Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Liminality: A Passage to Transformation

Meryll stood before us holding a small frame in her hand. Before us was an artwork of three women.  Who was the artist? How did we know?  Would we know the topic from the artwork alone?

We studied the image.  Clearly it was Chagall.  "How do you know?" she asked again. "Is there a signature?"  

"His signature is his style," we replied. 

She reminded us that we have a frame of artistic knowledge through which we view this image. We studied the image, identifying the characters of the story of Ruth.  Naomi, the mother-in-law, stood in the middle, an older woman, hands clasped.  Ruth placed her hand on Naomi's heart while Orpah, the other daughter-in-law stood behind Naomi, embracing her.

 Handout-Inside the Frame

 For more images of the story of Ruth
 
Just as we analyzed the image, we analyzed the story, abandoning our visual frame for time frames and geographical frames.  The Book of Ruth is compact, spanning 2-3 days, a journey on the road from Moab to Bethlehem.  This is a story of women, women on the margins, three widows.


The Biblical convention is to start on the road. It is a transition period in which a critical decision takes place.  Who is going on this journey?  Naomi tries to dissuade her daughter-in-laws from joining her. The story is concise with some key repetition.  One phrase is repeated twelve times in Chapter 1. "Return" (lashuv) is repeated by Naomi as she commands Ruth and Orpah to return to their mother's house (interestingly not their father's) where they can perhaps find husbands. Naomi gives this instruction three times, just as the rabbis refuse three times for a person seeking conversion. The conversion process is in fact modeled on this story. 

Ruth responds with this eloquent passage from 1:16-17. "whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God;  where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me."

Ruth makes several important statements here.  She assumes Naomi's God and in saying she will be buried where she is buried, she also adopts Naomi's faith as otherwise she would be unable to be buried in the same place. A conversion to Judaism is more complex than other faiths, including culture and people in addition to religion.

This is an unusual story. Its protagonists are women and they are supported by a bit of a Greek chorus, but it is a women's chorus.  Two passages involve the women of the city.  As Ruth and Naomi approached the city, it buzzed with excitement as the women called out,"Can this be Naomi?" (1:19-20)  Later in the story a child is born to Ruth and the chorus again sings the merits of Ruth who is better than seven sons. Throughout the story she is spoken of as possessing chesed (loving kindness)  and Eshet Hayil (a woman of valor). In an unusual passage they speak of the child as if it were born to Naomi, perpetuating her line.(4:14-17). 

The story of Ruth flowed naturally into our next topic which explored liminality, a passage in route to transformation, much as that which Ruth encountered on the road to Bethlehem. 

It was my turn to present to the lab and I focused the discussion on an examination of the passage into the unknown as we leave the familiar to enter something new and often challenging.
Threshold to my ancestor's home in Poland

Liminal means threshold. It is the space between boundaries where the old rules no longer apply, the new yet to be mastered. It is an anthropological term marking rites of passage. Liminal space is often a place of change and transformation, a place of challenge as we face the unknown. While the word resembles "limbo" which derives from a word meaning "border," its focus on passage and transformation is the important distinction. In limbo we are just stuck.

There are stages to liminality. First we must let go of the familiar, deciding what we can take into this new environment and what we must leave behind. Then comes that difficult stage of transformation, neither here nor there. Finally we learn how to adapt to our new environment. Disruption is often a trigger.  Our lives may be touched by change when someone close to us dies or we divorce. Perhaps we move to a new environment or lose our job.  All the elements that turn our life upside down are also triggers for what may prove to be transformative. I have a friend whose husband died unexpectedly, still a relatively young man. She spent a difficult year adjusting to this new reality and when we met after a time she told me that even though she missed her husband, she was learning to like this new life. She had moved through liminality to transformation.

Liminality can happen to a broader society as well.  War and natural disasters are often disruptions on a much broader scale. I would argue that our recent election was also an exercise in liminality, disrupting the things we believe about our country and our neighbors, the form of transformation, yet to be fully revealed.

Marking our crossing of boundaries with rituals is a concept found in our everyday life. When a guest enters our home we might offer them a drink.  A school bell and perhaps the pledge of allegiance marks the beginning of a school day. We have markers, rituals, that highlight the fact that we are entering a new environment. 

Religion uses rituals to honor such passages. In Judaism a "mezuzah" might be found at the door entry. It actually means "lintel" and marks our entry into a home. A bar or bat mitzvah marks our entrance to adulthood. The Havdallah ritual marks the end of Shabbat. 

While ritual marks the entrance or exit, Jewish holidays recognize the passage. What could be more liminal than  the 40 years in the desert that we celebrate at Passover? In Judaism we celebrate the journey, the preparation to receive the law, a period of transformation.  Purim has as its heroine, Esther. As a Jew masquerading as a non-Jew she has a foot in both worlds. As I analyzed each holiday I found they had a liminal state at their center, with the period of transformation central to the story. In fact as any writer knows, the period of transformation is the story.

People can be liminal as well. Immigrants and refugees have a foot in two worlds. So do those who are transgender. Many of those who are viewed as "the other" don't fit into the tidy boxes in which many like to see the world.  Ah, but no one can escape liminality if they have a teenager, caught between childhood and adulthood, the ultimate liminal being.

I think many artists and writers are liminal. Living in our world, but seeing the world with outsider eyes. It is what enables us to do what we do.  Part of creativity is often about connecting two seemingly disparate ideas into a new whole.  As artists we need to work through that transformative stage every time we create, leaving the familiar to enter something new. 

Download liminality presentation

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wrestling With Angels


In addition to the Artists Lab blog, I also write a personal blog which at times touches on topics that are applicable to both. This post was originally written for Layers of the Onion, but as it is very relevant to our lab topic, I thought you might find it of interest.- SW
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The Hebrew Bible is the supreme example of that rarest of phenomena, a national literature of self-criticism. Other ancient civilisations recorded their victories. The Israelites recorded their failures.-Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Rembrandt - Jacob Wrestling with Angel 1659
Much of what stirs my thoughts comes from books. Occasionally I experience a pivotal book that leaves me a bit awestruck at what the author added to my understanding.  Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is such a book. 

Part of what I found so intriguing was Sack's analytic skills applied to biblical stories. I'm a lover of story, and what is the Bible between all the begats, but story.  Story is how we make sense of the world, so the Bible is an anthropological dig into the heart of mankind. Sacks believes we have often worked with its stories on only a surface level, playing two dimensional checkers when the truth lies in examining many more dimensions. He then proceeds to examine these stories from multiple angles, as well as longitudinally across stories.  He has us step into the shoes of each person emotionally and dissects the meaning of words. Part of my admiration is for the depth of his analytic skills. The other part is for the destination at which he arrives, one that feels anchored in truth. 

Sacks is an Orthodox rabbi, yet his thoughtful analysis speaks to people across a broad spectrum. He brings an extremely open world view to his analysis and applies his interpretive skills without prejudgments.

His focus is on the human tendency to turn on those we perceive as "other."  He attributes it to our search for identity and for those who we identify as our tribe. Inclusiveness and exclusion go hand in hand. If we have identity, "us", we also see its inverse, "them". When our world fractures, unable to cling to the tracks as we careen too quickly into change, we fall into dualism. Dualism is when we attribute evil to an outside force, simplifying the world into good and bad, us and them. Scapegoats are targeted and we tighten our group bonds by attacking the "other."

Sacks examines this concept through the lens of sibling rivalry as addressed in the Bible. From Cain and Abel, to Jacob and Esau to Joseph and his brothers, the theme comes up over and over again. Rabbi Sacks mines this material for meaning as he considers why such violence exists between brothers, looking for the model by which they resolve it. Now, he has far more tools to make sense of this than I do. He knows the intricacies within and between the stories, he knows the context of the times in which they occurred and he knows the meaning of the words that the Hebrew Bible uses to tell the story. I must confess to some Bible envy. I too wish I could dissect the language, but lacking that ability, I am grateful for guides such as Sacks. 

The constant repetition of the theme of sibling rivalry underscores that this is part of the universal human condition. And yet, instead of viewing it as a hopeless repetition, enacted countless times through history, Sacks analyzes the pattern of each occurrence and if in fact each occurrence moves us further down the road in understanding the need for and method of reconciliation.  We begin with a murder between Cain and Abel, then move to a deception by Jacob, but a reconciliation, as the two brothers stand together at their father's grave after Jacob wrestles with the angel, his metaphoric self, and returns the stolen blessing to Esau. Perhaps the most interesting evolution is between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, abandoned by his brothers in a pit and sold into slavery, forces his elder brother to participate in an experience similar to that in which he had been thrust. This time his older brother rises to the occasion and does the right thing. 

Sacks believes that it is only through stepping into someone else's shoes, that we fully appreciate their experience and can redeem ourselves. In short, we defeat dualism with role reversal, no longer viewing the other as outside of ourself, but an integrated whole. He reminds us that in these times where primitive hatreds rage, it behooves us to learn to wrestle with our angels.