The eruv, a ritual enclosure in Jewish law, has a deep cultural and religious significance that often goes unrecognized, Dr. Charlotte Fonrobert argued in the 53rd Annual Simon Rawidowicz Memorial Lecture last Thursday. The lecture, titled “Taking the Talmud to Town: Judaism in the Public Square,” focused on the history of the eruv and the controversies that have arisen around it.

Fonrobert, an associate professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University and the director of Stanford’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies, began the talk by explaining why she was so fascinated by the tractate “Eruvin” — the volume of the Babylonian Talmud that lays out the laws of the eruv.

The tractate explains that an eruv may be used to establish an encircled area — such as a neighborhood or campus — as a single private domain under Jewish law. As Jewish law prohibits the transfer of items between private and public domains on the Sabbath, the eruv is widely used as a means of permitting Orthodox Jews to carry babies, keys or prayer books with them to synagogue without violating this prohibition.

Eruvs encircle residential areas throughout the country — including the Brandeis campus — and, Fonrobert explained, are often perceived as technicalities used to exploit a loophole in Jewish legal tradition. She cited a segment in Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” in which he jokes that “eruv” — which, in fact, translates roughly to “mixture” — is the Hebrew word for “loophole.”

Fonrobert, however, sees something more in the laws of the eruv.

“I had a sense that there was something significant hidden in this long tractate,” Fonrobert explained. “That the significance hidden in the rabbinic discourse of tractate ‘Eruvin’ has to do with orientation in the world, with the cultivation of a sense of and commitment to the place in which one resides.” The eruv is related to presence, Fonrobert argued — what she thinks of as “a commitment to the here as opposed to … a sense of absence from there.”

Fonrobert then went on to discuss the various controversies that have arisen around eruvs in the U.S.

She described how, in the summer of 2012, a law firm from New York City emailed her, explaining that they represented a diverse group of people — though mostly Reform Jews — who “sought to oppose the installation of an eruv on establishment grounds.” The firm had contacted her for her academic opinion as a scholar of “Eruvin” in order to help them understand the constitutional implications of the construction of an eruv on public property.

Though Fonrobert declined to serve as an advisor to the court, she did provide them with citations of some of her work.

“As a historian of religion, I considered this controversy as one particular instantiation of the long history of social dynamics between Jews in all their variety and between Jews and non-Jews that the rabbinic institution of the eruv has rendered and continues to render visible,” Fonrobert said.

The case had begun in March 2008, Fonrobert explained, when the Modern Orthodox synagogue in Westhampton Beach was nearing the celebration of its eighteenth anniversary in that village. “The Orthodox community proposed the installation of an eruv,” Fonrobert recalled, “and to that end, the executive director of the Orthodox community obtained a license agreement from the public utility companies to make use of some of their utility poles and lines.”

Though eruvs are often comprised mainly of pre-existing boundaries like walls, fences or bodies of water, it is common to add symbolic markers, such as fishing line or plastic strips, between utility poles and telephone lines in order to create a contiguous boundary. Fonrobert noted that such markers entail “minimalist manipulation of the urban environment,” constituting nothing more than “symbolic gateways” to a contained residential space.

While eruv markers are minimalist in their design, they sometimes face criticism — mostly from within non-Orthodox Jewish communities — for their symbolic intrusion on public spaces. Communities that use eruvs, on the other hand, argue that the structures enable families to push small children in strollers when they go to services on the Sabbath.

Fonrobert noted here that “the contemporary popularity of eruvin in America has to do with the change in gender politics in the Orthodox community,” as more Orthodox women begin to attend synagogue and search for ways to take their young children with them.

Fonrobert described how the debate over the constitutionality of the eruv hinged on both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause, with proponents of the eruv maintaining that an eruv is an exercise of religious practice and opponents contending that the installation of the eruv would “invest wholly public spaces with a narrow and parochial religious function.”

The lecture took place in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall and was sponsored by the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry and the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, with the support of the Valya and Robert Shapiro Endowment.