Three Ladies, Three Lattes: Driving to shul

Looking at percolating issues in Israel’s complicated social and religious fabric with secular Pam, modern Orthodox Tzippi and haredi Danit.

Road icons (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Road icons
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
I am a 35-year-old man who wants to become more observant, particularly about keeping Shabbat. I live a long way from the nearest shul and cannot walk there as I have a bad back, and I can’t sleep away from home as I have a family. Is it better to break Shabbat and drive, or not to go to synagogue at all? I love the services; Friday prayers inspire and provide the spiritual fulfillment that carries me through the week. What to do?
– Driving me crazy
Pam Peled:
Oh, dear. For me the answer is clear: I grew up in South Africa where we breathed Judaism.
We all drove to shul, Shabbatot and festivals.
We could pray in our sleep, we belonged, we loved the heimishness (hominess) of it all. After Shaharit morning services, fortified by fish balls from the kiddush, we went off to golf, drama lessons or the beach. It worked for us.
Was it halachically kosher? – We didn’t ask.
My go-to rabbi – an Orthodox, wonderful man – claims your question is complex. Halacha would say don’t drive. However, this rabbi claims it depends on each individual. Will shul bring you closer to Judaism and God? Do you appreciate why driving is forbidden on Shabbat? He would guide you personally, with advice for you alone. You’d drive to shul for now; possibly you’d ultimately find a way to walk.
In the States, this rabbi had a Reform congregant who wanted an Orthodox conversion; though observant, she drove to the synagogue on Shabbat because of the distance. To convert she had to accept the commandments, which she did, except for the driving. Shul was too important for her to give up. A great halachic authority suggested this compromise: If she agreed that she was violating a commandment but had no choice, it was the equivalent of accepting the commandment; the rabbi could convert her.
So he did. Soon afterwards, she began walking to shul.
There you have it. Don’t forget to pray to God to fix your back.
Tzippi Sha-ked:
My advice is: Don’t. Don’t what? Don’t go “observant” on your family without them on-board.
I’ve seen it too often – perfectly intact families unraveling when one spouse performs a 180-degree turn and becomes a ba’al teshuva (returnee to observance). I’ve seen divorces, family tensions, alienation and heartache. Where is the mitzva here? I once argued with a man who broke up his entire family because his wife refused to keep Shabbat. I claimed Hashem (God) is more likely to weep than applaud his newly minted orthodoxy.
Still, that hardly means in order to embrace Shabbat you have to give up on family. Rather, proceed with caution and approach observant Judaism as a family unit.
Back in that other Goldene Medina (California), a Chabad rabbi suggested we invite secular Jews for Shabbat as long as we provided the option of sleeping over instead of driving home. The rabbi knew the deal would end with the scrumptious meal, followed by the inevitable sound of the car’s ignition, but no matter: The Jew experienced a Shabbat, an unmeasurable gift.
I heard a schmooze (lecture) once about similarities and differences between a university library and a beit midrash (Torah study hall). Both are houses of learning: In one you imbibe knowledge quietly, for your own sake; in the second you experience auditory assault as wisdom, attained through loud sharing and debating. My point, like the schmooze, is that no man should be an island.
Stay inspired, yes, but don’t view Jewish growth as a solo act. After all, you’re a Jewish family man.
Danit Shemesh:
You can either drive or observe Shabbat, but not both; they are mutually exclusive. So, daven for a better back or a closer shul.
As you become more observant, you’ll find that a building block towards a Torah lifestyle is the relationship between the individual and the community.
Torah relates to the public at large, the common denominator, but also links each of us on an individual level. We cannot separate the individual from his context.
The West emphasizes the “I” and self-actualization; Judaism focuses on the “we” and an ideal bigger than the self. The West reveres the existential “living the moment” approach; Judaism promotes goals, with a constant locomotion towards a better self in a better community.
How is a society built, through physical survival or a mutual belief system? Is community a collection of individuals who happen to cohabit or do we build it around an ideal, like the sanctity of Shabbat? Yes, a community is a quilt of individuals, but what connects the many pieces of fabric? The Shabbat.
The law disallows driving on Shabbat, except in emergencies. Individual inspiration is important and can be achieved with family closeness – for example, if you can’t get to shul. “Religious injection” and “spiritual fulfillment” are means to a bigger end rather than an end itself. That “end” is your connection to God. To observe the holy Shabbat is to be plugged into the ideal, to God Himself. Don’t drive. If you do, you’ll miss out on that.
Comments and questions: 3ladies3lattes@ Three Ladies, Three Lattes is available from