Liminality and the Jewish Understanding of Time
Rabbi Philip Ohriner
As many of you know, I spent most of the month of August away on family leave as we welcomed a new son, Kobi, into our family. Those three weeks were filled with sacred moments, moments in which time felt as though it had stopped, moments in which I felt as though I was on a precipice, envisioning the changes in life and self that come with having a new baby. I was also blessed to experience those kinds of moments with my older sons, Ari and Eli, as they experienced the same kinds of watershed moments in their own young lives. For our family, these past three weeks felt as though we were all betwixt and between.
Anthropologists have a specific term to describe these kinds of moments. They call them liminal moments from the Latin word, Limen, meaning “threshold”. Liminal moments are opportunities to take stock, to transition, to renew, and re-envision our lives. The 20th century French ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep writes that in liminal periods “time stops as one actually passes through the threshold that marks the boundary between two phases of one’s life.” In these moments, one’s sense of self dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation (ok, maybe that is only for parents of a newborn), but also the possibility of new perspectives.
Life gives us ample opportunity to mark liminal time. And Judaism provides a set of rites and rituals to help us recognize and embrace these moments when we come upon them. As Jews, we ritualize dawn and dusk, waking and sleeping, the end of the week and its beginning, the transition from one season to its successor, and the progression from one stage in life to the next. As my teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman writes, “In all of these cases, the purpose of ritual is to bring the threshold into our awareness, to remind us that we are leaving one structure and entering another.”
However, liminality requires a particular view of time. For us to have life-changing experiences, we have to view each moment as moving us forward. Watershed moments, by definition, must span two periods with one leading to the next. Time must have trajectory. Now, for us as moderns, dissent towards this notion seems almost inane! Of course time moves forward and in a single direction! There might be no other truth to which we are more attuned. In the 21st century, we are hyper-aware of time moving forward. I would venture to say the vast majority of us feel that time is racing forward, faster than we might like!
But time was not always viewed this way. In the ancient world, particularly in Egypt, Greece, and the Near East, time was represented by the oroborus, a snake coiled in a circle, ingesting its own tail. How’s that for an image! For the ancients time was not linear. It was cyclical, meaning everything that happened would happen again. Every individual had a specific fate that replayed itself over and over again. Nothing was new. Nothing could be innovated. Everything magically returned to that which once was. And the fate of all human beings was some primordial cosmic moment, the moment that pulled all other moments into it like a black hole. The ramifications of this cyclical conception of time are immense, particularly when we contemplate an evening like this one, the beginning of the New Year. In ancient Mesopotamia each New Year was marked by the reenactment of their creation myth, the Enuma Elish, in which the god Marduk slays Tiamat, the monster, and creates the world from her body. The Mesopotamians correlated the birth of the year with the mythical birth of the world.In essence, the New Year in the ancient Pagan world was a chance for human beings to reverse time and reach that first moment. The 20th century Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade put it this way: “With each periodical [ritual] festival, the participants find the same sacred time—the same that had been manifested in the festival of the previous year or in the festival of a century earlier.”
The New Year festival and rituals were an opportunity to go back to the beginning and live the same existence all over again. This conception of time necessitated a perspective on life in which nothing can ever really change, including people.
Then along came the Torah and changed the world.
Of all the innovations of Torah, re-conceptualizing time was among the most important, perhaps second only to the idea of monotheism. In the Torah, God is not revealed in cosmogony, God is revealed in history. Torah breaks the mold by viewing time as linear not cyclical. To grasp this idea, one need only look at the Torah’s focal points. The master narrative of Torah and the Jewish people isn’t the creation narrative of Genesis, but rather the Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and the redemption we are still working to realize today. The Bible’s bold assertion is that time moves forward, allowing for growth, transition, and change. There is no going backwards. As Eliade puts it, the Bible “presents an innovation of the first importance…time has a beginning and will have an end. The idea of cyclic time is left behind. [God] no longer manifests himself in cosmic time like the gods of other religions but in a historical time, which is irreversible.” www.
But that is not the end of the story because we are not a Biblical people. We are the Jewish people. And Jewish time is an amalgam of these two ancient ways of thinking about our lives. Jewish time is both linear and cyclical. I like to call it JST (that is something else!). Not Jewish standard time, but Jewish Spiral time. As Jews we believe with all our might that we can change, both ourselves and our world. We are not subject to fate, nor are we stuck in a static state of existence. But we also embrace the repetition of ritual and the prospect for liminality in the recurrence of sanctified moments. All of which leads us to this evening and the promise that exists in this very moment. Of all our holidays, it is Rosh Hashanah that contains the greatest potential to cross a threshold or experience a watershed moment. Rosh Hashanah presents the quintessential liminal experience: the opportunity to stand at the threshold of becoming a different person. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik teaches: “The desire to be another person, to be different than I am now, is the central motif of teshuvah….A person is creative; he was endowed with the power to create at his very inception. Man, through repentance, creates himself, his own “I.” What Soloveitchik so eloquently expresses is that teshuvah is not about returning to some other, better iteration of self, because we cannot return to our past, nor can we erase who we once were. All we can do is honestly assess how we became the people we are today and decide in this moment who we want to be tomorrow.
It was this assessment of time and the nature of life that one day brought a young student to his teacher, the Maggid of Dubno. The student approached and said, “Rabbi, I have so many imperfections, so many faults. How can I change them so that I can become a better person?” The Maggid replied with a story: “Once there was a king who owned one of the most splendid diamonds in the world. He was so proud of his flawless diamond and showed it off to all his visiting dignitaries. But one day the king noticed that the diamond had developed a flaw. There was a deep scratch in his precious gem. He immediately called for the finest diamond cutters in the kingdom to come to the palace. ‘You are artists in your work. What can you do to return the diamond to the way it was?’. One by one the artisans approached to inspect the diamond. Each looked at it closely and then sadly shook his head. The scratch was too deep. Finally, one last diamond carver came before the king. He looked at the diamond closely, gazing at it from every angle. The king watched with bated breath as the diamond carver turned the diamond over and over, pursing his lips and shaking his head. Suddenly the diamond carver’s face broke into a big smile. “I know how to fix this! Leave it to me. In two weeks time I will return your diamond to you, better than ever. The young man worked hard, but in secrecy. And when he had finished his work, he presented the diamond to the king. Instead of seeing the scratch in the diamond as a blemish, the young diamond cutter had seen it as the stem of a rose. He had etched the roots, the flower, and the leaves onto the stem. And in doing so, he transformed the scratch in the diamond into a mark of beauty. The king smiled, for he knew that with its rose engraving this diamond was more precious now than it ever was before.
As I look around our sanctuary this evening, I see precious souls. Diamonds far more valuable than any physical item of worth. But I also know that we too have scratches. The vicissitudes of life, the trials of caring for children and parents, grappling with work and health, relationships and the travails of the world, they chip away at us. This moment provides us with an opportunity to turn those scratches into something else, something novel. The lesson of Jewish Spiral Time is that we can chart a different course. We can create ourselves anew, never to return to our old ways. It is up to us to grab hold of the moment. For Rosh Hashanah is the consummate liminal moment. As you pass through this threshold into the New Year, who are you going to become? What are the areas of your life that are yearning, screaming for your attention? As we enter into this second day of Rosh Hashanah, this beautiful second chance for authentic change, let us seize this moment of liminality. Let us create. Let us treasure the blessings inherent within Jewish Spiral Time—a legacy our ancestors gave the world and to each of us.