Sacred Zoning: Spatial Demarcations in Jewish Thought

Presented at: CSJS annual conference, Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2016. Calgary AB.

Abstract: The stereotypical landscape of human settlement in North America is that of an endless grid which was laid down by surveyors and turned land into a commodity that can be traded. On this seemingly neutral pattern, places emerge in which people endow space with meaning: the “other side of the tracks,” the elite suburb, the civic centre, the green oasis. This spatial differentiation is in part governed by public land-use regulations, most often known as zoning. In the process of managing the development and shape of urban environments, zoning imposes structure and limits on the form and function of cities, and by extension on people. Marginalized groups are especially subject to exclusion from the Master Plan. Despite restrictions to their freedoms and agency, these groups have rich traditions of placemaking practices and theoretical frameworks that enrich the city and their community, contest official authority, and reveal the limitations of dominant theories and practices. These marginal practices, however, are often overlooked by mainstream theories and histories of urban planning. At the core of Jewish history and culture is an ambivalent relationship to space. On the one hand is the centrality of sacred spaces at various scales: the Mishkan, the Beit Hamikdash, and Eretz Israel. On the other hand we find the prevalence of time over space in Jewish thought and religion—the centrality of cyclical time in rituals and of linear time in historical unfolding—and the importance of nomadism in Jewish identity. A further ambivalence can be found in the experience of segregation, which has both been imposed from without and chosen freely. In the absence of territorial dominion over the homeland, diaspora studies initially tended toward the symbolic constitution of identity and culture. While this historical-literary approach seems appropriate for the ‘People of the Book’, it reinforced the marginalization of the Jewish community and reproduced the image of placelessness associated with the ‘Wandering Jew’. The ‘spatial turn’ in Jewish studies, however, begins to affirm spatial realities and experiences by rooting the symbolic materially in space and the city in particular. The complexity and nuance of the Jewish relationship to space enriches our understanding of contemporary processes of city-building, modes of inhabiting the city and techniques of socio-spatial differentiation. The proposed research will shed light on that relationship over time, in all its varied dimensions and with all its contradictions, by means of a review of classic texts and of scholarly books and articles.

Contributing author: Raphael Fischler

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