A day or two before Passover hundreds or perhaps thousands of Orthodox Jewish households in the Flatbush part of Brooklyn got a small book in the mail. The book was half in Hebrew and half in English. It was essentially a defense of the new eruv put up in Flatbush. (This debate has been around for a while. About a year ago there was a whole to-do about this with ads in the Jewish Press, etc.)
Orthodox Jews do not carry objects outside their houses on the Sabbath. An eruv is an artificial enclosure (usually done by stringing a wire around the area, thus “enclosing” it) which, as a legal fiction, transforms a “public domain” in to a “private domain”. If the outside area which is enclosed in this eruv becomes a “private domain” then Orthodox Jews will allow themselves to carry objects from their homes to the outside. This represents a large convenience for the Orthodox communities which have them. Most orthodox communities all over the world are surrounded by eruvs.
Flatbush has an eruv. It has had one for around 30 years. The eruv was put up and sponsored by the Young Israel movement. However, among a large portion of the Orthodox (at least those who do not consider themselves to be modern-orthodox) the eruv never gained acceptance.
The major reason for the eruv not being accepted was that when the eruv was initially conceived, Rabbi Moses Feinstein, unarguably the most widely respected halachic authority in the US of his time, ruled that for various technical reasons such an eruv would not be kosher in that part of Brooklyn. An eruv, to be kosher, has to meet certain technical requirements. One of the requirements limits the number of people who pass through the areas that it encloses. (An area can reasonably be called a “private domain” if there are hundreds of thousands of people who pass through it daily.) Parts of Brooklyn that are encompassed by the eruv (or have streets that are feed in to them by certain large streets), do not meet this requirement.
But there is a new eruv up in Flatbush. This has been causing controversy for some time. Many may recall the fights over the eruvs in Boro Park (which is fairly widely accepted among the Hassidic communities) and in Williamsburg. Both of these led to actual verbal and physical altercations. All of these eruvs are the victims of constant sabotage. (The theory behind the sabotage is that if you sabotage the eruv it will not be used because it is not up, so you win by not having people carry, even if they are doing so for your reason and they still believe you can.) I am told that students of a certain school which I am an alumni of are quite active in the sabotage of the new Flatbush eruv.
So the booklet that came in the mail was anonymous. It is widely believed to be the work of RH who is the most outspoken supporter of this new eruv, and is both learned and has the financial resources produce this. The book is well produced, and the timing was perfect. It was sent out just before Passover when people would have three days off to read it, and the rabbis who are opposed would not have nearly enough time to formulate a coherent response. And in Flatbush people were reading it over Passover.
The book made a strong case that 1) the eruv was kosher, and 2) Moses Feinstein would accept it today. Finally there was a long and impressive list of rabbis who actually endorsed the view that the book was espousing.
The fact that that the book was both in Hebrew and English said that it was both respectable for scholars and also for the lay person. The long list of rabbis indicated that even if you are merely a rabbi follower and don’t know much, you should take the conclusion seriously. The fact that it wa well produced made it look like it was from some one(s) who had their act together, and the fact that it was anonymous made people want to know who it was, and hence there was more discussion about it. (It was actually put out by something like “The organization to fix the eruv in Greater Flatbush”.)
Here is not the place to examine the technical merits of the case. Nor am I really qualified. (nor do I have the book in front of me right now.) But it would be interesting to follow this development. This would be an interesting case of Halachic change.
Jewish law, like all law, is very conservative by nature. Once a law gets established, it is very hard to change it, regardless of the facts that one later finds out. Laws built upon scientific mistakes get kept. It is just the way the law works. (The equating of electricity with fire or “building” are both laughable, but it is still prohibited on the Sabbath.) It will only change if there is a very strong movement on the part of people who generally otherwise follow Jewish law to change it. And this happens, but rarely. (The great Jewish historian Jacob Katz documents instances of this in some of his books.)
I find it odd for someone to attempt to orchestrate halachic change, but I guess it has to start somewhere. In this case it is happening from within the community, which is the only way it has a chance of working. I am curious to see how this turns out.
This will have a real impact on the community either way. If people do change over the next few years, then the culture will be different than it is now. You can expect more women at Sabbath prayers now that they can carry their children and bring carriages. You can expect a very different feel to the community now that they can interact in different ways – like they can carry food from one house to another. Keep in mind this is one of the strongest Orthodox communities in the world, so its impact will be deep. If this does not get off the ground, there will be repercussions too. The rabbis that signed on will loose some credibility. The anti-eruv group will feel vindicated and become stronger. It will prevent an eruv attempt in Flatbush for quite some time thereafter. The whole thing may just serve to polarize the community even further. Lord knows that Jews have enough of that.