Boundaries, which simultaneously separate and connect, are places of transaction and transition. Differences are delineated, relationships are negotiated, and similarities are shared, helping us to define ourselves by knowing who we are and who we are not.
These binary functions dissolve at the threshold — at what sociologists call “liminal” (drawn from the Latin, “limen,” meaning “threshold”), or “in-between” spaces. Thresholds are implicitly places of uncertainty. What seems clear on either side becomes imprecise at the point where such distinctions become blurred. Consequently, liminal space can be associated with anxiety and danger — or opportunity.
We mark thresholds with a mezuzah, a ritual capsule containing parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah — Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. Often thought of as a symbol of a Jewish home, the mezuzah originated in the more dramatic traditions of protective amulets that secure vulnerable thresholds. At Pesach, we recall the night of the tenth plague in Egypt, when applying sacrificial blood to the doorpost (threshold) of Israelite homes was required to ward off the Destroyer. (Exodus 12:7, 13)
Rabbi Steven Sager (whose commentary is found on page 4 of this issue) taught me a text that highlights the implicit ambiguity about this threshold ritual. The text asks: Was protective blood placed on the inside or the outside of the doorway? Was the intended audience the Israelites, the Egyptians, or God? (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Pisha, 6) Does a mezuzah signify identity to us or to others?
Liminality is a condition not only of space, but also of time. Sociologists Victor Turner and Arnold van Gennep identify three moments or beats of liminal time: “separation” from what has been, “transition” (suspension at the threshold), and “incorporation” into what will be. Like liminal space, liminal time is associated with instability and uncertainty.
We mark transitional moments of time the same way that we mark transitional moments of place: We ritualize them. This is why lifecycle events are so powerful: They provide a safe space to hold the imprecision of liminal time. A couple comes to the chuppah as two single individuals. They walk back from the chuppah as spouses. During their liminal time under the chuppah, the distinctions between “single” and “married” are blurred. The ritual space and blessings embrace the ambiguity that necessarily stands between past and future.
There are other profound moments in life that we can also name as liminal. The ways in which I experience my work differs according to the way I describe it. If I say I am “semi-retired,” I am in a liminal moment of in-between, with all the ambiguity and instability that suggests. If I say I am “working part-time,” I remain rooted in what has been, with all the comfort and stability of the familiar.
As for the individual, so, also, for the collective: When we wonder about how to maneuver in this vulgar, cruel, disruptive, and disturbing moment in American life, naming such a moment as “liminal” may help to create a semi-stable place from which to respond and react with humility and patience. Claiming this liminal political moment as a new era or as a time between two eras can shape the way we live in and through this turbulent time.
In describing uncertain moments as threshold moments — personal as well as communal — we may be able to bring some degree of comfort and calm to the inevitable vulnerability and instability of living between what has been and what is yet to be.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the assistant rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J.