Rachel Adler: The Slippery Nature of Religious Borders

My first two posts here have focused on the works of Daniel Boyarin, in particular his books Border Lines and The Jewish Gospels. It is part of Boyarin’s project to consider religious borders, to destabilize them, and to question their legitimacy. While I’ve been critical of Boyarin, I’ll confess (again) that I admire his project. As Boyarin points out with great eloquence and considerable relentlessness, there’s something in the religious effort (or at least, the effort in Judaism and Christianity) to define who is in and who is out that is – dare I say it? – not kosher. The effort denies us the right to move as necessary from one side of the border to the other, and it creates an untenable position for those located where the border is being defined.

Yet as I wrote in my first post, there may be such a thing as a good religious border. I made a comparison to an open door – the doorway signifies the passage from one space to another, and allows us to assume the roles of host and guest, roles that can be said to have a sacred quality. I could go further and argue that it is a fundamental human right to close one’s doors and claim a measure of privacy. But it’s an open question whether a religion has an analogous right to close its doors, in effect to say who is allowed in and who must stay out.

On this question, let’s consider a terrific article by Rachel Adler, professor of Modern Jewish Thought, Judaism and Gender at USC and Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Dr. Adler wrote a piece in 2004 for The Reconstructionist magazine with the unwieldy title “’To Live Outside the Law, You Must Be Honest’ – Boundaries, Borderlands and the Ethics of Cultural Negotiation.” In this article Dr. Adler eloquently makes the point I tried to make earlier, that the discussion of human diversity is necessarily “talking about the positioning and texture of boundaries”, in that in is through these boundaries that a group maintains “its distinctiveness and its integrity.”

Dr. Adler points out that Jews have historically had a difficult time maintaining boundaries. Israel was placed on one of the busiest intersections in antiquity, a “narrow strip of land between the desert and the sea that offered the only access between great rival empires north and south of it.” Not only did foreign armies frequently cross Israel’s borders, but so did foreign ways of thought and worship. The potential for outside incursion only increased as the Jews lost first their political independence and then their land. The instability of Jewish boundaries created something of a paradox: Jews became naturally anxious about the integrity of the Jewish border, but the thing we call Judaism is itself partially a product of these border incursions. In Adler’s words, “[t]here never was a time when ancient Israelite religion or the Judaism that succeeded it were not being influenced by the cultures and religions they encountered.”

Dr. Adler’s article considers the nature of Jewish borders. Dr. Adler refers to these borders as “slippery”, which I think is a good term. “Slippery” means both that the border itself can move and that the border is something one might move (or slide) across – assuming that one doesn’t slip and fall hard on one’s passport.

As Dr. Adler argues, a slippery border raises slippery questions. One set of questions arises from what Dr. Adler sees as a dual motif: the need for “boundary maintenance” versus the desire for “boundary crossing.” Jews are themselves inveterate border-crossers, beginning with Abraham’s crossing into the promised land and continuing through the Exodus, the Babylonian exile,  the Diaspora and the founding of the modern State of Israel.  Each such crossing of geographical borders brought confrontation with religious, cultural and other kinds of borders, as well as the possibility of “crossing over” these borders. There is something Jewish in the possibility of crossing over, the possibility that (in Dr. Adler’s words) “a slave can become free, a Moabite can become an Israelite, and an Assyrian city doomed to destruction can turn in repentance and be saved.”

Adler argues that we need borders: without a Jewish border, “we would be inundated; Jews and Judaism would become indistinguishable from the external environment.” Adler uses the analogy of a human cell, bounded by “a membrane that keeps the inside and outside from merging and governs exchanges between the two environments.” The question then is not whether to have borders, but how to properly govern our borders to maintain the requisite separation while permitting the optimal level of border-crossing. Adler sees this process as the responsibility of those who maintain the border, and also those who cross it. She asks herself the question:

When, where and how am I called upon to trans/pose, trans/act or trans/mute, and under what circumstances would my act be a trans/gression, an averah [sin], an unmaking of some boundary that maintains a distinct and irreplaceable meaning?

Adler’s question brings to mind the controversial practice in some Mormon churches of “posthumously baptizing” dead Jews (this practice is performed “by proxy” – “the living dip themselves to represent the dead”). This practice is deeply offensive to many Jews, some of whom regard the practice as an effort to eliminate the Jewishness of the Jews being baptized. (It is my understanding that Mormons see this baptism as giving the recipient the posthumous right to choose whether to accept the benefit of the baptism.) At its core, the debate here is about religious boundaries: the Jewish desire to govern its own border and the Mormon desire to cross (or perhaps, to transgress) this border.

Adler’s view of religious borders is sufficiently nuanced to bring some understanding to the Mormon baptism controversy. It is not simply a matter of telling the Mormons to stay on their side of the border. From Adler, we understand that the key to maintaining a religious border is determining when it’s OK to allow someone to cross, and that the border will fail if it is crossed too much or if it is not crossed enough. The analogy to the cell membrane works perfectly: if the membrane becomes too rigid, the cell dies, and if the membrane ruptures, the cell ceases to exist. As Adler argues, it is sometimes right to “guard” the border, other times to “cross” the border, still other times to “resituate” it, and sometimes the border must be eliminated altogether. Knowing which action to take and when to take it – this is a moral imperative, a question made no less necessary by the fact that it’s such a difficult one to answer.

If there’s something Jewish to bring to this question. perhaps it’s that Judaism has survived against all odds over an improbable time span with porous (or “slippery”) borders. This may provide us with a rule of thumb: in close or difficult cases, err on the side of leaving the door open.

* h/t to Rabbi Jill Zimmerman for pointing this text out to me.

  • thanks for this beautifully written post. As a Jew by choice, and a Jew who finds the man named Jesus interesting and compelling BECAUSE he was a Jew, arguably interested in taking Judaism to a new place, I appreciate Adler’s notion of the borderline as a porous interstice. As such the border between/joining (in the sense of putting together) Judaism and Christianity, may allow for productive inter-ference and the resulting inter-marriage of ideas.