Permeable Boundaries

7 May 2021

Our country continues to struggle with a basic human dilemma of being a community. Where are the borders? Who is in, or who can come in, and why? Strangely, at a time when our consciousness is so global, feelings about our local boundaries are fraught. Strangely, at a time when we announce our intention of embracing difference, we quickly cancel one another, turning on those in our actual physical community with self-righteousness that can border on vicious. 

The Jewish festival of Shavuot/The Feast of Weeks is coming up. On it we read the Biblical Book of Ruth. Ruth is a Moabite, from the land of Mo’av. She is not an Israelite. Not only that, the Moabite people are considered off limits to Israelites. In Deuteronomy 23 it is written, “No Moabite shall ever be admitted into God’s congregation, for they did not come out to meet you with food and water when you left Egypt.”

Yet Ruth the Moabite then appears, the most generous and caring person you ever met; loyal and hard working. She is welcomed into the Israelite community and eventually marries, gives birth, and her descendant is none other than David, son of Jesse of Bethlehem, a most important figure in all Abrahamic faiths.

So, the Bible itself is struggling with boundaries. In one place it condemns a whole people, proscribing them from ever – EVER – mixing with the Israelite community. And elsewhere the name of Mo’av is a place at the very center of all that is valued and loved in that community.

My take-away: struggle is good. We should acknowledge it. We want control, safety; we want to know who is in and who is out. And simultaneously we acknowledge, that our “knowing” the answer to questions of identity and belonging must be seen for what it is – terribly imperfect. Hard to preach not-knowing as a value at an academic institution, but it’s exactly what we all need; to make sure that the boundary around what we think we know stays flexible and permeable.  Otherwise, we may end up blocking entry to the very thing/person/idea that might offer redemption to us all.

Shosh Dworsky
Associate Chaplain for Jewish and Interfaith Life