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Make America an ‘Eruv’ Again

Why the Talmud’s most notoriously difficult tractate is a perfect guide to our contemporary political moment

Dovid Bashevkin
November 20, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Tractate Eruvin, the portion of the Talmud we completed reading this week and which deals with setting up a clearly defined boundary for the purpose of carrying objects on Shabbat, has, at first glance, all the poetic grace and beauty of the 1952 greater Kenosha phone book. It is, to the untrained eye, as thrilling as a tax return and as comprehensible as the list of ingredients on your favorite highly processed junk food. Notorious for its difficulty—if yeshiva boys were into wearing T-shirts instead of white button-downs, they’d print ones that say stuff like “I Survived Eruvin”—the tractate is chock-full of geometric calculations so complex they’re often delivered with detailed illustrations that look more like an architectural blueprint than a religious text. Those still recovering from SAT PTSD, those—like myself—who still have nightmarish dreams where their employers ask them to calculate the area remaining when a circle is placed inside of a square truly understand the strife of learning Tractate Eruvin. But as those of us who’d studied it closely now know, Eruvin is actually a wonder, a profoundly wise manual that addresses life in an increasingly complex world.

Consider, for example, the following bit:

Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halacha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halacha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halacha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.
—Tractate Eruvin 13b

One of the most oft-cited rabbinic aphorisms, eilu v’eilu divrei elokim chaim—these and those are the words of the living God—curiously appears within Tractate Eruvin during a long Talmudic tangent about the rabbinic disputes between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel. These rabbinic schools, the Talmud explains, argued for years until a voice emerged from Heaven ruling according to Beis Hillel. What were they arguing about? The examples the Talmud provides are quite peculiar. If you sit in a sukkah with your table in your house, Beis Shammai invalidates such a sukkah, while Beis Hillel permits it. From there, things get existential: Is it better, the two competing rabbinic schools of thought inquire, to have been created or never to have been created? Beis Shammai says better never to have been created, Beis Hillel says it is better to have been created.

Why is this story recounted here? And what does it have to do with a tractate otherwise obsessed with geometric shapes and boundaries? The great Hasidic master Rav Tzadok of Lublin (1823-1900) reads these passages as the philosophical center of the entire theme of Tractate Eruvin. “The essence of all human disagreement,” Rav Tzadok writes, “derives from the boundaries that separate each human being that each individual lives within their own margins.” For Rav Tzadok, public domains represent the underlying unity of humanity, while private domains represent the individual differences that make us each distinct.

Is it better to have been created or not, in Rav Tzadok’s reading, is really a question about whether a unified world attached and suffused to one source, represented by the sukkah, is better than the fragmented and divisive world populated with individuals. Are we better off in a world subsumed with one unitary identity, our tables and selves dwelling in the heavenly protection of the sukkah, or is it acceptable for individuals to step outside the proverbial sukkah and bicker, fight, and argue over our individual preferences and opinions?

“This,” argues Rav Tzadok, “is the entire foundation of Tractate Eruvin”—learning how to negotiate between private and public demands. Eruv is about learning how to preserve our distinctiveness without forgetting the fundamental sameness of humanity.

With this insight in mind, it’s not too difficult to see Tractate Eruvin as nothing less, really, than a grand metaphor for our contemporary discourse. It seems like in this political moment the only thing everyone agrees on is that our discourse has eroded. Our private domains, our individual convictions, have become severed from the coalescence and unity of our shared humanity in the reshus harabim—the public square where everyone is on equal footing. Some lament that society has just become a series of small alcoves where we can tweet and troll our certainties without any regard for our shared humanity. Others lament that the only safe space acceptable in society is to be a “global citizen” erasing any of the cultural differences and nuances that make individual lives so charming and remarkable. Eruvin imagines a world where both can coexist.

In her classic article The Political Symbolism of the Eruv, Charlotte Fonrobert makes a similar argument. “The eruv as a ritual system,” she writes, “entails forming an eruv community, it also operates as a tool to structure the relationship between insiders and outsiders, and it does so in relationship to residential space.” Commenting on the practice of renting the space from non-Jews living within the eruv community, she explains that an eruv is not tantamount to “the Jews taking over.” Eruv is how public and private spaces learn to coexist. Instead, she writes, “The eruv does construct a collective identity with respect to space, but it does so in the absence of having control or any form of sovereignty over that space.”

A world where cultures and identities can be preserved without sovereignty is not only the condition of diasporic Judaism, it is the condition of most modern discourse. We don’t own the platforms we normally communicate on. I don’t own Twitter, but I can still create community on Twitter. I don’t own WhatsApp—I’m not even a WhatsApp group administrator (sad!)—but I am ensconced in all sorts of communities via that app. Social media is a digital universe of community without sovereignty. Anyone who has ever shared too much on social media (me) or accidentally sent a private communication to a public WhatsApp group (also me) has entered the complex contours dividing public and private space.

Perhaps more than anywhere else, our online discourse reflects a world where reshus harabim and reshus hayachid—our public and private identities—have become befuddled. To live on social media is to live in a world where community insists on sovereignty. Own the libs, win back the country, delete your account. Either complete sovereignty or you are a passive victim. And that is why Eruvin is so important. Because right now it seems like a moment of totalities. If you don’t have it all—the ideological purity, the partisan clarity, and the political majority—you have nothing. Eruvin envisions a different sort of world. Instead of sovereignty, we can create community with symbolism and purpose. Instead of trying to “own them,” Eruvin imagines a discourse where you can be right (or wrong) without infringing on the shared humanity of the public square.

Eruvin, by reputation, is a tractate and discipline for experts. Few dabble in the subject of eruv. It is associated with a rigor and exactitude that a novice could hardly hope to ever attain. Which is why it is so curious that the governing principle of jurisprudence for the laws of eruv is leniency. The laws of eruv, the Talmud explains, accord with the lenient opinion. Leniency?! Isn’t that for the ignoramuses? Many have debated the specifics of this principle, but all agree it is a unique provision to the world of eruv. And this, I think, adds an important component to our reading of the tractate. If Eruvin is, in fact, about creating community and finding new creative ways to preserve the individual integrity of our beliefs without tearing the collective fabric of public society our boundaries need some measure of leniency. We cannot divide ourselves with immutable and inflexible walls that rather than preserving our beliefs just serve to project our deepest insecurities of the endurance of our own convictions. Instead, the walls of eruv are built through leniency and creativity. As Rabbi Elli Fischer once wrote:

The “walls” of the eruv are, in fact, generally not walls at all. They are comprised only of posts and wires, on the premise that two posts with a lintel form a doorway. The eruv circumscribes a community with walls that are entirely doors.

Is it better to be a global citizen or a member of tribe? Is it better to have not been created and remain connected to the Source of all humanity or to have been created and live in our fractured and divisive world? Eilu v’eilu divrei elokim chaim—these and these are the words of the living God. To be alive, to be living, to have some modicum of engagement in the ultimate chaim—life itself—is to be engaged in these negotiations. To emulate the living God is less about understanding the nature of existence and more about the nature, pain, alienations, and the sublime struggle of coexistence. To connect and preserve, to unify and divide, to be joined while also remaining separate. And Eruvin shows us how to build this complex notion of self and community. Through the doorways of the eruv, we can see the other and they can see us. And as we peer through the synthetic divisions of the eruv, we are reminded that no matter which side you may find yourself—these and these are the worlds of the living God.

הדרך עלך מסכת עירובין והדרן עלן

We shall return to you, Tractate Eruvin, and you shall return to us.

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.