Rabbi Dror Fixler, an electro-optics expert from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, told The Local that the distinction between thought and action could mean that driving on the traditional Jewish day of rest was mutar, or permitted.
In October, scientists at Berlin's Free University announced they had tested a “proof of concept” car that could be driven by thought. An electroencephalography headset with sixteen sensors measures the brain's signals and sends them to a computer that operates the car.
Last week, Rabbi Fixler gave a lecture at the “Torah and Science Conference” at the Jerusalem College of Technology, during which he showed a video of the car being test driven at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin.
That lecture, he said, has sparked a debate in Israel about whether such devices that integrate the mind with machinery would be permitted on the Sabbath, when driving is typically forbidden.
“When you are making only thoughts, it is no action at all. There is a difference – if you are thinking, it is not the same thing, so you can't say it's forbidden,” he said. “That was what I asked the audience to think about.
“At first the instinctive reaction was, ‘How can you say it's mutar?' But after thinking about it, they started to think about the big difference between regular action and thought.”
Fixler stressed he personally did not think driving thought-controlled cars should be permitted on the Sabbath, as it would destroy the whole purpose of having a rest day. Rather, he wanted to spark a debate, he said. Jewish theologians and intellectuals needed to start thinking about the impact of technology.
“It's still in the future … it's not going to happen tomorrow, but we need to discuss it today so we'll have an answer tomorrow,” he said.
The distinction between thought and action could affect one of the chief reasons driving is forbidden on the Sabbath - the fact that operating a vehicle constitutes work. However the creation of a spark and the combustion of fuel could be said to also violate the prohibition of fire on the rest day. There are also rules about how far one may travel by any means of transport.
But Fixler said his own Rabbi, with whom he had discussed the complexities of the issue for six months, believed that remote controls rendered electrical devices such as televisions and air-conditioners permissible.
“If I'm pushing a button, I cannot say it is my action turning on the air-conditioner. So he says it's okay.”