Tazria-Metzorah – 5783 – Liminal Thresholds

By: Rabbi Michele Sullum

A dvar torah honoring Alicia Bach and Joel Portman on the occasion of their upcoming wedding (website version).

Consider the following six items:

  1. Shaatnez (also known as linsey-woolsey: a material comprised of linen and wool)
  2. A lobster
  3. A dead body
  4. נֶגַע צָרָעַת  (Nega Tzara’at) — spoken of in this week’s Torah reading: a disease that bears some similarity to leprosy.
  5. Childbirth
  6. A threshold

What are some of the biblical Jewish practices or laws that these items share with one another?

  • Some aren’t kosher, meaning Jews aren’t allowed to consume or make use of them, namely lobsters and shaatnez.
  • Some are bodily conditions that render a person טָמֵא — ritually impure — such as childbirth and Nega Tzara’at.
  • Some are objects in the world that are טָמֵא, and are able to transmit their impurity to the people or objects they touch, for example: dead bodies

In fact, five of those six items are connected by the Biblical concept of טְמֵאוּת, of impurity. But the sixth one—the threshold—calls to mind the old Sesame Street song: “One of these things is not like the others; one of these things doesn’t belong.” Or at least, it doesn’t belong if the linking thread is impurity.

In fact, you might legitimately wonder why I am suggesting that we look for a unifying commonality between all six of these items at all.

My reason is simple. The link between them not only exists, it speaks to a fundamental, metaphysical truth about Jewish reality—one that forms the foundation to our Jewish beliefs and which lies at the heart of our Jewish ritual practices.

So, what is the metaphysical commonality underlying these six items? To understand this, we must first take a step back from metaphysics and re-examine these items as objects and experiences within the physical world.

And what do we see when we do so? We see that all of these items are “crossovers” of a sort. Each one is an object, a moment in time, a point in space, or a state of existence that does not fit into a single category, but instead encompasses two at once or, even worse, straddles the  line in-between so that it is not one thing or the other. Consider the following:

  • Shaatnez is neither plant nor animal but a mixture of both.
  • A lobster is a creature that looks like a land animal (a kind of large bug) but lives in a water animal’s environment.
  • A dead body is no longer a human being since it lacks a soul, but it still retains human form.
  • The condition of נֶגַע צָרָעַת (tzara’at lesions) turn a person into a categorical ambiguity. The lesions are caused by a disease that could be fatal—but also might not be. The lesions change one’s skin tone from a darker hue to a bright, almost white color. (Note that the Biblical text is quite clear, here, on the point that our ancestors were not light-skinned people) The skin of a person afflicted with nega tzara’at was neither uniformly dark or completely light, but an unsettling mixture of both, which rendered such a person impure. For a priest to declare such a person “purified” and once again free to interact with members of the community, one of two outcomes needed to occur. The 1st possibility involved the afflicted person becoming completely lesion-free once again, with his/her skin reverting back to its original, darker hue. The 2nd possibility has the diseased person becoming completely covered in lesions, so that his/her visible skin becomes completely white. In both outcomes, the person’s skin color will no longer multi-hued, but becomes straightforwardly one color or the other. In the case of nega tzara’at, the priests are not so much concerned with the afflicted person’s illness and return to health as they are with the ambiguity the disease caused in his/her metaphysical status of purity or impurity as manifested in the physical world through lesions causing a change in the pigment of his/her skin.
  • The process of childbirth is more complex yet, encompassing a twofold ambiguity that is both physical and metaphysical: The creature being born is no longer a fetus but is not yet a baby while the woman experiencing childbirth is neither pregnant nor a mother but exists in a state in-between the two.
  • And now we come to the last item on our list—the one that is not simply an ambiguity but actually a paradox: the threshold. What is a threshold? It is a location in space whose particular place cannot be described relative to itself. With any other point in space, you would be able to name its location—the roller coaster, the back yard, 6632 Crestland Road—but not with a threshold. You can name the places a particular threshold stands between—between the living room and the kitchen, for example—but you cannot name the location of the threshold itself, because it doesn’t truly have one. If the two spaces it links together were to vanish, so would the threshold. It has no independent existence, yet without it we could not move from one place to another.

The ambiguity inherent in these “crossovers” manifest in the metaphysical world as well as the physical. Examining each one would take too long and would take us in too many different directions, so we will narrow our focus today to the item discussed in the opening verses of our Torah reading, which is not leprousy, as one might assume, but childbirth.

Let us begin by considering the following thought experiment known as Schroedinger’s Cat:

Imagine a sound-proofed box containing two bowls of cat food, one of which has been poisoned while the one other has not. Now imagine that a cat is placed inside that box and the box is then sealed shut. In the moments that follow, between sealing and unsealing the box, an observer cannot know what is occurring inside. The cat might eat from the bowl containing poisoned food and die, or from the other bowl and live. The cat might also choose to eat both, in which case it will die, or the cat might eat neither, in which case it will live. According to Schroedinger, this experiment creates a liminal point in time when all of those potential possibilities exist at once, as do all of their possible outcomes. During that liminal period, Schroedinger suggested, the cat is, metaphysically, both alive and dead.

Childbirth is a similar liminal intersection of time, space, and potential. It is a physical process that holds tremendous transformational potential but also significant danger. The mother’s body, which has carried only life for the past 9 months, now contains the potential for both life and death depending upon the outcome of the childbirth process. The pregnant woman could become a mother. The fetus could become a baby. One or both of them could also become corpses—bodies without souls—another manifestation of a physical reality which straddles the metaphysical line of the in-between. The process of childbirth, like the process of Divine creation, is the quintessential example of physical and metaphysical liminality: an intersection of time and space which contains every potential outcome of that reality so that all of its possible outcomes are, at once, both true and untrue; both possible and impossible.

Eventually, both in the case of Schroedinger’s Cat and in the process of childbirth, one set of outcomes will become reality thereby rendering all other possibilities null and void. The cat will either eat poison or not; it will either live or die. The pregnant woman will either becomes a mother or will not; her fetus will either become a baby or will not.

Considered strictly from the physical perspective, it makes sense that we often describe transformational experiences such as these using the metaphor of a threshold. For example: “On the day Sarah gave birth to Isaac, she crossed the threshold into motherhood.” 

However, while this the metaphor may be an apt depiction of the physical reality, it is woefully inadequate in describing the metaphysical one. Because metaphysically speaking, when we enter a state of liminality, we don’t cross over a threshold—we become the threshold. And thresholds, as we’ve seen in the example of childbirth, can be extremely dangerous places to be.

Is it any wonder, then, that Jewish tradition has us place protective amulets—mezuzot—on each of the thresholds in our homes? Or that the custom is to reach up and touch each one as we cross over and kiss it, as if invoking God’s protection in that moment of liminality when we stand not in one place or in another but exactly in-between, a location that has no true metaphysical reality of its own.

In fact, if you were to start examining our Jewish rituals, you would find that nearly all of them occur at moments when our actions and words turn us into metaphysical thresholds straddling the in-between. Some examples:

  • Reciting a bracha and affixing a mezuzah to one’s front door, words and actions that enable us to transform an uninhabited, generic dwelling into a Jewish home.
  • Reciting a bracha and performing a circumcision, words and actions that enable a mohel to change a newborn’s metaphysical status from “boy” to “Jewish boy.”
  • Lighting Shabbat candles and reciting the bracha or else reciting the kiddush, words and actions that enable us to create the metaphysical bubble in time that is Shabbat or some other Jewish holiday

And, of course, we cannot forget the threshold ritual that Alicia and Joel will soon take part in: the ritual of Chuppah V’Kiddushin—the wedding canopy and the words and deeds of sanctification which they will use in order to create their marriage.

Alicia and Joel. When you come to stand under your chuppah, with your community of friends and family looking on with love and joy, remember: the chuppah, the rings you give each other, even the words you say to one another—they are not the transformational threshold you use to cross into marriage; they are the means by which the two of you become that threshold thus giving you the power to create your marriage. Your love for one another coupled with your intent to build a life together empower your words and your actions, opening up a liminal intersection of time and space in which every possibility and potential outcome of your love and your marriage coexist all at once, with each one of them true and real.

Unlike the thresholds we become in the examples of liminality I gave just a few moments ago—thresholds that wink out of existence as soon as the mitzvah in question has been completed, the liminal threshold you will become during your wedding ceremony does not dissolve at its conclusion. In fact, every choice you make together in your marriage, in addition to solidifying certain truths and dissolving others, als creates an infinite number of new possibilities and realities that the two of you might realize. The semi-liminal threshold that the two of you will become on the day of your marriage, with all of the amazing potential for creation that such a state of being entails, continues so long as you are married and building your lives together.

May your marriage be filled with adventure and possibilities, with liminality and love.

Shabbat Shalom