The Place of Politics: Public Protest and the Rabbinic Construction of Space

Most people experience public sculpture accidentally, serendipitously. Though there are the cognoscenti who specifically go to a site to see a specific work, most of the “audience” for any given piece is made up of passersby; people whose attention is caught by the mesh of wire, the appearance of the wooden columns, the steel dowels planted in the sidewalk and creating a pedestrian maze or roadblock. One way that public art is experienced is that it forcefully slows the pedestrian (or even the passenger) experience.

Sook Jin Jo’s “Wishing Bells/To Protect and Serve” (2009) stands in front of the entrance to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Downtown LA. Its nine cedar columns rise to a height of thirteen and a half feet and are arrayed in a rectangle forty two by fifty feet. The columns themselves are weathered but still evoke a sturdy structure—perhaps reminiscent of the wooden pier in Santa Monica, battered by the Pacific Ocean. Five larger cedar columns surround an inner square of four cedar columns to which are attached a stainless trellis. One hundred and eight bronze bells are attached to the trellis by chains. The “clappers” (the bells don’t ring) are flat metal ribbons into which words—such as “kindness,” “love,” “humanity,” “justice”—are cut.

There is a strong contrast of delicate and solid, metal and wood, meditative and powerful. The location is not coincidental. The artist’s statement—in a plaque behind the sculpture—ties the symbolism in almost simplistic manner to the Los Angeles Police Department. The number five (the larger pillars) corresponds to the number of members of the police commission. The four smaller pillars, to the four stars on the uniform collar of the Chief of Police.

Most people probably take little note of either the blatant or subtle symbolism of the piece. Though the artist called upon her Buddhist background for the bells and the mandalas drawn under each column, for me it resonated with the idea of a huppah, a symbolic house under which a Jewish wedding is performed. This heightened for me the impermanence of this very permanent structure. The huppah is almost always an ad hoc affair—poles attached to a covering in the minutes before the ceremony, planted in holders or held by friends and relatives of the happy couple. It symbolizes, however, the desire for permanence, the bayit ne’eman, the enduring home. Sook Jin Jo’s sculpture did the opposite. It seems to perform impermanence (the bells blow in the wind, there is no roof, there are no walls) through the medium of very permanent and grounded material.

Most people, however, rush by the columns in order to bail out a loved one, find out if a client is incarcerated there, or, in the hands of law officers, those people are hustled in to be booked and begin their journey in the carceral system.

Unlike most people, I had the opportunity to stand next to “Wishing Bells/To Protect and Serve” for an hour or so of a Thursday morning in late October. Then, in the time when a Trump presidency and its plethora of possible awful consequences was not yet a daily tweetstorm of bad intentions, and evil actions, I had gathered a group of like-minded folks (members of Bend the Arc) to rally under the banners of “We have seen this before” and “Jews Reject Trump.” For an hour or so we chanted and sang and spoke out in the ringing phrases of righteous rage.

What struck me, however, was that we, as the sculpture we stood next to, commanded an accidental audience. We stood outside the detention center for symbolic reasons. We were afraid (justifiably as it turns out) of the ways a Trump administration might afflict our undocumented brothers and sisters. It was days before Rosh Hashanah and we had an ornately made “Book of Life” into which we inscribed those we were afraid would be endangered under a Trump administration. People passed by and stopped for a minute—jarred perhaps by the “Jews Against Trump” signs in black on red—took a picture perhaps and continued.

It occurred to me that we had created a space which was now, somewhat like the sculpture, not so public anymore. We were intentionally intruding upon the space of pedestrian mobility in order to make a statement about a danger to our civic culture. If public space is defined by accessibility, this space was no longer accessible. In fact, part of our claim was this very point—that this space was ours. This space being symbolically the space of civic discourse performed on the space designated as the pedestrian walkway on Los Angeles Street.

A few months earlier, and a block over, a more serious claim on public space took place. A block south of Sook Jin Jo’s sculpture, the very legitimacy of the police commission and the Chief of Police symbolized by the weathered cedar columns came under attack after a ruling that the shooting of Redel Jones by the LAPD did not violate police policy. Members of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles who had been attending the commission hearings immediately decamped to the stairs outside the Main Street entrance to City Hall, saying that they would stay there until the Mayor fired the Chief of Police.

Here, in a more urgent and direct manner, claim was made upon the space, the streets where the LAPD had achieved the ignominious status of having killed more people than any other police department in the country. My mind went to the claim that was secondary to, though an essential part of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) claim. These streets were not “public” in either the sense that they belonged to the state, nor in the sense that they were anybody’s and therefore nobody’s. The political claim about the police and the police chief was embedded in a claim about the public status of the streets. They were, now that BLM was occupying this patch of LA sidewalk, public but not public—in a similar but far more forceful way, which demanded rather than passively accepted the attention of passersby—public but not public.

The “production” of this space, to use Henri Lefevbre’s term, is not a trivial act. It is a political act. It is to this I turn now.

When thinking of the fluidity of the creation of space, space itself as political, my mind goes to the Rabbinic discussions of the types of space in relation to Shabbat. I will exploit recourse to Rabbinic discussions to suggest that any political activity in the public space is also about that space—it is a direct challenge to control over those spaces. The popular chant “Whose space? Our space!” is in fact at the heart of public political action—independent of the specific message of specific actions. The action shapes the public space, reclaims that space in a way that is profoundly important, at the same time as it serves as the medium through which to confront the government or corporations.


In the series of seminars edited into a volume called Fearless Speech, Michel Foucault discusses the Greek and then Roman concept of Parrhesia. Parrhesia was a type of speech in which the speaker explicitly takes responsibility for the opinion of his statement. (“I am the one who thinks this and that.” 13) Parrhesia was a specific type of truth telling in which “there is always an exact coincidence between belief and truth.” That is, the speaker of parrhesia totally believes in the truth of what he is saying. The “proof” that what he is saying is true, according to the Greeks, is that the speaker risks some danger in the speaking. Parrhesia is, by definition,  different than the majority opinion. For example “when a philosopher addresses himself to a sovereign, to a tyrant, and tells him that his tyranny is disturbing and unpleasant because tyranny is incompatible with justice, then the philosopher speaks the truth, believes he is speaking the truth, and, more than that, also takes a risk (since the tyrant may become angry, may punish him, may exile him, may kill him).” (16) A king, therefore, cannot use parrhesia because the king risks nothing.

In summary Foucault writes:

In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy. (19-20)

Julia Watts Belser in her book Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity, points out that the Greek parrhesia in its rabbinic cognate farhesya “centers on the social location of parrhesia,  characterizing instead the ‘public’ nature of a particular act or event.” (121) Rabbinic sources rarely speak of parrhesia as a mode of discourse, but a locus of discourse or action. For example, at its most extreme, a mildly forbidden action entails a demand for martyrdom when done in public, or farhesya. That is, even though there are only three prohibitions (murder, idolatry, and forbidden sexual relations) for which one must accept martyrdom rather than transgress, when the transgression is demanded in farhessya—in public—“even [for] the lightest transgression [one must] be killed rather than transgress.” (Bavli Sanhedrin 74a) The move to the public space, transforms an action. If a tyrant demands of a Jew in public even to tie their shoelaces differently than is the custom at penalty of death—they must submit to death rather than transgress. (The continuation of the text complicates things as one might expect, but the focus on the public, farhessya, remains.)

This move to public space as the point of tension is not surprising. In the Eastern Empire, public spaces (roads, boundary markers, city plans) were the privilege and prerogative of the Imperial government. Gil P. Klein has shown that the Shabbat boundaries (the techum shabbat) was a direct rhetorical challenge to the Empire, in that it was only the Imperial government who could fix and change boundaries of the city. When the rabbis laid claim to that function, they were in essence laying claim to Imperial prerogatives. (“Rabbinic engagement with Roman mechanisms of spa­tial control also had a subversive dimension. By imitating and appropriating the Roman system, the rabbis effectively assumed for themselves a fundamental imperial preroga­tive, acting, at least in their imagination, as the lords of the land.”

I would push Klein’s insight one step farther.

The rabbinic laws of Shabbat spend a good amount of time on naming and defining public and private domains, and domains that are more fluid—intermediate domains; public domains which are not public, and private domains which are not private. Actually, the rabbis are far more interested in naming the three non-private domains (private is not a great definition for yachid, which literally means “individual”, but this is not the place to expand on that) than they are on naming the private domain itself. Naming and defining these domains carries great weight since one who transfers objects from one domain to another in an improper fashion on the Shabbat is liable to incur the death penalty.

This function of naming and defining public spaces of different types, is again brushing up against the Imperial prerogative. That is, it is not actually the rabbis who decide the boundaries or inner dimensions of cities. This is a function of government. Moreover, this is where people interface with government. (see the aggadah of “who built the aqueducts, etc.” Babylonian Talmud Berachot 33b)  This is brought home in one of the more famous stories which took place in, and contested the public space. In this story, the term farhessya does not appear, but I would suggest that the “public domain” in the story (which is a story of resistance against an “evil government” who issues a decree) brings us right back to the farhessya of the martyrdom text above.


The story is found in the Babylonian Talmud Berachot 61b.

Once the wicked Government issued a decree forbidding the Jews to study the Torah. Pappus son of Judah came and found Rabbi Akiva publicly bringing gatherings together and occupying himself with the Torah. He said to him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the Government?” He replied: “I will explain to you with a parable. A fox was once walking alongside of a river, and he saw fishes going in swarms from one place to another. He said to them: ‘From what are you fleeing?’ They replied: ‘From the nets cast for us by men.’ He said to them: ‘Would you like to come up on to the dry land so that you and I can live together in the way that my ancestors lived with your ancestors?’ They replied: ‘Are you the one that they call the cleverest of animals? You are not clever but foolish. If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more in the element in which we would die!’ So it is with us. If such is our condition when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is written, For that is your life and the length of your days, if we go and neglect it how much worse off we shall be!”

For our purposes, the most important part of the story is the beginning. When the “government” (malkhut) forbade the study of Torah, Akiva’s reaction was to go to the farhessya. Rather than continuing the study of Torah in private—which would have both fulfilled the commandment of Torah study, and the cultural and religious continuity which seems to be the concern of the parable—Akiva publicly brought gatherings together to study Torah. This was not mere Torah study—this was nonviolent resistance. Moreover it was making a claim on the public space. It was taking a risk, exposing oneself to danger in farhessya—incorporating both the classical discourse and symbolic action of parhessia, and the rabbinic farhessya. The risk was not inconsequential. Akiva was caught and jailed. (The immediately following story in the Babylonian Talmud is of Akiva’s martyrdom. However, for reasons beyond the scope of this paper, I don’t think that that story is the continuation of this story.)

This is a rabbinic theory of political resistance. The space of the action is part of the action. The resistance—though it take the form of symbolic action—is about the farhessya. The locus of the protest is the place of the interface between the “government” and the people.


I want to stress that what is important in the rabbinic Shabbat laws about public and private domains for the current discussion, is that the medial domains are fluid. There are even cases where one of the not public/not private domains can act as either public or private.

It is the fluidity which interests me here. Henri Lefevbre (The Production of Space) asks us to reimagine the notion of space. Space, and more importantly perhaps, spaces are not something that exist in an objective reality disconnected from the events of life that happen in them and to them. Rather, it is the latter that produce space. “…spatial practices structure lived reality, include[ing] routes and networks, patterns and interactions that connect places and people, images with reality, work with leisure.” (Henri Lefevbre: A Critical Introduction 110)

I am claiming that for the rabbis this production of space is a political act. It is perhaps the political act. It is what distinguishes a carmelit (a semi-public space) from reshut harabim (a public domain). It is what makes the public space a farhessya and gives meaning to Akiva’s gathering of people to study Torah.


This theory of political space/action can also explain or give some extra depth to contemporary political actions.

Political actions that take place in public space do so not merely because there are better camera angles. The space is itself part of the action. There is always a claim (sometimes primary and sometimes secondary) that the “public space” is actually a space that is no longer public space. Moreover, the public space does not belong to the government but rather to the “people.” When groups gather and march through a public thoroughfare, blocking that thoroughfare from use by others, they are making a claim on that space. The claim is sometimes articulated quite plainly in the popular chant: “Whose streets? Our streets!” Other times, it is merely the presence of many people in concerted action that implies the claim. There is an assertion of control, or a reassertion of control. This specific corner or block or street is our farhessya, it is the staging ground of our conflictual, frank, truthful, dangerous speech to the government (or a corporation).

When Occupy LA laid claim to public space—the public garden around City Hall—the reaction of the city government was to reassert its control by changing the status of the public space. Occupy LA had claimed that the reshut harabim/the public domain actually belonged to the public—not to anybody, which implies nobody (problem of the commons)—but to a specific group who pitched tents and lived there. It was now something of a “public” space which was not public. When the city was tired of the Occupiers trampling their lawn (and making demands on the government) they redesignated the park so that it was not completely public—it was only open from sunup to sundown. The eviction of the Occupiers was carried out ostensibly because they were not abiding by the closing hours.

When Black Lives Matter LA occupied the front steps and then the sidewalk across from City Hall in a weeks long action they called “decolonize City Hall,” the city finally drove them off by reclassifying the sidewalk as a park, and thus only open to the public from sunup to sundown. BLM’s claim on the street (“Whose streets? Our streets!”) was met and overpowered by the city’s claim on those same streets backed up by the force of arms in the guise of the LAPD. This latter, of course, forced the city to perform in public what BLM claimed it was doing all along—using unwarranted force.


The spaces produced by people gathering for political action are no longer “public.” They are spaces of social connection and common holding. The actions that are performed in those spaces then are political in that they are making demands upon officials or corporate executives, but also in that they are producing the polis. Space does not exist in a scientific vacuum of dimension, but, rather it is always fluid. Space is produced politically and it in turn deepens the political. When the streets are ours, when this is what democracy looks like, the space is not a vessel for the message but is part and parcel of the message itself.

Aryeh Cohen, Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, is the author most recently of Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press). He blogs at
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