Steps toward a Jewish Urban Theology: Unlocked Gates

By Jacobs, Jill | Tikkun, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview

Steps toward a Jewish Urban Theology: Unlocked Gates


Jacobs, Jill, Tikkun


MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH CITIES BEGAN when I was eight. Walking through Manhattan during a family vacation, I was struck with the realization that people lived here- that most of those rushing through midtown were not tourists like my family but bona-fide New Yorkers. The lives of these strangers, in their business suits and heels, seemed vastly more glamorous than my own thirdgrade existence in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Accordingly, I attended college in New York City and, since then, have spent time in Washington, DC, Jerusalem, and Chicago. Eventually, I settled back on the Upper West Side, only nine blocks from my first Manhattan home.

A few decades ago, many would have pronounced the city dead. In the 1950s and 1960s, the convergence of a series of federal policies and new social norms conspired to draw my grandparents and other members of the middle class into the suburbs. My parents moved even farther west, to a town whose residents commuted not into Boston, but into even more distant suburbs. Many of my high school classmates had never even been to Boston. The city was an afterthought; life was in the suburbs.

Today, cities have experienced a renaissance. Instead of conjuring up images of violence, the word "city" now carries a sense of vibrancy. More families are choosing to raise their children in the city, and many empty nesters are buying apartments in central cities. Urban poverty persists and, in many cases, has been exacerbated by gentrification. But while urban problems have not gone away, earlier declarations of death have proven premature.

As a rabbi, I naturally am hungry for a Jewish religious context through which to understand and deepen my commitment to urban life. While Christianity has developed a sophisticated urban theology, in which city ministry becomes a means of restoring the body of Christ and of fulfilling God's plan for creation, Judaism has no parallel tradition of urban theology. This article will take the first steps toward creating a Jewish urban theology by addressing the following questions: What differentiates urban space from other places? How should our environment affect or intersect with our way of being in the world? Is there a religious purpose to strengthening the city?

New Jerusalem

FIRST, A DEFINITION IS IN ORDER. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, most of us would say that we know a city when we see it. We associate cities with tall buildings, crowded streets, and perpetual activity. Not all cities, of course, fit this image. In the United States, a city is usually defined according to its governmental structure- cities have mayors and councils, while towns are run by town meeting or selectmen.

Rabbinic sources offer a few clues toward a definition of a city. Most directly, the Mishnah (the first layer of the Jewish oral law) defines a city as "[a place] in which there are ten batlanim (people of leisure). If there are fewer than this, it is a town" (m. Megillah 1:3).

In his commentary on the Mishnah, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) defines the term batlanim as "ten people in the synagogue who have no work other than attending to the needs of the community, reading Torah and watching over the synagogue." In other words, a city is a place with the capacity to maintain communal structures and to employ people to tend to residents' physical and spiritual needs. The necessity of employing people to serve these communal needs reflects two simultaneous realities: the needs of a city are too great to be fulfilled through volunteer labor alone; and, the nature of a city as places where migrants gather means that residents may not be able to rely on nearby family for support. At the very least, according to these texts, a city must support the level of communal organization necessary to satisfy the needs of residents. Until recently, the reality that cities were uniquely capable of sustaining the physical and spiritual needs of residents prompted most Jews to cluster in areas with sufficient Jewish population density to support a kosher butcher, several synagogues, and other essential services. …

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