Occupying One Table

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March 1, 2012
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Aryeh Cohen

A tisch is a very exclusive idea. Some people are invited to sit around the table and some are not. A tisch is neither egalitarian nor democratic. It is often, perhaps usually, hierarchical. One person presides over the tisch and teaches and leads the singing. Of course, the hierarchical nature isn’t surprising, as the tisch is grounded in Hasidic practice through which the rebbe, the Hasidic master, channels God and brings divine interpretations down to earth (according to some Hasidic understandings). Although such a gathering often swaddles participants in romantic and nostalgic feelings of an elusive authenticity, the tisch often works to reinforce conservative notions of authority and the genealogy of tradition.

This is not to say that a tisch is not moving or exhilarating. The opposite is true. Being at a tisch is often a very deep and profound experience that opens one’s heart in ways that other experiences do not. If anything, this might make a tisch more problematic. One runs the risk of mistaking the communal experience of transcendence with a moral good. Repackaging a tisch as a “program” should come with a warning: “Profound spiritual experiences may cloud judgment. Do not operate heavy moral decisions.”

However, a lesser known halakhah surrounds Jewish table culture — one that moves the “table” in a direction that is more open and provides more permeable boundaries.

Jews are not permitted to carry an item from a private domain to a public domain on Shabbat.1 In order to facilitate a transfer of any object from a private to a public domain or vice versa, there must be a wall or a fake wall enclosing the public domain (and connecting it to the private domain). This fake wall is called an eruv, literally a mixing or a mixture, since it “mixes” public and private, converting public space to private space.

However, in order to move an object from one person’s private domain to another’s, a second technology of mixing, of breaching boundaries — another eruv — is needed. This eruv consists of food for a meal — a symbolic meal usually consisting of two loaves of bread. Once the meal is deposited in one person’s home by another person, the table in the home in which the meal rests is designated as a communal table. The statement that is recited following the blessing of this symbolic meal makes it clear that with this eruv, at least theoretically, everybody in the city is considered to be eating at the same table. Therefore, anybody and everybody is permitted to carry from one private domain to another (think private apartments in a high rise). It is this fact of sharing bread and table that punctures the privacy of ownership and the division of walls and doors, and allows for the mixing of and, therefore, the passage between domains.

I have been thinking about this within the context of the general agitation toward a more radical, just, and horizontal — that is, transparent and egalitarian — form of democracy. In present-day America, this is being expressed through the Occupy movement and its encampments. Although most Occupy encampments have been destroyed, the encampments were rooted in the idea of an open table at which everyone could eat. The Occupy sites served as an eruv, symbolizing the conversation and engagement that are the essence of democracy, as well as the free and open sharing of bread from which a society of humans, rather than commodities, can be constructed. It is for this promise of a society with truly permeable boundaries — one in which we can all share a meal and an argument on the way toward a more perfect union — that we place two loaves of bread together in one person’s home.

1 The halakhic definitions of public and private are very technical and do not jibe with our contemporary notions of public and private. However, the definitions are, in some instances, close enough for me to make my point.

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Aryeh Cohen, a Sh’ma Advisory Board member, teaches Talmud at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He davens at the Shtibl Minyan, is a member of the Interfaith Sanctuary at Occupy L.A., and writes about Talmud, justice, Shabbat, and gender among other topics. His latest book is Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press). Cohen blogs at justice-in-the-city.com.

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