Architecture, Landscape, and Rabbinic Place-Making

Gil Klein

Sabbath boundary marker
Sabbath boundary marker. Photo courtesy of the author.

To rediscover the world means to rediscover the childhood mysteriously snuggled up inside the Place, to open up to the light of great landscapes . . . to feel the unity created by the bridge that links the two river banks and by the architecture of buildings . . . This then, is the eternal seductiveness of paganism, beyond the infantilism of idolatry, which long ago was surpassed. The Sacred filtering into the world— Judaism is perhaps no more than the negation of all that . . . Judaism has always been free with regard to place.

(Emmanuel Levinas, "Heidegger, Gagarin and Us," in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990], 231-233)

Although Levinas's attack on Place is a sophisticated and pertinent critique of Heidegger's ontology and its Teutonic mystification of nature, as well as of Eliade's notion of sacred space, Judaism has not always been free with regard to place. For Levinas, space (and more specifically outer-space) and technology wrench us out of pagan and Christian "superstitions surrounding Place" and their inevitable outcome—the "splitting of humanity into natives and strangers." This idea was not new when Levinas articulated it (think, for example, about the myth of the "wandering Jew") and it did not disappear with the move away from Jewish essentialism. We still hear about Judaism as rooted in text, law, or time, as opposed to image, matter, or space. In recent decades, however, this very opposition has collapsed, not least thanks to the growing understanding that "space," this abstract volumetric entity that no one has ever seen with their bare eyes, is much less useful for the understanding of culture than "place." Place is more than the mysterious link to the "spirit" of one's home, hometown, or homeland; it is, rather, a fundamental spatial framework through which we create meaning and establish relationships. Imagined or real, place is what we produce when we interact with the world around us, but it is also the precondition for any such production. In this sense, everybody does it, including Jews. A few of the most striking examples of Jewish place-making are evident in the work of the late antique rabbis, with which Levinas has frequently corresponded in his writing. In many of these examples, the rabbis' attempt to infuse place with sanctity is explicit. Consider, for instance, the rabbinic system of 'eruv .h a z. erot (the merging of courtyards), which Charlotte Fonrobert has so wonderfully illuminated. The establishment of spatial and legal definitions of the private and public domains in this system, for the purpose of facilitating the carrying of objects from one domain to the other on the Sabbath, is underlined by the holiness of the Seventh Day. Its reconstitution of the neighborhood's social order through the biblical prohibition on working during this day may be seen as a project that allows the sanctity of the Sabbath to be manifested spatially. While the rabbinic requirement to position a shared food item in the courtyards and alleyways so as to symbolically merge the various households into a single domain is a ritual, and not an act of urban planning, it cannot be understood without the notion of place. The rabbis meticulously mapped the structure of residential quarters and prescribed the active construction of beams and partitions in order to give the neighborhood a distinct architectural boundary. Architecture, in this regard, was not a mode of expression better left to others, it was engaged by Jews in their attempt to take place in the world and to give it meaning.

Admittedly, the rabbinic concern with the city and its social and spatial relations falls well within Levinas's perception of Judaism as emphasizing human relations over the mystery of nature. In the essay cited above Levinas writes: "Socrates preferred the town, in which one meets people, to the countryside and trees. Judaism is the brother of the Socratic message." However, the rabbis by no means ignored nature in their establishment of place. For example, they regulated and defined the "Land of Israel" in the context of tractate Shevi'it (the seventh year, when the land is to be left fallow), determining everything from the procedures of harvesting to territorial boundaries. These rabbinically instituted boundaries, which point to another connection between time and space through the sabbatical principle, were recorded in a famous mosaic inscription at the Reh. ov synagogue (fig. 1). The inscription (c. 5th century CE), whose placement in a synagogue is itself an attestation to the land's religious dimensions, speaks about Reh. ov's immediate environment not in broad geographical terms but rather on the intimate level of specific fields, city gates, and tombs. Hence, "the sacred filtering into the world," which Levinas sees as a non-Jewish idea, is clearly visible in the sages' endeavor to redefine the landscape from the perspective of divine law. It is not a coincidence, therefore, that the rabbis dedicate an entire mishnaic order (Zera'im) to questions of land and agriculture, in addition to explicitly speaking about this land as sacred and pure in numerous aggadic accounts.

Moreover, in rabbinic literature the countryside did not escape the spatial hold of the Sabbath. Tractate Eruvin institutes the halakhic system of teh . um shabbat (the Sabbath boundary), which overlaps, but is not identical with the system of 'eruv .h az . erot mentioned above. The Sabbath boundary is not concerned with the question of carrying; it revolves around the biblical prohibition of leaving one's makom—place—on the Seventh Day (Exodus 16:29). What, then, is one's "place"? For the rabbis, if one is within a house or a city, for instance, these broader structures constitute the limits of place. Beyond the house or the city, one is allowed to walk a distance of two thousand cubits, a measurement that seems to be derived from the pastureland allotted by divine decree to the Levitical cities (fig. 2). In this regard, the rabbis use biblical spatial principles as building blocks for their construction of the Sabbath place.

Even more interesting for our consideration of place is the case in which one is on the road or in the field when the Sabbath starts. What is one's place when there is no visible spatial marker, no building or settlement to delimit the boundary? For the rabbis, the minimum dimension of such an outdoor place is the area taken up by an individual human body, when it is, supposedly, laying on the ground: "The full extent of his height and [the span between] his stretched arms, lo, an area of four cubits" (T. Eruvin 3:11). Hence, in the absence of clear spatial boundaries, it is the proportion of the body and its imprint on the ground that establishes place and give it meaning. The place of the Sabbath is, nevertheless, not only corporeal but also mental. According to the Mishnah (Eruvin 4:7), our Sabbatical traveler may establish residency at a familiar site, which is located at a distance, by declaring it his or her Sabbath place. In order to do so, however, the traveler must be able to recall in his or her mind a specific point of reference such as the root of a particular tree or the base of a fence. This mental self-projection onto the landscape is articulated in legal and temporal terms, and is certainly different from the kind of mystification of place and nature that Levinas criticizes. However, it is not very different from the Heideggerian spatial understanding of human existence, against which Levinas primarily writes. In his famous essay "Building, Dwelling, Thinking," Heidegger says: "I am never here only, as this encapsulated body; rather, I am there, that is, I already pervade the room, and only thus can I go through it."