Judaism and Urbanism

Michael Lewyn's picture

After visiting Denver for the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) conference, I began to meditate on the relationship between Judaism and urbanism, and on how few cities accommodate both. In particular, I was impressed by how well-populated downtown Denver was compared to the southern cities where I have spent the past three years (Jacksonville) and this summer (Little Rock) - but I stll couldn't imagine myself living in downtown Denver all that comfortably.

Why? Because, like many Orthodox and Conservative* Jews, I seek to follow the rule of Jewish law that one should walk, rather than drive or take public transit, to a synagogue on the Sabbath - and the nearest synagogue is three or four miles away, kind of a long walk.  If I could live anywhere (rather than being limited by my love for my job) I would prefer to live in a city where I can have my urbanism and my Judaism too.

How do American cities stack up in this regard? I think American cities can be divided into four categories:

Grade A, or The Gold Standard: Cities with large downtown Jewish populations. The true "gold standard" in this regard is of course New York City, where there are synagogues in virtually every neighborhood, and the full panopoly of Jewish options near Midtown. Philadelphia also has downtown synagogues of all stripes (though, alas, no Jewish day school downtown).

Grade B, or Some Life Downtown: Cities with just enough of a core population to support a downtown synagogue or two, plus other congregations in pedestrian- and transit-friendly city neighborhoods. For example, Washington has a couple of downtown congregations, and several more elsewhere in the District of Columbia. But most of Washington's Jews live in the suburbs or in "outer city" (within the city limits, but not near downtown) neighborhoods such as Cleveland Park. Similarly, Pittsburgh has a downtown synagogue, but most of its urban Jews live in outer city Squirrel Hill a few miles away.

Grade C, or Take The Bus: Cities where there is no downtown religious life to speak of, but you can have a full Jewish life if you are willing to take a bus or train from an intown neighborhood a few miles away.

Denver is an excellent example: although there is no downtown synagogue, there are congregations in intown neighborhoods with reasonably good bus service, so you can live in a more-or-less urban neighborhood with ample transit options and still have an adequate Jewish religious life. Similarly, in Jacksonville almost all local synagogues are on the same bus route (though in a setting that is more suburban and less walkable).

Grade D, or Sprawl Hell: In these desolate places, the Jewish population is concentrated in suburbs with minimal or nonexistent transit service. Kansas City presents a dismal example. Only two synagogues (one Reform and one Conservative) are left in the city of Kansas City, and the Conservative one has already moved many of its operations to the Kansas suburbs where the rest of the Jewish population is concentrated. In these Kansas suburbs, most buses stop running around 5:30 PM. Ironically, in Kansas one must have a car to live in a place where one can walk to most synagogues.

(In Grade F cities, there are no synagogues, so the issue is moot).

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Cycling to Sabbath?

Just curious if any Jewish scholars have weighed in on whether cycling would fit the intent of the requirement to "walk" to synagogue. Is a bicycle considered to be a machine that needs a rest on the Sabbath because it is external to the body? Or is it considered to be an extension of the human body (akin, let's say, to a shoe) because the motive force comes from the rider, and because no separate source of fuel is being consumed?

If the latter, then I think that a Grade C city like Denver could move up to Grade B -- particularly with its network of totally off-street bike paths following rivers and creeks, some of which (if I remember right) are in close proximity to synagogues.

In any case, just like many of the precepts of feng shui, or rules underlying traditional diets, the requirement to live where one can walk to temple strikes me as one of many ancient concepts that have unanticipated benefits when applied to modern life, even aside from the spiritual reasons behind them.

Jake Wegmann

Cycling and Orthodoxy

I used to go to an orthodox synagogue in Berkeley, and the members definitely looked askance on me when they saw me bicycling on Saturday.

Someone explained that orthodox law banned cycling on the grounds that the bicycle might break, tempting you to work on Sabbath by repairing it. Sounds very far fetched to me: by the same reasoning, you shouldn't lock your door on Sabbath, because the lock might break and tempt you to work by repairing it.

I believe that reformed Jews did not remove the rule against driving on Sabbath until 1950 - a sign of how dramatically cities were changing at that time. Another proof that it is not always good to believe you should go along with the tide of "progress."

Charles Siegel

driving on Sabbath

It was the Conservative Rabbinate that determined in the 1950's that congregation members could drive to shul. They did this because many Jews were moving to the suburbs. The ruling is that you can drive to shul only and not anywhere else.

Reform Jews have never required that members walk.

lets be respectful, okay

To Siegel: There are numerous reasons why you should not ride a bike on the Sabbath. First, as you suggest, your bicycle might break down and you may be tempted to repair it and therefore engage in prohibited work or use tools which have no purpose on the Sabbath and are therefore prohibited. Second, you may be tempted to push your bicycle if it breaks down and that is viewed as "carrying" which is not allowed. We walk. We do not ride.
I think that it is rather disparaging to say that the reasoning is "far fetched" and analogize it to not locking your door because the lock might break . . . if you don't know what you are talking about, just keep quiet. Would you appreciate it if other people were critical about a religious view you hold or other belief you hold dear and without understanding it make ignorant and insensitive remarks.
Think about it. This is a public forum where many people read the blogs.

Note the Contradiction

"lets be respectful"

"if you don't know what you are talking about, just keep quiet."
"without understanding it make ignorant and insensitive remarks.

Being respectful does not mean refraining from all criticism.
It does mean refraining from scurrilous comments such as "if you don't know what you are talking about, just keep quiet."

My analogy still makes sense to me. If you shouldn't ride a bike because you would be tempted to use tools to fix it if it breaks, then doesn't it follow that you shouldn't use the lock of your door because you would be tempted to use tools to fix it if it breaks.

In fact, if the bike breaks on your way to shul, you can just lock it where it is and walk the rest of the way. There is no need to use tools or to push the bike.

Charles Siegel

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