High-Wire Act

Before the Internet Age rendered geography irrelevant to community there was the eruv, the rabbinic response to spatial separation. A strategically placed wire here, a natural hedge border there, the inclusion of a fence or a highway, turns a neighborhood into an imaginary walled community of halachic intent, as such a deliberate remembrance of pre-diasporic Jerusalem.  

Materially speaking, eruvin, the Hebrew plural, are symbolic architecture, their fixed structure more recognizable to the inner than the outer eye. That they cause so much fuss in today’s world is at once surprising and perfectly understandable.

Why care about a fiction meaningful only to those who lend it religious credence? Perhaps because the psychology by which we arrive at and assert self-identity — the bulwark of community formation — is maddeningly complex. The hyper pace at which societal change is thrust upon us in today’s globalized world surely does not help.

It didn’t start out that way. “Whatever social or political implications are ascribed to an eruv is a new twist,” notes Rabbi Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. “The Talmudic intent was simply a practical solution to a halachic problem.”

That problem is the Torah prohibition against carrying on the Sabbath. Its practical application — expanded to include pushing — means that house keys, prayer books and even canes, walkers and wheelchairs for the elderly or infirmed, and strollers and carriages for children too young to walk, cannot exit the home. Not even to allow attendance at synagogue services or to visit friends and relatives, acts that infuse oneg, joy, into Shabbat.

The rabbinic solution is to extend the private, the inner sanctum of the home, where such acts are permitted, to the public domain via the institution of the eruv, literally “mixing.” Halacha lays down strict rules as to what constitutes a kosher eruv. But once followed, illusion becomes accepted reality, allowing for easing the rules against carrying on Shabbat (as well as Yom Kippur, the “Sabbath of the Sabbaths”).

“You really can’t have a viable Orthodox community in the full sense of the word today without an eruv,” says Rabbi Adam Mintz of Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim, an Upper West Side congregation. “Individuals generally don’t overtly think in terms of self-identity, but they do think in terms of community. Judaism by definition is community-oriented and the eruv reflects that,” adds Rabbi Mintz, who is writing his NYU doctoral dissertation on the development of eruvin in America prior to World War II. 

In 2000, Robert D. Putnam, the Harvard University public policy professor, published “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” in which he explained the concept of social capital and its subcategories: bonding capital and bridging capital. Social capital refers to the cumulative value to society of social networks. Bonding capital is the sense of security and affirmation gained by interfacing with those who are like us. Bridging capital derives from interactions with those from whom we differ and funds wider social harmony.

Eruvin clearly accrue bonding capital. At the same time, they seem often to possess an inordinate power to tax bridging capital, which in any event is more difficult to obtain.

From London to Palo Alto, Calif., eruvin in recent years have pitted neighbor against neighbor, one concept of community against another. Close to home, recent high-profile public battles over the establishment of eruvin in Tenafly, N.J., and Westhampton Beach, L.I., have pitted Jew against gentile, but more often Jew against Jew — both the non-observant versus the observant and even the highly observant against the highly observant. The latter is exemplified by the contested validity of the interconnected Flatbush and Boro Park eruvin.

When halachic authorities get involved in an eruv dispute, such as the one in Brooklyn, the debate tends to focus, at least outwardly, on the details of Jewish law, traditional Judaism’s de facto community organizer. Not surprisingly, the rhetoric shifts dramatically when the dispute is between non-observant Jews and observant Jews. In such cases the eruv’s physical presence, its minimalism notwithstanding, is the focus of dispute. In a 2005 essay in the journal Jewish Social Studies, Charlotte Fonrobert, a Stanford University religion professor, says that’s because “the contemporary urban scene is nervous with regard to mapping ethnicity and especially religion explicitly and deliberately.” 

This is a polite way of saying that eruv spats can get pretty ugly. Just ask Rabbi Marc Schneier, defeated — but only so far, he insists — in his effort to establish an eruv in Westhampton Beach, L.I. The effort, he says, “evoked emotions of fear, prejudice, discrimination, Jewish pride of religion, civil rights; across the spectrum … the symbolism of the eruv goes to the heart of the psychological.”

Rabbi Schneier’s no greenhorn when it comes to building social capital. He leads the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and Manhattan’s New York Synagogue, in addition to the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach. Risk of failure, he well knows, is a given when communal boundaries are at stake. Still, there is evident disappointment in his voice when he speaks of what he regards as the wholesale religious intolerance exhibited by Westhampton Beach eruv opponents.              

He notes one local newspaper advertisement placed by opponents that asked residents, “Do you want Westhampton Beach to be proclaimed an Orthodox Jewish community?”

“Why is it that an Easter parade, a crèche or a village Christmas tree are acceptable displays of religious tolerance but not an eruv? The door needs to swing both ways. We’re asked to be open to the religious symbols of other faith groups. There’s a need for quid pro quo,” he argues.

It’s axiomatic that one person’s justice is another’s injustice. Likewise, it is not just Orthodox Jews who yearn for community and its symbols. Non-Orthodox Jews possess an equal human need for asserting self-identity via their notion of communal norms. So what Rabbi Schneier calls intolerance may also be seen as justified opposition to a perceived play for Orthodox public dominance, says Rabbi Adam Chalom, North America dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, the educational and intellectual arm of the non-theistic Jewish identity movement, headquartered in suburban Detroit.

“Most secular-minded Jews tend to be amused by or indifferent to the idea of an eruv,” says Rabbi Chalom, who also leads Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Some, however, object on constitutional or similar grounds. Others simply do not want their community to change. And some, he says, are reacting to a perception that Orthodox Jews are claiming the high ground. “They can’t always put their finger on it, but it’s a gut feeling that someone else is trying to represent me to the outside world. They are protecting their choices, their chosen identity and their notion of the community in which they want to live.”

The first eruv in the United States was dedicated in St. Louis in 1894, notes Rabbi Mintz. As recently as World War II, there were just three in all of North America: St. Louis, Toronto and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Their slow development reflected the debate still evident in the Brooklyn eruv dispute today — does an eruv ultimately undermine strict Shabbat observance by encouraging carrying, or does it encourage observance by making the day more enjoyable?

Today, Rabbi Mintz says, “there are dozens and dozens” of eruvin enclosing virtually every sizeable Orthodox community across North America. What happened? In a word, feminism, says Brandeis University American Jewish history professor Jonathan D. Sarna.

“What we now call Modern Orthodox synagogues were once a very different place, with an older generation of women content to be upstairs, behind a mechitza or just staying at home,” he explains. That changed starting in the late 1960s when feminist ideas began to penetrate Modern Orthodox communities. “Some women realized they could use Jewish law to ameliorate their situation and free themselves from being housebound with children on the Sabbath … Younger Orthodox men attracted to such women and themselves inspired by feminist thought took up the cause, and [eruvin] spread wildly.”

Communities, Jewish or otherwise, are dynamic — as witnessed by feminism’s instigated change. Philosophical borders shift, as do physical boundaries. Fighting that inevitability, communities tend toward encouraging stability and continuity. To that end, eruvin have come to be viewed as a critical tool for Orthodox communities. The assumption is that once individuals live in an eruv community they will be less inclined to leave for fear of losing the eruv’s social capital.

Sarna notes that an eruv alone is insufficient to preserving community. But there is little doubt that its psychic reward, not to mention practical purpose, is a giant and necessary step toward that preservation. No less and perhaps even more so in our individualistic Internet Age.
Ira Rifkin is an author and journalist living in Annapolis, Md.