Consider and Converse: A Guide to Mezuzah — Threshold
Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the theme of the mezuzah as a liminal or threshold experience. Judaism has many boundaries — rituals, customs, and laws — that delineate Jewish time, space, and people. Thresholds, though, are places of uncertainty and mixing. They are places where and times when we are in-between. These liminal moments offer rich opportunities, and Sh’ma Now is delighted to share some smart and creative thinking about the thresholds in our lives.
Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.
How to Begin
This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or more structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal might be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.
Guidelines for Discussion
If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:
- Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
- Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
- For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen before the conversation begins.
- Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.
Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.
- Rabbi Richard Hirsh introduces readers to the way the mezuzah serves as a ritual marker of liminal space. It is “a ritual capsule containing parchment inscribed with scriptural passages. 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.” He goes on to discuss the threshold as a place of uncertainty — a place neither on the inside nor the outside of a doorway. He writes, “What seems clear on either side becomes imprecise at the point where such distinctions become blurred. Consequently, liminal space is often associated with anxiety and even danger.” How are threshold experiences marked by Jewish ritual? A mezuzah on the doorpost of one’s home often becomes an “unseen” marker, ignored rather than kissed as one enters or leaves one’s home. How could this threshold experience be reinvigorated? How could we re-establish our thresholds as places that invite our attention and our renewed consideration?
- Ari Y. Kelman writes about blues singer Robert Johnson, whose 1936 song, “Cross Road Blues,” describes the liminal moment when he sold his soul to the devil. Kelman explores the ways in which music can cross thresholds. “Music migrates quickly and crosses cultural, political, and national boundaries with remarkable speed, penetrating unintended places and allowing new tricksters to find their voices in between the expected styles. Pretty much all of global pop music has its roots in some other kind of music from some other place.” He notes that part of the allure of this musical crossroads is its inherent “danger and promise” — the certainty that when “you reach a crossroads, you have no choice but to make a choice.” How do you perceive the dangers of crossroads, and how do you suggest approaching these threshold experiences? Where does Jewish music mix with other genres, and what is the outcome? How are Jewish rituals, traditions, and customs influenced by mixing with host cultures? How do you understand the act of welcoming interfaith families as a threshold experience?
- Iddo Tavory explores the complicated relationship between ritual and liminal space and time. He writes, “Ritual moves us from one role to another, but it needs to take us through a liminal stage. This moment of in-betweenness is more than an afterthought. It is crucial to the possibility of transformation taking root.” He offers the example of army recruits being stripped of their identity “through the experiences of boot camp, a series of rituals that erase many of the markers that provided them with a sense of identity in their civilian life.” He writes about the importance of being emptied “so that we can become a vessel for a new identity.” And then he points to the ultimate Jewish experience of liminality: “For Jews, wandering in the desert was a time of in-betweenness. No longer slaves, but not yet a sovereign people, the Jewish people traveled through the desert, a symbolic nothingness. It is only when we are emptied out, when the generation that clung to its identity has passed, that we are ready to move forward. Jewish thought not only acknowledges this liminality, but also fills it with meaning.” What happens to society as we move from stability to uncertainty and back again to stability? What kind of an impact does ambiguity or a sense of disorientation have on society? Especially at this moment (and in this particular political climate), what is the relationship between the chaos of the political scene and the liminality of a threshold? How does the destabilization of our government affect us? Does President Donald Trump’s cozying up with white supremacists destabilize our country’s social norms and also bid us to start questioning our very foundations as a country? What threshold rituals are most evocative and powerful?
Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.
- Anna Goren shares the story of her own liminal moments under the chuppah. She describes the moments before, during, and after her chuppah — a magical transformation through liminal space. About marriage, she writes, “A marriage, by all standards, is a time for certainty. And the chuppah at the center of the wedding ritual reminds us of our limitations in knowing what will be. We cannot prepare for everything, but we can choose the people we invite into our lives and the values and traditions that form the foundation of our lives.” How would you describe the threshold of marriage as being ritualized under the chuppah? Why is the experience of chuppah a threshold experience? What are the dimensions of liminality that occur at a wedding?
- In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three writers explore a midrash about thresholds. Our commentators try to understand a perplexing line — “the little contains the much” — and to make relevant the notion that all of the community of Israel stood in the doorway of the great Tent of Meeting. Rabbi Steven Sager writes that this midrash “positioned all of us — those present and those yet to be — on a threshold of religious imagination, inviting coherence, consciousness, and continuity, and allowing us to be present to holiness-in-the- making that is beyond us and within us.” Rabbi Sara Luria describes the role of mikveh and washing: “Right after Moses assembles the entire community at the Tent of Meeting, he washes Aaron and his sons in preparation for their sacred roles. The mikveh ritual, an immersion in living waters, is an embodied Jewish transition ceremony that facilitates spiritual threshing (separating). Those who immerse themselves allow what is not useful anymore to dissolve in the water, and thus they emerge lighter and more prepared for what is to come.” Rabbi Gray Myrseth encourages us to consider the Tent of Meeting a model of welcome: “As we consider the thresholds of our homes and sanctuaries, it is my hope that we can remember that the first Tent of Meeting created by our desert ancestors was wide enough to hold every person who approached its doorway. That tent was wide enough to hold the spirit of the Holy One, who defines boundaries and binaries, and who welcomes human beings who do the same.” How are you stretching the metaphorical Jewish “tent of meeting” today? What role may a ritual such as mikveh — an immersion in water to separate one moment from another — play in your life? If you were standing on a spiritual threshold, what questions would you be asking? What direction would you be seeking?