The Autonomous Car Revolution May Leave Some Jews Behind

Evangelists for the self-driving future of cars often say that their arrival is inevitable, that people would be much happier tending to other business rather than wasting time driving a car.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been promoting the promise of Tesla's "Full Self Driving" technology for years, saying that a future fully autonomous version would be "a natural extension of active safety". Today, opting for that package gets buyers technology that falls far short of driverless car capabilities.

But not everyone will be able to take part in that self-driving future all the time.

Since the Hebrew Bible was assembled in the centuries before the Common Era (or B.C.), Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and other sects of Jewish people around the world have observed Shabbat or Shabbos, the seventh day of rest according to religious law.

During that day of rest, observers are taught to refrain from performing 39 forms of work, or the 39 Melachot.

Observers are encouraged to read and discuss the Torah, attend services at their synagogue and spend quality time with friends and family instead.

An oft-cited form of work that Shabbat observers are prevented from is "making a fire." In our modern world, that is translated to mean turning on lights, heating a stove and pressing a button to operate an appliance or anything that is mechanically operated.

Conversations in the Jewish community about technological advancements and how they relate to Shabbat are nothing new.

Discussions on whether Shabbat observers can ride in cars or take trains have been happening since the early days of those passenger vehicles.

In his 1972 book To Be A Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life, Orthodox rabbi Hayim Donin outlined the sect's thinking on driving:

"...the prohibition of driving is an extension of the Biblical prohibition of kindling fire and burning," he writes. "Creating sparks and burning gas and oil as a direct result of the driver's actions are but a few of the more serious objections."

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An Iraqi Kurdish Jewish man, clad in mask due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and a Tallit prayer shawl, and other family members recite a prayer together over their Shabbat meal during a service at a home in Arbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region, on June 19, 2020. SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images

Cars have only become more mechanically complicated since then. With the advent of infotainment systems and driving aids, more machines are present in the act of driving than ever before.

There may be fault lines on this topic along different sects of Judaism. When Newsweek reached out to the Union of Reform Judaism, a spokesperson said that the Reform and Conservative movements already drive cars on Shabbat and that driverless cars "will not have an impact on our policy".

The Conservative movement issued a ruling in 1950 that permitted riding in a car on Shabbat if that person lives far away from their synagogue with the caveat that they make no other stops along the way.

It's similar to cell phone usage among the Amish community, a collection of traditionalist Christian observers that largely shun modern technology. Many use them in limited capacities, like contacting distant relatives and conducting business.

In the 90s, the Halacha Committee of Israel's Rabbinical Assembly, a Conservative organization, ruled that it was prohibited to drive on Shabbat based on the fact that Israelis already don't work during the day of rest.

But for Orthodox Jews, as strict Torah adherents, it's a different story.

In a recent interview, Rabbi Menachem Genak, CEO of the Orthodox Union's Kosher Division, told Newsweek that it would violate either the law or spirit of Shabbat to ride in an autonomous vehicle. Even if the car was on a predetermined route and all a passenger would have to do would be to walk toward it and enter it.

"However you start it - and you'd have to stop it - would still be problematic," he said.

Miami-area rabbi Marc Phillippe agrees, drawing a distinction between a "Shabbat elevator," a specialized elevator that's always on and makes stops on certain floors, and a car that someone would have to turn on.

"If you had a car that keeps moving the whole time, from Friday night to Saturday night - so you just hop out of it - that would be a different story," Phillippe said.

Both rabbis relay that conversations have already taken place on self-driving cars within the Jewish community, there hasn't been an official rabbinic take on the matter yet.

But Genak says that it would violate the "mood of Shabbos," something that distinguishes the day from any other day of the week.

"It's a setting aside," he explained. "In a contemporary context it's: live one day without your iPhone or computer. That's become worse and we're all addicted to that. It's not such an easy thing to do. But you focus on the Shabbos and the theme of Shabbos. Stay at rest, recognize the Creator, things like that."

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A Waymo autonomous test car, outfitted with LIDAR and other sensor units. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Asking someone else to drive you is also prohibited, since you are effectively creating work. Only in a life-threatening emergency are you allowed to drive or be driven during Shabbat.

Non-Jewish people have been hired to take care of things that a Jewish person couldn't do in a synagogue, but Phillippe says that it's different outside of that space.

"Historically you have many people in the synagogues who are non-Jews who do everything that needs to be done, but driving is a very sticky thing," he said, adding that most Shabbat observers live within walking distance from their local synagogue.

While some rabbinic scholars don't consider it a biblical violation, others will say that riding in a car is a rabbinic violation of the Halakha, a collection of Jewish legal works.

Adherence to the Halakha varies among the sects. Orthodox observers hold it as divine law. Conservatives believe that it's a developing partnership between God and man. Reform members don't see the Halakha as binding on modern-day Jews, rather that it's up to the individual observer to interpret those laws.

Genak says that while there's no overarching ruling on autonomous driving yet, he says it would fall under what Orthodox members already believe about driving on Shabbos.

"Getting in the car and having it do everything for you may only be a rabbinic (violation), but it would still be a violation of the Shabbos," Genak argued.