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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Israel shows how far accommodation can slide, as you’re written of before, with Orthodox Jews demanding public buses be segregated by gender and women also banned from peacefully praying at the Wailing Wall. Not to mention the fact that in Israel civil law is handled by religious courts, applying even to people that do not practice any religion. People must also go abroad to have a secular marriage, since all Israeli marriages are regulated by religious authorities.

  • BeaverTales

    I’m almost more bothered by the theological implications of this than the secular. When I was a kid, my parents told me I couldn’t go outside to play unless I cleaned up my room…an unfair burden that made life difficult. I quickly learned that inspection by my busy parents didn’t involve closets, in drawers and under the bed…so I hid my junk there. I let myself off on the technicality of having the appearance of a “clean room” without really cleaning it, until the day my mom stumbled on the massive pile of garbage that lay hidden out of sight. She wasn’t amused at my inventiveness, and rightly took my “workaround” as an insult to common sense.

    So if Big Sky Daddy says do not work on the Shabbat…not even a little bit, and his favorite children let themselves off the hook on a technicality by tying a rope to a public utility pole or whatever, aren’t they still violating the spirit of the law? Does God actually think: “alright, I guess I can let you into Heaven since all that bad stuff you did on Shabbat didn’t really count because you invented your own workaround of tying a string to a public pole? I think the theological implication would be insulting. I know my parents wouldn’t buy that argument.

    What other burdensome holy rules can you avoid on a technicality?

  • GCT

    There are lots of Eruvin out there…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_eruvin

    How many of those use public property? Probably the vast majority of them, if not all of them.

  • Izkata

    > 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.

    How can they go between their house and the eruv, then? Levitate their child?

  • Freak

    Their house is within the eruv.

  • http://blu28.wordpress.com/ Brian Utterback

    Eruvin tend to be large. The eruv encloses entire neighborhoods, so the houses are already inside the Eruv.

  • busterggi

    Arbitrary nit-picky rituals & laws, a tradition of all Abrahanic religions.

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    What other burdensome holy rules can you avoid on a technicality?

    It’s my understanding that Islamic banks use a number of techniques to get around the prohibition on charging interest.

  • Jennifer Burdoo

    Huh. Haven’t heard of this, even though I live near NMB. Don’t remember it from childhood either, and we went to an Orthodox synagogue. What I do remember is that there’s a LOT of precedent in Judaism for bypassing or outright ignoring the rules. They have an out even within their own community, and there’s certainly no overall leader of Judaism to say them nay.

  • Brian Westley

    What other burdensome holy rules can you avoid on a technicality?

    Catholics can eat beavers on Fridays during Lent, because they are fish:

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/2013/05/23/once-upon-a-time-the-catholic-church-decided-that-beavers-were-fish/

  • unbound55

    Apparently, the creation of Eruv’s is not universally accepted even in the Orthodox communities. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eruv#Disagreements_between_Orthodox_groups

  • gimpi1

    I’m puzzled by the idea of not being able to move possessions from private to public spaces. Clothing is a possession. Why is it OK for Orthodox men to wear clothing, but not OK for Orthodox women to push a stroller?

  • Craptacular

    What’s to keep them from creating a world-wide eruv and then be done with it? Call it a “rope of oxygen” that encapsulates the entire planet or something similar.

    But, as others have pointed out, this is simply playing fast-and-loose with adherence to outdated laws and concepts. If someone is intent on creating and exploiting loopholes to remain a member-in-good-standing with some organization, then perhaps they need to re-think their membership.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I don’t remember where I saw this, but one brilliant commenter proposed that they should just create a small, circular eruv and then declare that the area within the circle was the “outside” and the entire rest of the world was the “inside”. Shades of Douglas Adams!

  • XaurreauX Pont DeLac

    And it also points to the “fact” that any god who requiring such practices would be an Uber-narcissistic slob.

  • Azkyroth

    Catholics can eat beavers

    *cough* this is new. O.o

  • busterggi

    Well you can’t judge all Catholics by their priests.

  • Brian Westley

    ThankyouladiesandgermsI’llbehereallweek.

  • Kevin Sagan

    To your “slippery slope”, I counter “pick your battles”. I don’t disagree that it *is* a slippery slope; but I’m *severely* skeptical that there aren’t any more egregious violations out there to spend these resources fighting.

  • Khalbrae

    I was thinking the same thing.

  • MNb

    “Pine Tree Park is “for Jews only now”.”
    Wow, this is asking for an atheist jogging club. In The Netherlands this remark would cause an uprising. Dutch government is usually willing to compromise, but that implies that the other party has to give in as well.

  • Izkata

    And although it doesn’t have an answer, the question has been left open for over a year with a comment saying “I’m fairly sure there is no maximum, so long as all other requirements are met”…

    http://judaism.stackexchange.com/q/26392/6636

  • Izkata

    Gotcha, this blog post implied that the eruv enclosed only public spaces and no houses. I’d not heard of them before.

  • GCT

    Because we can only fight one thing at a time, and we must choose the very worst thing at all times to make sure that we only ever fight against that.

  • Azkyroth

    Clearly we need a protest, to show them the eruv their ways. :)

  • Tige Gibson

    Bats are also classified as birds.

  • Tige Gibson

    So if someone told you that you couldn’t go to the park near your home, you would shrug and leave forever because it’s not worth fighting over?

  • Martin Penwald

    If I understand correctly, the islamic bank buy what you need (a car, a house, etc) and rent it to you for a specified amount of time, and at the end, it is yours. It is some kind of leasing, but strictly speaking you don’t pay interests (but at the end, you still have pay more that if you paid cash).

  • Martin Penwald

    So orthodox jews should go naked during shabbat ? Interesting thoughts. I want pictures of that when it happens.

  • Kevin Sagan

    Um…Maybe. Depends on why, and what else I have to deal with. ‘Not allowed to go to the park’ is a little more extreme than ‘The park will be lined with string’, but it’s still not that urgent; depending on how numerous and severe other infringements on my liberty were, yes, I might very well never go to the park again.

  • Kevin Sagan

    Oh, my apologies. I didn’t realize this was the second worst violation of separation of church and state in the country right now.

  • gimpi1

    It’s just an apparent inconsistency. Why is it OK to wear a coat, but not to wear a baby-backpack? Why is pushing a baby stroller “moving possessions from private to public space” but carrying a cane isn’t? Why is a coat with large pockets OK on the Sabbath but a large back-pack purse isn’t?

    It seems pretty selective. However, from the outside, most religious rules look kind of silly. It’s really not my business, until someone starts stringing wires from public utility poles.

  • Alex SL

    This is an awesome idea, and it reminds me of a joke that probably exists in several variants.

    An engineer, a mathematician and a philosopher are asked to build an enclosure for sheep using the least material. The engineer takes pieces of fence and builds a square around the sheep. The mathematician takes pieces of fence and builds a circle around the sheep. The philosopher takes a tiny piece of fence, wraps it around himself, and pronounces, “I define myself to be outside”.

  • TBP100

    In fairness, the documentation for this is sketchy, to say the least, and even if true, one individual’s comment doesn’t mean that everyone in the community shares that view.

    That said, the whole concept of the eruv is such transparent BS. Do people—adults presumably—really imagine an omnipotent, omniscient being is fooled for one minute by this kind of thing? It’s about as rational as sticking your fingers in your fingers in your ears and saying “La, la, la I can’t hear you” when someone is saying something you don’t like.

  • GCT

    Didn’t say it was, but how magnanimous of you to imply that we can tackle the worst and second worst problems instead of just the very worst. Your argument still stinks of the bullshit argument that we should leave this issue alone because it’s not sufficiently bad enough for you, personally, to care about. Good thing we don’t base our decisions on what you, personally, find worthy or unworthy of consideration.

  • cipher

    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.

    It’s a false equivalency, though. These are blatant symbols; by contrast today’s eruv consists of a monofilament strung high up on a utility pole. It’s literally undetectable by the naked eye unless you know it’s there and go to look for it.

    Furthermore, I’m largely certain Orthodox communities pay for the installation and maintenance of the eruvin themselves, so it isn’t as though public funds are being used.

    Also, its intention certainly isn’t to promote an ideology, merely to accommodate a group that already subscribes to it, which might be used successfully in an argument in favor of allowing it.

    I put forward these points as a secular Jew who has no patience with Orthodox customs.

    (And the umbrella nonsense – yes, it qualifies as a “temporary dwelling”, and yes, it’s batshit crazy. It was pretty much the dealbreaker for me when I was trying to be a little observant for a while to please a liberal Orthodox rabbi and his wife with whom I was friendly. I live in an area with a large Orthodox population – well, what passes for one here in Boston, at any rate – and while driving on a Saturday I’ve seen Orthodox Jews walking to and from synagogue in the pouring rain, getting absolutely drenched. I feel so badly for them and would like to offer them rides, but I know they wouldn’t accept and they’d only have to stand in the rain talking to me about it, so I don’t.)

  • cipher

    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”.

    This is horrible, however. It might have been a Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) person.
    They tend to be territorial and condescending to people outside of their groups.

  • Kevin Sagan

    Is my opinion really that out of touch? Is a string tied around some trees really in the same ballpark of obtrusiveness as crucifixes in town halls and commandment plaques in schools, which are still small fish next to the tax exemption, the Hobby Lobby case, and vouchers for religious private schools?

    If you really think I was trying to imply we can only work on one problem at a time, mmmmmmaybe 2, you’re going miles out of your way to be angry at me with no (initial) provocation.

  • allein

    I doubt he’s the first to come up with it but one of the Friendly Atheist commenters said that.

  • Azkyroth

    It doesn’t have to be. If you’re not going to help, get out of the way.

  • Azkyroth

    Fortunately most people are better human beings and citizens than you are.

  • AndyT

    Yes, Orthodox Judaism is probably one of the most legalistic religions ever…
    If I’m not wrong, a pious person is required to avoid 1521 (!) deeds on the Shabbat, this number coming from the 39 deeds needed for building the Jerusalem Temple, each one divided into 39 sub-deeds in turn, so that 39×39=1521.
    Quite exhausting!

  • Kevin Sagan

    Lotta insults. Never justification.

    If spending resources elsewhere yields better results, you’re doing it wrong. That’s not up for debate. The matter at hand is whether this intrusion is small enough that fighting it is clearly, significantly less efficient than fighting a more egregious transgression. My opinion is yes. But the notion that that opinion–which is nothing more than the result of an intuitive expected-value function–represents a moral failing on my part, is laughable, and contributes nothing to any discussion.

    To put it another way: If you’re not going to help, get out of the way.

  • GCT

    Is a string tied around some trees really in the same ballpark of obtrusiveness as crucifixes in town halls and commandment plaques in schools, which are still small fish next to the tax exemption, the Hobby Lobby case, and vouchers for religious private schools?

    No, it’s not. But, that’s not a valid reason for saying that we shouldn’t be concerned by it and/or shouldn’t do something about it. Is a little grope as bad as rape? Is calling someone the N-word as bad as lynching them? Should we ignore those things too because they aren’t as bad?

    If you really think I was trying to imply we can only work on one problem at a time, mmmmmmaybe 2, you’re going miles out of your way to be angry at me with no (initial) provocation.

    It’s what you strongly implied and what your argument hinges upon as I pointed out above with my other examples. I was pointing out the absurdity of your argument (which you have decided must mean that I’m simply angry at you for some reason – heaven forbid that someone can disagree with you for reasons that don’t involve being irrationally angry.)

  • Kevin Sagan

    We should no more ignore groping and racial slurs for being less severe than rape and murder, than we should ignore stone commandment tablets in city capitols because they’re less severe than the tax exemption. I prioritize strings tied to trees closer to the level of describing a woman as ‘bossy’. It’s generally agreed to be a regressive, patriarchy-reinforcing act, but if you filed a lawsuit over it tomorrow…well, suffice to say, I would not be subscribing to your newsletter.

    That SAID, if you filed a lawsuit over it 50 years from now, when rape has become rare and feminism has come closer to fruition, I might be your most vocal supporter.

  • GCT

    So, what’s the threshold for severity that has to be crossed in order for you to not criticize someone standing up for what’s right and defending the Constitution and all of our rights?

  • J-D

    God doesn’t let anybody off on a technicality, because there is no God. So what’s the problem? Is the idea of a God who will let people off on a technicality more insulting than the idea of a God who won’t let people off on a technicality? But more insulting to whom? Not to God, because there is no God. Whose ox is being gored?

  • Donalbain

    Booooooooooooooooooo!

  • cipher

    Trust me; you don’t.

  • cipher

    There is an opinion – albeit a minority one – that the island of Manhattan, being surrounded by water, has a natural eruv. I don’t think a lot of Orthodox Jews subscribe to this.

    On the other hand, much of Manhattan has been enclosed in a man-made eruv, which is even described on Google Maps: http://tinyurl.com/ojfhmmj

    So if you decide to convert, Adam, you’re all set!

  • Bdole

    Maybe they should make a show called, “Eruv Labor” about how the characters find comical ways to get around Judaic laws in their daily lives.
    (There’s an Israeli TV show called “Arab Labor” which I highly recommend.)


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