Cars on Yom Kippur

Yesterday morning, Yom Kippur, around 7:30am, on my way to the synagogue, I saw two cars on the road. They were driving slowly, but they were definitely cars and they were definitely moving. On the road.

Why is this so unusual? Because in Israel on Yom Kippur, there are no cars on the road. And when I write “no cars”, I mean NO cars. In every city and on most inter-city roads, the roads are completely empty for 25 hours. For kids in Israel, Yom Kippur has become “bicycle day”, as they can roam the streets freely with their bikes undisturbed by other vehicles. Obviously in non-religious and non-Jewish towns people drive their cars, but if you live in a big city the likelihood of seeing a car driving on Yom Kippur is close to zero (aside to emergency services).

The most interesting part about this phenomenon is that there is no law that prohibits driving on Yom Kippur in Israel. It is a custom that developed out of respect for the holiest day in the year and Israelis have been keeping this custom for decades. As in most other areas concerning religion in Israel – shabbat, kashrut, marriages, etc. – there has been a steady erosion in recent years. I guess this erosion has now reached Yom Kippur as well. This is why seeing the two cars yesterday morning was both surprising and sad.

I am for separation of religion and state in Israel, so I cannot object to people driving on Yom Kippur. It is not the act of driving on this day that bothers me. After all, most people drive on shabbat. It is the fact that there was this island of consensus between religious and non-religious in Israel, and island that was not created artificially (or coercively) through legislation. And now even this small island is slowly disappearing.

I still believe such islands of agreement can be reached in order to maintain some public vestige of “Jewishness” in the Jewish state, but these cannot be had through the means of legislation. Unfortunately what most religious people (and political parties) do not understand is that the more religious legislation they enact, the less chance there is for a consensual modus vivendi that will do good not only to Israeli society as a whole but mostly to religion itself. Judaism free of state legistlation has flourished for 2,000 years; it gave us the core corpus of Jewish law and thought and kept Jews together through good times and bad. Somewhat paradoxically, a mere half-century of the “Jewish state” have reduced Judaism’s standing and power amongst most Israelis. Time is running out if we wish to reverse this trend.

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