In 1895, my wise and courageous grandparents left the abysmal, backward Ukraine and struck out for the new world. Nine years later, my father was born in a cold-water flat in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The date of his birth: December 22, 1904, exactly at the winter solstice. "And they called his name, Emanuel, God with us." If he had been born in the old country, before the Russian authorities imposed legal cognomina upon us, he would have been named Emanuel ben Isaiah -- his father's name appended to his own as a patronymic.
Despite his traditional moniker and his commitment to the essence of Judaism, my father was fiercely hostile to the irrationalities of religion. His view -- and my grandfather Isaiah's even more strongly -- was that for a thousand years our lineage had been kept in poverty and darkness not just by the czars and the Cossacks but also by the rabbis. In politics my father and grandfather began as socialists and became New Dealers; in philosophy, they rejected theological doctrine and were among the children of the Enlightenment whom Moses Mendelssohn had led to the promised land of evidence and reason. I doubt that any of my ancestors knew Karl Marx's sentence that "the criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism," but they spoke and acted as though such wisdom had been absorbed from the cradle. My brothers and I were taught to resist the exclusivity, superstition, and ceremony and especially the triumphalism of religion.
We now have a religious controversy in our peaceful, progressive, and largely secular western town. A group of orthodox Jews have petitioned the city council for permission to construct an eruv. What is an eruv? It’s a “symbolic boundary that allows orthodox Jews to carry things, including their own children, outside their home during the Sabbath." (Carrying is considered work, and orthodoxy's strict interpretation of religious law prohibits sabbatical labor.) A latter-day eruv is constructed out of fishing line that is strung on utility poles; curiously, it may incorporate functioning electric and telephone wires. If you're within the lines, you're "in" your home.
I know that my forbears detested eruvim and similar expressions of irrational piety. I myself am not enraged by these useless but harmless superstitions. Constructing an eruv does not endanger our species; it's not like opposing contraception or prohibiting stem-cell research. An eruv consoles the believers and doesn't much bother the rest of us. Yet if there is a spirit in the sky, which I very much doubt, I would hope that he would not be so small-minded as to issue ukases about carrying infants on Saturdays; infants should be carried as much as they want, which is just about everywhere and always. And if the god of Abraham and Isaac has become so narrow as to promulgate an inside/outside-the-home rule, I would also hope that he would be intelligent enough not to be flummoxed by such transparent trickery as hanging mylar filament on poles.
I have no intuitive conception of god, but I think that the orthodox trivialize our human and shared longing for transcendence when they sanctify such petty practices. It would be far more pious for the orthodox to take every nickel spent to appease the Ancient of Days and bestow it on a poor Jewish family from Tashkent. If the eruvim-makers can't locate eligible Jews, there are Hondurans and Sudanese a-plenty who deserve their attention. When the believers re-direct their enthusiasm and their resources toward truly charitable enterprises, they will honor the universal immigrant experience and they will also practice the very worthy Jewish virtue of compassion. The effort spent to construct an eruv is a foolish waste of time.
Here's my father's view: "It took us hundreds of years to fight our way out of the ghetto and they want to put themselves back in jail. If the rabbis had their way," he would say, "Mahler and Bernstein and Gershwin would play accordion in a klezmer band in Bialystok, Einstein would balance the books for a caftan maker in Kiev, and a hundred and fifty Jewish Nobel Prize winners would squander their intelligence davening in a dim synagogue in Vilna."
I think it’s in a Wallace Markfield novel that an old Jewish guy confronts a group of twenty-something Jewish hippies/slackers in Miami Beach. After a heated discussion, he admonishes them: "And don't ever be ashamed that you’re Jewish. It’s enough that I’m ashamed that you’re Jewish."
Which is pretty much how I feel about the eruvistas. Well, not exactly ashamed. Embarrassed, perhaps, by their superstitious infatuation with the "dark backward and abysm of time."