In his presentation on "Law and Border" at the Limmud Chicago 2013 conference on Feb. 17, Rabbi Avi Finegold, an education consultant, outlined two very different approaches to the Jewish ritual called eruv. An eruv is essentially a loophole that allows observant Jews to carry things on the Sabbath.
For Orthodox Jews, who do not drive to synagogue on the Sabbath, an eruv also allows mothers to push strollers and carry things like diaper bags to services, so it's often a prerequisite for families with young children to pray together. That's where Finegold noticed something interesting in the way different communities discuss their eruvim (plural).
The West Rogers Park eruv website, for example, admits that an eruv "will be most helpful to families with young children," but those benefits come with costs. "With the establishment of our Eruv, the problem with young children attending and disturbing services is a great concern," according to the site:
Despite the cherished place children enjoy in Jewish communal worship, there is no license to restructure our synagogues as indoor playgrounds for the young. ... Permitting a youngster to roam freely and cause disturbances reinforces negative habits which may remain throughout his life. Moreover, parental example of talking in Shul [synagogue] or failure to show reverence, fosters an irreverent attitude in the child resulting in double damage.
A quick scan of the Lakeview eruv website by Rabbi Asher Lopatin, however, almost feels like one is reading about an entirely different ritual.
Of course, one of the greatest freedoms the eruv provides is for families to take their young children to shul, with baby blankets, an extra set of clothes and a bottle, etc. ... The eruv prevents families from having to make the difficult decision whether to sacrifice an important Shabbat law (not carrying) in order to participate in communal life; they can now both observe Shabbat fully and enjoy the community fully because of the eruv.
The difference between one community embracing the potential of an eruv to bring more children to services and another that thinks too many children spoil the synagogue experience is just one of the ways, which Finegold discussed, that Jewish communities simultaneously shape and are shaped by their eruvim.
"I started researching this topic thinking about it specifically as a model for thinking about cities and urban spaces, and I ended up realizing that there is so much more to eruv," Finegold said.
Rather than being a "silly arbitrary wire that you string around a city, and all of a sudden it allows you to carry where you weren't allowed to carry ... literally the world's biggest loophole," eruv is actually the opposite, according to Finegold. "I'm not ready to put this in print yet ... [but] I think the halakhah [Jewish law] ... of carrying outside on Shabbat almost exists so that we can have an opportunity to build an eruv."
"Eruvs create communities in ways that many other things do not within a Jewish context."