Picture a pre-banquet cocktail party. The invitees drift from conversation to conversation, clutching cards with table assignments and growing increasingly hungrier as time wears on. At last, the ballroom doors fling open: dinner is served.
Yet they do not all rush madly in to take their seats. They need to be reminded, even herded in by the hotel staff, because too many of them hover insistently in the doorway, scouting out the territory to which they are being invited.
Cocktail room and dining room are separate social universes. Having mastered the rules of the first, we hesitate on the portal of the second, wondering who else has been seated at our table and whether we are close to the tables of honor, rather than relegated to an unimportant spot on the room’s periphery.
The portal where we linger en route from one room to the other is what students of ritual call “liminal,” from the Latin limen, meaning “doorway.” It is neither one room nor the other, betwixt and between; it is a place of “no place,” really, and, for that reason, a position in space that is undefined by precedent and open to imagination. From the doorway, we can imagine any number of dinner possibilities — until we become part of the dining room and settle for the realities of where our table actually is and who our dinner companions actually are.
Life itself is much like an ever-expanding series of rooms. We are born into a tiny stretch of experience that we outgrow. And then, as we grow older, we expand our horizons and enhance our knowledge until some day, closer to death, we look back at the totality of the life we constructed. We reflect on a virtual set of rooms through which we have moved during our days on earth. With each move forward — teenage independence, marriage and children (perhaps), or stages in a career and the inevitable retirement — our space in the world is altered. And at each new phase in the lifecycle — especially those that are attended by crisis — we pause at the door’s antechamber and imagine both the potential and the danger ahead.
Anthropologists make much of this liminality in space and time. Both in-between places and in-between moments feel uncomfortable; they are as yet unshaped, undetermined, and unknown. But that discomfort creates opportunities for an imaginative peering into a future of possibility.
Lifecycle ceremonies are ways to deck the in-between times with potential. The bar or bat mitzvah child on the verge of adolescence practices Jewish skills of adulthood and receives the rabbi’s charge for a life well led. A bride and groom stand under a chuppah that is likened to their home-in-the-making. Jewish law even provides a category of goses (a time close to death when no medical action can be taken that will either hasten or delay death) — suggesting that such a person might imagine the afterlife before actually getting there, and giving the soon-to-be mourners space to try on the loss that is occurring.
Physical spaces should be designed as well to offer us opportunities to be thoughtful as we consider our experiences. Mezuzot are a beginning; they have us pause at a doorway through which we enter and exit. But we can do more. For example, doors into sanctuaries, libraries, boardrooms, and classrooms may be designed with appropriately etched glass to suggest the ambience of the room we are about to enter. Hallways should be more than wasted space that direct us from here to there: They should offer art, memorials, and museum pieces that cause us to stop along the way to imagine the greatness of our possibilities before we hurry down the path from one room’s business to the next.
As a rabbinic student, I attended lectures by Rabbi Henry Slonimsky, a master teacher, even when I was not particularly interested in the announced topic. I went to hear the marginal comments he interspersed about life in general, before rushing further through his prearranged text. I may still have those marginalia notes, which I cherish the way I do margins in general, in my life.
We live largely in the margins, within transitions in time or walkways in space. They may seem like mere frames for the larger times and spaces of our lives, but, treated properly, they have their own reality as liminal opportunities to give us pause to ponder. Life is more than what happens when we get wherever we are going; it is equally the divine imaginings that dawn upon us on the way to getting there.email print