Peter Steinfels: What would you put on a list of forces that have shaped and reshaped religion in the United States?

Broad religious movements like frontier revivalism, the Social Gospel or the pluralism of faiths owed to Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu immigrants?

Theological currents like Transcendentalism in the 19th century or neo-Orthodoxy in the 20th?

Theological battles like those over slavery, evolution and church-state ties?

Charismatic preachers like George Whitefield, Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr.?

How about the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956? Signed into law 50 years ago last June by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it started the Interstate Highway System, one of the largest public works programs in the nation’s history. It transformed the United States’ physical landscape and, it seems, its religious one.

“The nation’s embrace of automobility profoundly affected its spiritual life,” Jenna Weissman Joselit noted three weeks ago in a shrewd reflection on this 50th anniversary. Writing in The Daily Jewish Forward on Aug. 4, Ms. Joselit examined the impact that the iron triangle of car, highway and suburbia had had on Jewish life, and on Conservative Judaism in particular.

Delicately balanced between the traditional strictures of Orthodox Judaism and the modernizing flexibility of Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism seemed to take naturally to the suburban mixture of old values and new setting. The movement, Ms. Joselit wrote, “experienced its greatest and most sustained period of growth during the 1950’s and 60’s.”

But the car culture of suburbia proved to be a snake in the garden, especially for that central element of Jewish life, observance of the Sabbath. The new ease of transportation reinforced the temptation to spend the day not as a holy day of rest and spiritual renewal but as a busy one of errands, golf and family outings.

To complicate matters, the low density of suburban populations — and all the more so of suburban Jewish populations — militated against having a synagogue within walking distance, as required by Conservative Judaism, as well as Orthodox Judaism’s position that driving was not permitted on the Sabbath.

But what if synagogue attendance, and therefore an important element of Sabbath observance and Jewish life, could actually be strengthened by revoking this traditional ban, at least to permit driving to public worship on the Sabbath when it would otherwise be difficult?

In 1958, that is the question that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly tackled. After intense analysis and argument over venerable rabbinic rulings, like those barring lighting fires on the Sabbath or riding during that day on a horse or in a wagon, the committee issued a historic “Responsum on the Sabbath.” It permitted Sabbath travel by car, provided, as Ms. Joselit wrote, “it was headed in the direction of the synagogue, not the shopping center.”...

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