. In short, the teshuva’s goal was not to broadly permit driving on Shabbat. It was not even to permit driving to synagogue on Shabbat. It’s goal was to allow driving to synagogue on Shabbat when the alternative was that people wouldn’t have an active connection to Judaism without going to synagogue on Shabbat. In short, the teshuva says, if people are at risk of separating from the Jewish people, but regularly drive to synagogue on Shabbat, there are better ways to engage these Jews than harassing them to stop driving. Perhaps shunning drivers and delivering drashot against driving might not be the best way to encourage people to increase their connections to Judaism..
Put this way, this is little different from the many Modern Orthodox and Chabad synagogues which maintain an official position against driving on Shabbat, but still have seats and honors in the service for people who park down the block.
The problem with this teshuva is less its conclusion and more the assumptions that got it there. It assumes that the future of Judaism would be in communities where people could not or would not walk to synagogue. Conservative Judaism staked its future on the rise of suburbia. This was an intentional decision, not a recognition of the inevitable. It meant not just looking the other way when people drive on Shabbat, but, but accepting that driving on Shabbat would be a fundamental necessity. The driving teshuva was a key part of an active decision to embrace suburban life and actively abandon urban, walkable living. It meant abandoning cities in a way that Orthodoxy never did. It meant abandoning cities to an extent that non-Orthodox Jews never actually did.
As an example, here is a story told to me by the emeritus rabbi of a Conservative synagogue in an outlying area of a city with mostly single-family homes. He recounts asking Conservative movement officials for help around 1970, when the synagogue was losing members due to a shrinking local Jewish population, and most of the other local Conservative congregations moved to the suburbs. The Conservative movement officials told him that synagogues in cities were doomed to closure, and they only help they could give him would be to help help him find a new (suburban) pulpit. He declined their offer, and some decades later, the neighborhood (and the synagogue) have seen a great resurgence of Jews. His synagogue has more than doubled in size in the last 15 years.
The suburbanisation of Conservative Judaism served the movement very well during the rise of the suburbs. But nowadays, more and more Jews want to live in walkable neighborhoods, and the Conservative synagogues have left these city neighborhoods for suburbs that no longer attract enough Jews to support them all. Meanwhile, the movement’s key institutions still have a mindset that focuses on suburban-style synagogues/community centers. While the rise of Jewish suburbanization was marked by the driving teshuva, the movement has had decades to readjust how it interacts with Jewish in different types of communities. My next post will focus on what is currently happening and what could be done.