With the almost invisible strings of Fort Washington’s eruv stretching from pole to pole above us, we followed Rabbi Adam Mintz and Brother John Glasenapp, OSB up the hill where we found welcome refuge from Manhattan’s May heat inside the medieval walls of The Cloisters. An unlikely tag team, the rabbi and the monk were leading a group of 25 on a two hour walk and discussion sponsored by Yeshiva University Museum and The Cloisters museum to tease out the public/private nature of the eruv and Cloister, and how they create religious structures and community.
Rabbi Mintz, who leads Kehilat Reyim Ahuvim and teaches at Queens College, explained that the origin of the obscure eruv dated back to when Jews shared a common courtyard and where, during the heat of the day, they performed their daily activities. On the Sabbath, because Jewish law didn’t allow them to carry – food, a baby, a cane – out in a public space, they devised the solution of encircling the courtyard and ultimately, entire neighborhoods like Fort Washington and elsewhere, in this series of overhead wires so that everything within, including the courtyard, was considered private not public space. Thus, those who might otherwise be excluded from the social activity of the Sabbath – mostly women, the infirm and the elderly – were included in the Sabbath.
Likewise, the courtyard features prominently in cloister life, according to Brother John of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. The enclosed garden with its covered passageways, like those in The Cloisters, would have served as a bridge between the domestic part of the monastery and the church. The courtyard was the Cloister, in the original sense of the word, as it was a common gathering space reserved for the monks to congregate, and where they read, taught and studied.
Both the eruv and the Cloister, Rabbi Mintz pointed out, were devoted to delineating space, and the courtyard was central to both. But while the courtyard was transformed via the eruv into a public space for Jews in order for them to protect the sacred time that is the Sabbath, it remained a private Cloister for monks, a sanctuary removed from others. In both cases, the religious communities were able to come together freely, unhampered by laws that might otherwise apply, and in a space specifically set aside for them.
The enlightening two-hour journey from the past to the present was one that enabled all of us to “rethink these sacred spaces both individually and in relationship to each other,” Brother John said. “Rarely and only to a small extent in most museums do Christian and Jewish objects share space. Similarly in academia, scholars tend to specialize in one community or the other. The historical reality, however, is closer to the present in which these medieval monastic buildings neighbor a vibrant twenty-first century eruv.”
Angela Himsel is a freelance writer in New York City.