The Battle of the Eruv

Hemant wrote about a story I also wanted to mention: the Freedom from Religion Foundation has written a letter of complaint to the city government of Miami Beach, Florida, demanding the dismantling of Orthodox Jewish eruvin on public property.

An eruv is a Jewish ritual boundary made of string or wire, stretched between objects such as trees or light poles, to create a symbolic enclosure which is considered to be part of the “inside”. With an eruv set up, observant Jews can carry objects like keys or books around within it, which would otherwise be forbidden on the Sabbath according to the convoluted and nonsensical rabbinic rules that have accumulated over centuries. (For example, you can’t open an umbrella even inside an eruv, because that counts as “construction”. Don’t look at me, I didn’t make this up.)

The FFRF’s issue isn’t with the existence of the eruvin, but the fact that they’re built on public property (here’s a map). One eruv runs around and through a public park. According to the complaint, this constitutes a special accommodation to the Jewish religion, which is a violation of the separation of church and state.

And the city council isn’t making a persuasive argument otherwise. The city attorney argued that the eruv “has the secular purpose of allowing Orthodox Jews to participate in matters of daily living outside of their homes on Saturday, their Sabbath” – to which FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel had this blisteringly brilliant reply:

Orthodox Jews suffer no government-imposed burden on their religion. The Sabbath prohibitions on labor are imposed by their own religion. If they do not wish to adhere to those rules, the solution is to renounce Orthodox Judaism – not designate public and private property that they do not own as belonging to that sect. This is as absurd as a Catholic deciding to fast for Lent and then claiming the government has a responsibility to feed him. The government cannot favor one religion by alleviating its self-imposed burdens or allowing it to impose that religion over wide swaths of public and private property.

Just think: If I belonged to a religion that taught it was a sin for me to walk on Sundays, should the government hire porters to carry me around in a sedan chair? Would that serve the “secular purpose” of helping me get where I wanted to go?

Now, unlike the sedan-chair example, one might argue that the eruv’s impact on the public is so minimal as to be inconsequential. (Porters cost a lot of taxpayer money to hire.) But church-state arguments tend to be a very slippery slope. How far does this right to accommodation extend?

If Catholics wanted to hang an icon of a Catholic saint from every streetlight, so that they could walk in safety under the protection of the saints, would we allow that as well? What if a Muslim group said that their laws require women to be veiled and accompanied by men when out in public, but by stringing rope between streetlights they could create a symbolic “sharia zone” where women could go alone with their heads uncovered? Would the city council oblige them? I very much doubt they’d even consider it.

And there’s circumstantial evidence that the impact may not be as minimal as all that. After all, the entire purpose of an eruv is to designate a large public space as Jewish private property – and it appears that at least some of the believers for whom it was built are treating it accordingly:

Today I learned that an Orthodox person who frequents the park has told at least one Hispanic resident who walks her dog in the park daily that she should find another place to walk; that Pine Tree Park is “for Jews only now”. (source)

This story, if true, shows that the eruv isn’t just a harmless, beneath-notice alteration. To an impartial observer, it conveys a message of endorsement of a particular religion and makes non-believers feel unwelcome and excluded. That’s the exact effect that the First Amendment is supposed to prevent, and that’s why the FFRF is in the right to demand its removal.

If the city chose to designate its light poles as a limited public forum, where everyone was allowed to post fliers and notices, then you could argue that Orthodox Jews would have as much right to set up their eruv markers as anyone else. But in that case, we’d also have to allow the light poles to be festooned with every other symbol that any religious or secular group might have a notion to put there: Catholic saint icons, atheist scarlet As, Buddhist prayer flags, Wiccan threshold blessings, and who knows what else. I suspect that Miami Beach would rapidly conclude it was more trouble than it was worth.

There’s one more argument, and it’s one I can’t dismiss so easily: that removing the eruv would create a burden that would fall most heavily on women. Without it, it’s forbidden by Jewish law to carry a small child or wheel them around in a stroller, both of which are considered to fall into the category of “carrying”, and that would mean that many women would be unable to leave the house on the Sabbath.

That’s unfortunate, certainly. It’s very often the case that religious rules burden everyday activities and otherwise create problems and difficulties. But that’s not the government’s fault, and it doesn’t impose a responsibility on the rest of society to make things easier for people who choose to labor under a voluntary and self-imposed handicap. As Andrew Seidel’s letter pointed out, if religious believers find that following their laws is excessively burdensome, if it causes unnecessary cost or needless suffering, then there’s a simple solution: stop following them. The confinement that these people struggle against, however onerous, is only in their minds; and if they’d step over those symbolic barriers, they’d find freedom on the other side.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.