Could a Google Vehicle Be Kosher for Shabbat?

Driverless cars are comparable to Shabbat elevators. Would Jewish law therefore permit using them on the day of rest?

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April 23, 2014 photo provided by Google shows the Google driverless car navigating along a street in Mountain View, Calif. (AP)
April 23, 2014 photo provided by Google shows the Google driverless car navigating along a street in Mountain View, Calif. (AP)

In 1950, Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob Agus and Theodore Friedman from the Conservative movement authored a responsum on the permissibility of riding in a motor vehicle to synagogue on Shabbat. Framing their answer within the context of a comprehensive program to revitalize Shabbat observance, they wrote:

“Refraining from the use of a motor vehicle is an important aid in the maintenance of the Shabbat spirit of repose. Such restraint aids, moreover, in keeping the members of the family together on the Shabbat. However, where a family resides beyond reasonable walking distance from the synagogue, the use of a motor vehicle for the purpose of synagogue attendance shall in no wise be construed as a violation of the Shabbat, but, on the contrary, such attendance shall be deemed an expression of loyalty to our faith.”

From an Orthodox perspective, the halakhic (Jewish law) problems with this responsum start with the premise that the value of synagogue attendance can trump the Torah prohibition of kindling a fire on Shabbat, which is how a car’s combustion engine functions. One can pray at home to fulfill one’s obligation which obviates any desecration of Shabbat.

This responsum is cited as one of the primary challenges to the Conservative movement’s claim to be halakhic. In fact, many Conservative clergy have called for its repeal. In the 1990s the Masorti movement in Israel banned driving on Shabbat based on the premises that the Sabbath is a national day of rest and it is possible to pray at home (an acceptance of the Orthodox position).

Recently, Google, the search engine powerhouse, unveiled its prototype for a driverless car. The vehicle lacks brakes, pedals and a steering wheel. It is meant for short distances, capping out at 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles per hour). Could this vehicle meet halakhic standards for travel on the Shabbat?

For the purpose of simplifying this complex topic, I am assuming that issues relating to travel and carrying on Shabbat, as well as the technology employed, will meet all practical halakhic requirements. Some of the technological concerns include the engine being maintained at an idle state when the vehicle is not operating in order that the combustion process is not initiated, that all usage is preprogrammed, and that the opportunity for passenger intervention is limited to cases of danger to life.

With the technical halakhic criteria met, I’d like to focus the question on two areas that are connected and crucial to Shabbat observance: uvdin d’hol (weekday activities) and the spirit of Shabbat.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book “The Sabbath,” describes Shabbat as a “sanctuary in time,” beyond spatial limitations. The first time the word kadosh is used in the Bible is with regard to the Shabbat. Kadosh means holy, but it also means separate. The holiness of Shabbat derives from its separateness, from its essential specialness and with our participation, our protection of it.

The “rest” we aspire to on Shabbat is not “recharging one’s battery” for the week ahead. In fact, one who sleeps away the Shabbat has totally missed the essence of the day. Shabbat resting is desisting from creative activity, in emulation of G-d’s process when He had completed the creation of the world. By stepping back from our creative selves, we transition from the “human becomings” we are during the week to aspire to the potential of “human beings” on Shabbat.

Driving is an example of an activity banned on Shabbat, both for its practical halakhic problems and for its connection to how we comport ourselves during the week. Efficiency, speed and control are all qualities that are intrinsic to the weekday activity of driving. Those same qualities are ones we utilize creatively as we work and that we need to consciously separate ourselves from Friday afternoon as we prepare to accept the Shabbat.

Halakhic solutions have been devised for people with disabilities to use modified electric scooters and wheelchairs on the Shabbat. Staying at a hotel with a room on an upper floor is made easier by the use of a Shabbat elevator or escalator. These halakhic solutions are not accepted by all Orthodox Jews, but for those that employ them, movement from one location to another is made less burdensome and the joy – a value we highly value – of Shabbat is increased.

What is intriguing about the Google vehicle is that it doesn’t feel like a car. By removing the brakes, pedals and steering wheel, there is no driver, only passengers. The experience is of being transported in a way like a Shabbat elevator, minimizing the burden of getting from place to place. This point would have the Google vehicle seem permissible.

However, there is always a risk that people would use the Google vehicle for other purposes. When the Conservative movement’s responsum limited Shabbat driving to getting to and from synagogue for public prayer, many took advantage of the opportunity to use the car for non-Shabbat activities, like shopping. Perhaps the Google vehicle’s design and its limited speed distinguish it enough to have it considered designatable for particular permissible uses only on Shabbat.

If the Google vehicle indeed becomes available, it could potentially be used for Shabbat activities beyond attending synagogue, like visiting one’s parents who live on the other side of town or traveling to a scenic spot for an inspirational walk with one’s spouse.

It is said that more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people. We must not forget that halakhic requirements are in place to enhance and protect the spirit of the day, and the means we employ are for the service of the day, not of us.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.

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