by Larry Kaufman
(Also posted at LarryKaufman.wordpress.com)
In Talmud class yesterday at Beth Emet, Rabbi Knobel was talking about a mishnah that involved the drawing of boundary lines, and I shared the story of Yankel, who was given his choice, as boundary lines were being set, of whether he wanted the line drawn so as to put his farm in Poland or in Russia. Without hesitation, he chose Poland, a choice for which his wife afterwards berated him. (So what else is new?) The Poles are even worse anti-Semites than the Russians, she scolded. Why did you choose Poland? To which Yankel replied, I was trying to spare you the rigors of the Russian winter!
Lo and behold, just a day after this discussion about boundaries, the New York Times ran a story about the problems created for Orthodox Jewish communities in the Northeast as their recent blizzards damaged eruvim, the strung-wire constructs built around many Jewish communities to extend for their inhabitants the boundaries of “their place,” adding geography to the realm in which they are permitted to carry on Shabbat – a permission perhaps most visible to the outside or skeptical Reform eye when we see the line-up of strollers outside the Orthodox synagogue on Saturday morning. No strollers? It probably signifies that the word has gone out that a section of the eruv has fallen down, and until all the king’s horses and all the rebbe’s men have put humpty-eruv together again, the walls of your actual home set the limit on where you can carry, or where you can push a stroller.
In the days when Jews lived in walled cities, or behind ghetto walls, the Times tells us, the extended carrying zone came with the territory; and in the U.S. the eruv was almost unknown before the 1970′s. The Orthodox community for the most part coped, and carried. Over the last forty years, though, the general posture within Orthodoxy has been to find dormant restrictions to impose on its adherents, new ways to be zealous about avoiding the possibility of the possibility of breaking a Torah law. After all, the creation and enforcement of these legal fictions gives employment to hundreds of roshei Yeshiva (heads of Orthodox seminaries), mashgichim (kashrut supervisors), and other black-hatted, black-suited functionaries, who are imposing these chumrot (severities) upon the willing – so we, the unwilling, have no reason to object, and can mostly be content to ignore.
One of the difficulties of establishing an eruv, a community boundary, the Times points out, is that the typical eruv involves creating the boundary by co-opting existing structures, like telephone poles and El structures, and stringing unobtrusive wires to create the symbolic enclosure. This typically involves getting permission from the local municipal authorities, who have no real reason to withhold the permission, except their fear of local opinion:
“With the boom has come some opposition — not, as Jews once feared, from intolerant gentiles, but from fellow Jews. Some Orthodox leaders maintain that urban eruvim are too large and populous to be legitimate. Less observant Jews in Tenafly, N.J., and Westhampton Beach, N.Y., have fought their installation, under the erroneous assumption that an eruv would coerce them in some way.”
The Times, with its journalistic predilection to getting (or giving) only part of the story,* neglects to mention that opposition also comes from Orthodox leaders who want the original “no carry” law to be observed faithfully, and who decry the legal fiction route to permit the impermissible.
A well-known maxim in the more liberal sectors of Orthodoxy concedes that, where there is a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way. In fact, the eruv, and other such legal fictions, can be construed as a response to this principle. Reform Judaism, in contrast, following the principle that the halacha is for guidance, not governance, avoids the creation of legal fictions by ignoring those aspects of the received body of Jewish law that no longer make sense, something we can do because we don’t start from the premise that the Torah is God-given and thus immutable.
So – the blizzards knocked down eruvim, and the mothers who normally brought their toddlers to shul in their strollers were forced to stay home. But they were so forced by their own interpretation of piety. Unlike Yankel, who spared himself and his wife the rigors of the Russian winter, they were victimized by the New Jersey winter. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
*On Sunday, February 28, 2010, the Times wrote about the resurgence of Jewish life in Poland, focusing almost exclusively on the story of a former neo-Nazi skinhead who discovered his Jewish roots, and who now has not only become Orthodox but is studying to be a mashgiach, a kashrut supervisor. Dan Bilefsky’s story totally ignores the more mainstream men and women who are reclaiming Jewish roots and seeking Jewish identity, including those who are doing so at Beit Warszawa, Warsaw’s thriving Progressive synagogue, under the leadership of American Reform Rabbi Burt Shuman.