Those who follow the Jewish press, may be aware already that the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards met this week. As is the case at each meeting, the members of the CJLS (including me) reviewed and critiqued a number of draft teshuvot (papers establishing approaches to outstanding questions of halachah/Jewish law) for the first or second time, and held formal votes on papers reviewed at prior meetings. Sometimes, a passed teshuvah relates to a topic of such general interest that its passage will be reported in the press, as was the case with the document accepted by the CJLS providing models for ceremonies binding same sex couples and ceremonies dissolving those unions as well.
Another paper, easily of equal significance in terms of demonstrating the credibility of halachah as a guide to life in the modern world, is the work of Rabbi Daniel Nevins who has succeeded in bringing order and reason to the issue of the use of electricity on Shabbat. Rabbi Nevins' teshuvah approaches the length and depth of a monograph more than a concise teshuvah and therefore I cannot possibly summarize it in this short blog. But I am eager to publicly convey my thanks to a hard-working, intelligent and passionate colleague for rendering comprehensible a complicated topic that has confounded me, and many others, for a long time.
Going far beyond a declaration to reasoned proof, Rabbi Nevins establishes that electricity is by no means the fire whose transmission is prohibited on Shabbat, that opening an electric circuit is not "boneh", is not building an entity that did not previously exist on Shabbat, that running electricity through an appliance does not transform the appliance itself rendering a prohibited change.
In such a topic, details and technical parameters are of utmost importance. Rabbi Nevins reviews and categorizes a number of electric appliances and categorizes them in terms of prohibition or permission according to a number of criteria. His work provides the basis for analysis of electric appliances in terms of Shabbat usage, but does not provide blanket permission to the Shabbat observer to use any electric appliance on Shabbat.
We who voted in favor of this teshuvah (and I am proud to have cast my vote in favor) hope that those who seek to observe Shabbat on the basis of tradition and science and spiritual fulfillment will be informed by this work. We hope that colleagues will find very useful material for teaching and for their own reviews of electricity use on Shabbat for their communities.
For all that, Rabbi Nevins' work, passed by a large majority but not unanimously, does not constitute blanket permission to use electricity in every way in every conceivable electric appliance on Shabbat. Far from it. A central principle to this teshuvah is that an action (like cooking) which is absolutely prohibited on Shabbat does not become permitted simply because the cooking implement is heated by electricity rather than flame. That which is prohibited on Shabbat remains prohibited on Shabbat.
Yes, there will be conversations about, and probably adjustments made, to our policies here at Torat Yisrael regarding some uses of electricity based on Rabbi Nevins' work. Once again, the Conservative Movement demonstrates that it is more than possible to live a life committed to Jewish tradition and Jewish law in the modern world.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.