BETWEEN CITY AND DESERT
Manuel Herz and Eyal Weizman
(published in: AA Files 34, Autumn 1997)
A bizarre madness seems to have taken hold of a north London suburb, with predictions of pitched battles on Hampstead Heath and warnings of Bosnian-style ethnic disintegration.
Among the applications submitted to the London Borough of Barnet Planning Department in 1991, one stood. It proposed the erection of approximately thirty ‘gates’ composed of a pair of metal poles with fishing line stretched between. Placed above road junctions and between walls and fences, these would close the gaps in a continuous boundary within the borough. The application had been submitted by the United synagogue on behalf of the orthodox Jewish community of Barnet. Within the marked boundary - the Eruv (the Hebrew term for mixing of blending) - different territories, whether private or public, would be blended on the Sabbath. All space would merge to create one private space the size of a town, allowing orthodox Jews within this area to move freely and to carry objects, activities atherwise restricted on that day.
In September 1988 Rabbi Allen Kimche of the Ner Yisroel community of north London had invited Rabbi Eider, a Talmudic expert from New York and an authority on eruvim, to help him devise a plan for an eruv adapted to the specific conditions of London’s northern suburbs. Together they walked and studied the streets of Barnet, and finally a method and a boundary for the eruv were sketched out, covering an area of six and a half sqaure miles which included all of London NW4 and NW11 - Hendon, Golders Green and Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Barnet Council had no idea of how to deal with such an extraordinary request. The first question that arose was whether such a construction required planning permission. The eruv did not fall into any of the usual categories of construction: no land had to be acquired it, and no access to infrastructure was needed as the boundary was of a purely symbolic nature. Nevertheless, it was decided that planning permission was required. When the proposal for the eruv was published it was as if the flood gates of heaven had burst. Anti-eruv groups were formed, pro-eruv groups followed. Lawyers were hired, petitions were gathered, and letters were written, in a long campaign which culminated in a demonstration in support of the eruv, held in front of Barnet Town Hall. The reality that the eruv had to deal with proved more complex than merely tuning a Talmudic concept to suit the material condition of the city. The strong reaction on the part of many different groups in northwest London was unprecedented. To understand the controversy surrounding the proposed eruv, its theological basis has to be investigated.
The Desert is its own separation where it becomes a place; the opennes of place.
Two main models of space are implicit in the Talmud and earlier in the Bible: the City and the Desert. They represent the two poles of existence that define the geographical matrix of Jewish history: kingdom and placelessness. Mediating between the two, the eruv creates a system that gives them a shared urban form and condition. The desert, the ultimate state of placelessness, becomes a unifying condition which leads to the pursuit of a place and stability. An aggregate of tribes, fleeing from slavery in Egypt and on their way tohe ‘promised land’, is transformed into a nation by a set of laws and commandments, the Torah. Placelessness was seen as a temporary and preparatory state in the process of transforming the nomadic tribes into a nation of settlers. The laws of the Torah were formed in the desert but aspired to a different condition - settlement and stability. Paradoxically, it is in the description of the exodus from Egypt and the flight through the desert of Sinai that the question of what defines a place arises for the first time in the Bible. Within the Jewish legal system laws were always tied to places; in the desert thay had to relate to places that were as yet unattainable.
The nomad’s space - ‘his place’ - is not tied to a specific location. Thus the notion of place had to be divorced from a fixed geographical definition, and became a portable entity. The eruv is a means of creating such an abstract notion of space, space which can be deployed wherever it is needed - portable, dynamic and private space. After the settlement, the temple that was built in Jerusalem became the focal point of the Jewish nation, around which their entire religious life revolved. The Temple epitomizes the significance of architecture as a means of unifying a nation. It became the Jewish symbol of settlement and urban life.
By the year AD70, after four years of Jewish uprising against the Roman empire, the Temple had been razed and Jerusalem burnt down. In AD135 Jews were denied access to the city. The primary ‘place’ had been annihilated and the nation found itself again in the placelessness of the desert. The Diaspora had begun: the ‘world [was] at the end of an old and long established order and at the beginning of an age lacking all precedent, all points of reference and orentation ... In the age beyond catastrophe the problem is to reorder a world off couse and adrift.’
Their material culture in ruins, Jewish thinkers formulated a new, updated set of laws, in an attempt to revive the practice of Judaism centred on an idealistic vision of the future - the reappropriation of the ‘place’. The first part of the Talmud, the Mishnah, is a code of laws, a circa AD200, made up from legal traditions extending back two centuries. Again, the condition of placelessness had produced a set of laws that were incompatible with the needs of the people - the rabbis of the Mishna were advocating stability and settlement to a people who lacked the means of achieving it.
This vision, composed of remnants of reality, attempted to rebuild a collectivity based on a book of laws. The law once more assumed the task of a national unifier, replacing the Temple as a focal point. The eruv became a means of re-establishing the Temple, in a conceptual form, in cities around the world. Jewish law created for its people an invisible and abstract set of spaces inhabited by nothing but memory. Indeed the Talmud itself is a construction, a record of arguments between rabbis and scribes from different places and different times, speaking to each other across deserts and across generations. Remoulded and reinhabited by ever- new generations, it forms a radical assembly enganged in an imaginary debate.
The site is not the empirical and the national Here of a territory. It is immemorial, and thus also a future ... the Land always keeps itself beyond any proximity.
Because the word ‘place’ had not been previously defined, a set of rules had to be formulated to determine what constitutes places and domains. ‘Masechet Eruvin’, the volume of the Talmud which is doevoted to the eruv, constitutes a vast treatise on a single word in the Bible - ‘place’. It defines and distinguishes between different domains, and states the laws pertaining to each. The domains are defined in terms of signifiers relating to the two conditions ‘city’ and ‘desert’. These definitions disregard the use of the spaces and their ownership, and rely completely on their representational aspects - their shapes, sizes and the elements which constitute their boundaries.
A private domain is defined as ‘an enclosed area which is enclosed by partitions no less than ten cubits [approximately 4,5 m] high or bounded by a trench ten cubits deep and four wide’. In the Temple a door measuring ten cubits seperated the mundane from the holy, the publich are from the private. The Devir was the utmost private space, where only the high priest was allowed to enter, once a year.
A public domain is defined as ‘an area like a public thoroughfare that is frequented daily by 600.000 people’. This description refers to the desert and the number of Israelites who were encamped there. The city - referring to the displacement of the desert - is transformed by the eruv on the Sabbath into a representation of the Temple and thus from the public into the private domain. If the eruv area is understood as the Temple of Jerusalem, the outer area is the desert, and movement into the eruv is an act of wandering which culminates in the appropriation of a place. The perimeter of one of the eruvim in Jerusalem encloses the original site of the Temple. Here the abstraction has gone a step further: the symbolic space has taken over its source.
The poetic interpretation of interpretation does not seek truth or origin, but affirms the play of interpretation.
The eruv uses a chain of signifiers to turn the city into a private space. The ultimate private spaces is the Devir. Thus it is necessary to ‘build’ the Temple over the city. Because of the ‘technical’ difficulties of doing so, the Temple was reduced, in the Talmud, to its roof, as a sign representing the Temple. The method used to signify a roof over the city is to make a wall around it. Thus the eruv proceeds from the absurd act of making a roof over the city by building a wall. Every walled space has openings in it. In the representation of the roof, doorways are therefore equivalent to walls: a series of doorways represents a continuous solid wall. The city is circumscribed and delimited by a ‘wall’ made in ‘the shape of the door’, with its measurements taken from those of the Gate of the Devir - ten cubits hight and at least three wide. In this way each door signifies the Gate, and entering teh eruv becomes a holy act. The shapes of the doors are made according to the techniques used to build the Temple, namely, two posts and a cross beam. The posts and the beams can be made of any material of any thickness, as long as they are capable of withstanding an ordinary wind - a light cord stretched over thin poles is adequate. What becomes evident is that the construction of the boundary approximates to an infinite chain of symbols that function independently of material support: from a private place to the Temple, from the Temple to a roof, from a roof to a wall, from a wall to gates, from gates to the shape of a door, from a door to a post and beam, from a post and beam to a cord. Only by possessing the key to decipher this chain of symbols can we realte the cords stretched over the junctions innorthwest London to the Temple. Yet this chain of references is not purely linear; the symbols connect to other entities within and outside the chain. Each also refers to the ideal city, and therefore a complex structure of references and a multiplicity of meaning are established.
The hermeneutics that evolved the symbolic suystem of the eruv is an open discourse. The guidline in the Talmud recommend that is should be an integral part of the city, and invisible to the untrained eye. The north London eruv had to deal with the logic of the periphery. Making a close study of the designated area, Rabbi Kimche and Rabbi Eider tried to establish criteria for incorporating it into the streets of Barnet. Population density studies were made to establish a boundary that would benefit as many believers as possible without altering the character of the neighbourhood. The two rabbis sought out existing elements of the urban fabric that could be used to signify the boundary. They studied tha haphazard boundaries which are created by the raw material of the icty. The fencitng along the Northern Line railway between Est Finchley and Mill Hill marked a clear boundary, as did that of the M1 motorway and of Hampstead Heath. Streets and main roads with continuous terraced housing a few intersections were chosen to constitute other boundaries. Even telephone lines stretched abouve wooden poles were deemed acceptable. For one day of each week these were to represent the walls of the Temple. The cosen perimeter was breached at thirty-one points, where symbolic doorways made of transparent fishing wire were to create the necessary continuous circuit. The aim of minimizing the proposal was to attract as little attention as possible. However, the events and controversy that followed assumed the proportions of a major public battle.
The rabbinical interpretation of interpretation is the one which seeks a final truth, which sees interpretation as an unfortunately necessary road back to an original truth.
The definition of spaces in the Talmud is bound to their morphology. The shapes and sizes of elements of the city determine the status of the spaces they enclose, without reference to the functions they perform. The recreation of an abstrat entity in the city depends on the availability of props. If space is subject toaw, the definition of a space can be changed temporarily in order to change the laws that govern it. Such a change is implemented through the introduction of signifying elements and the designation of existing physical elements as signifiers. This creates an apparently absurd situation: the city as a private space, with urban features representing walls and doors, and a cord serving as the entrance to the Temple. Paradoxically, the very precision of the laws, and their rigorous application are the source of their flexibility. The eruv symbolically changes the nature of urban space. As the definition of space transforms and mutates, so too do the laws bound to it. The eruv therefore demonstrates the direct relation between law and space: it is the point in space and time where the law is transgressed by an urban intervention and the city is revalued by the law.
Jewish law forbids a whole range of work on the Sabbath, formal employment as well as travel, the spending of money, and the carrying of objects outside the home. Movement in public spaces on the Sabbath is severly restricted by laws stated in both the Bible and the Talmud. Movement and the carrying of objects are not restricted within the private domain. Law is bound to space, and when the definition of a space changes, so too does its programme. If an urban space is designated as private, movement and carrying become permissible within that space. By redefining the space, the eruv redefines the behaviour which is permissible within it, earning it the nickname of ‘the magic schlepping circle’.
The eruv shifts the current notion and meaning of the private and the public in the urban landscape. Public space is not the space of exchange and activity but a restrictive space of limitation. Private space, expanded to include to public domain, becomes the space of liberation and interaction. In the case of the eruv it does not, however, entail ownership. The space is symbolically private in terms of Jewish law, but in terms of civil law it remains public.
Sure, it is absurd and irrational to believe that your life is going to be changed by the presence of a wire, but it is even more absurd and irrational to oppose it.
The proposal for the north London eruv that was submitted to Barnet Council on 3 August 1992 made an important distinction between the eruv as a religious concept, and the posts and wire that were to be erected - the only part of the scheme that actually required permission. These gates covered only a small part of the eruv boundary, less than half a mile out of the eleven miles of the entire perimeter. The proposal was examined by the Public Works Committee (PWC), which deals with urban public works such as street lights, rubbish collection, etc., and was forwarded to the Town Planning Committee with a recommendation for approval. In response to the public uproar, the Committee refused the application, on the grounds that it would constitutes a disturbance to visual amenity. On 27 October an appeal against non-determination was submitted to the Secretary of State for the Environment. There followed a public hearing allowing all sides a chance to appeal and to put forward their arguments. Finally, more than six years after members of Ner Yisroel had mapped out the boundaries with their American consultant, the Department of the Environment announced that the inspector had recommended approval of the project. On 20 September 1994 the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, upheld that recomendation, on the basis that there was no apparent legal difficulty in connection with the construction of poles on the chosen sites.
Planning law only interrogates structures and their material measurable effect. A discussion about the nature of an eruv never arose during the interrogation. The refusal and its final reversal, as well as the reason for and against, were all concerned with the structure and form of the signifying elements. Meanwhile, the chain of signifiers has lost its original meaning; as in the evolution of a language, the origin of the word is no longer evident in everyday use. In practice the eruv no longer relies on collective memory for its authority, which in turn derives from religious authority, itself sometimes ignorant of the eruv’s origin. The signifiers themsoelves have become the substance of the practice, and circulate feely among other urban signifiers. The here and now of everyday life - the eruv’s use, shape and efferct - were the focus of the debate.
Why is the eruv so problematic for the public? Partly because of the obvious fact, that a minority within the city proposes to determine an aspect of the meaning and use of public space and the objects within it. Unlike other religious practices, which usually take place within private space, the eruv takes rituals and signs into the public sphere.
People can, and do, object to being bearers of meanings that mean nothing to them, and they express their disapproval in terms of teh aesthetics of the street, etc. But behind this is the fact that people often confuse property rights with rights to signification, for instance when an appellant rejects the idea of the facade of his house becoming part of the ‘wall’. His facade belongs to hime alone and cannot be conscripted by another’s practic. The eruv extends its boundaries and geography to other structures, streets and objects, threatening to contaminate the space of private property with the public signs of an alien practice. From an urban point of view, the problem here is the idea that the Englishman’s home is his castle. The objection to being part of teh eruv-signifying chain is no different from the point of view which in the nineteenth century held that ownership of a house entailed ownership of the photographic image oh that house. In fact, of course, one groups’s use of objects and space as signs does not preclude their use by any other group.
In the case of the north London eruv, different understandings of space and territory, ownership and meaning, made it difficult for the public to enter into a pluralism where objects and spaces could be subjected to tmore than one reading, as in the case where it was proposed that the walls of a church form part of the eruv’s perimeter. Yet it would be wrong to suggest that the eruv constitutes a form of signifactory imperialism, for, paradoxically, it is only imperislism which insists that an object can mean only one thing, and that a boundary must be observed by everyone. In the polyglot, multicultural city, readings of space and place do not have to be linked to a territory and urban organization; the act of communal interpretation brings to the urban fabric an increase of meaning, rather than a reduction. At the heart of this problem is not the question of imposing upon urban space an obscure religious practice, but rather the willingness of city authorities to sanction the city as the site of multiple readings.
The eruv is the ritual reconstitution of a lost place, framed as law and embodied as a book. Within the Diaspora, therefore, it was never a particular urban site, but a means of siting. It links, as a proposal, the daily life and public policy of a group of north London sububs with concerns which are particluar to Jewish life and identity. The London eruv offers a sign system which revalues and indeed sanctifies street furniture and other mundane elements of the area, making them inteligible in terms of the lost Temple of Jerusalem. By eliminating the difference between the public and the private domain on the Sabbath, the eruv brings about, for the Jewish community, social liberation and an increase in the use of and interaction within the public sphere.
The eruv proposes interventions in the city which are small-scale, strategic and for the most part non-material. It intervenes by means of decisions about readings of the city, rather than reconstructing it so that it may be reread. Thus it provides a model for pluralist uses of the city which do not exclude other readings of the same object. It opposes the idea of the fundamental equivalence of one function and one object, or of one meaning and one object. As such, it represents a contribution to contemporary urbanism, Leaving behind its religious origins in Talmudic interpretation, the eruv has lessons to teach the Western city in terms of the economy if significations, boundaries, and the distinction between inside and outside, on the one hand, and the scarcity of buildings and land on the other.
The eruv creates a modern urban form and condition out of the opposition that was set in the Talmud between the Temple and the desert, and temporarily defines the territories relating to them. The conception of the temple appropriates a symbolic urban ‘private’ space within the homogeneity of the urban desert, which lacks all signification. Such a reading is made possible by the way the Talmud defines the city: it assumes that the city does not exist in its physical embodiement alone, and that its material elements are always pointing toweards something else. Thus the eruv bridges two cities - one that is perceived and tangible, the other aesthetically ideal. The urban deweller appropriates the city he lives in. He deciphers but must also write each new interpretative framework. A second metaphorical or ‘mobile’ city is overlaid upon the existing one by the practice of moving through the city.
The eruv’s effectiveness lies in its economy of construction, for it relies on the abundance of elements already exisiting in the city. The intervention accurs mainly between the physical elements and their signifactiona, the space and its laws and programme.
The eruv, in temporarily resurrecting the Temple out of the desert of the modern city, whether stretched as a line or built in stone, exhibits the limit and the use by which teh material and the metaphoric encounter each other in cities. It registers in the visible world the outcome of an encounter that would otherwise remain intangible.
The authors would like to thank Mark Cousin, and Alan Astro, Joseph M. Chaves, Rabbi Herschel Glück, Brian Hatton and Mary Wall for their help.
M Herz & E Weizman ©