THE QUESTION as a Liminal Space ~ Cindy Elliott

The Gift

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

~ Denise Levertov, Sands of the Well

 In studying “master questioners,” Hall Gregersen inquired about their childhoods and found that most had “at least one adult in their lives who encouraged them to ask provocative questions.”

The Nobel laureate scientist Isidor Isaac Rabi was one such child; when he came home from school, “while other mother’s asked their kids ‘Did you learn anything today?’ [my mother] would say, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’” [1]

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
Matthew 7:7

A question can form a realm of creativity, a becoming, an “always in the midst of being formed,” a changing… a liminal space. Rabbi Sacks comments that “…to be without questions is not a sign of faith, but a lack of depth…questioning … so deep as to represent a sui generis -a religious phenomenon.”

We see the asking of questions modeled in our heroes of faith. Abraham asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Moses asked, “What am I to do with these people?” Jeremiah asked, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” There are Job, Isaiah, King David… and Messiah Yeshua, who could be called the Greatest Questioner of all time, who in the Hebraic tradition, often answered questions with questions. Even G-d Himself has filled Scriptures with questions, inviting each one of us to join in the never ending dialogue between ourselves and our Creator.

Questions inspire, inform, stimulate, challenge… and when we ask a question ‘for the sake of Heaven’ [2] these questions lead to Truth. As Rabbi Sacks also has said, “Every question asked in reverence is the start of a journey towards G-d.”

But what has happened to the art of asking a question?

The tragedy with growing up
is not that we lose childishness
in it’s simplicity,
but that we lose childlikeness
in it’s sublimity.
~ Ravi Zacharias

As a homeschool mom I look back on my daughter’s endless asking of “what?” and “what if?” and I rejoice at her “holy curiosity.” [3]  It was my desire that my daughter would never outgrow her thirst for mysteries and the adventure of discovery; that unexpected conclusions and the delight of spontaneous learning would continue to be something fundamental to her perpetual learning as an adult. Sadly, that isn’t always the norm in our society. Too often we are rewarded for having the answer, not the question, and many of us lose that passionate wonder and curiosity of early childhood. Albert Einstein understood the need to encourage curiosity in the hearts of every age, “Curiosity is a delicate little plant which, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom.” And that freedom of curiosity is often expressed as a question. Yet, too often in our society the one with too many questions is sometimes considered a nuisance.

What if I rode a beam of light across the universe?
~ Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein asked countless questions as a child and it has been said that his teachers chastised him for a being a disturbance in the classroom. His own parents – though they loved him – worried that he wasn’t quite normal. Indeed beyond normal, Albert Einstein had an unquestionable thirst for the mysteries of the universe.

Socrates who believed more in asking questions than merely conveying knowledge, was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and sentenced to death.

In my own personal Western-influenced experience, it took me time to truly flourish in the liminal space of a question. It meant letting go of my carefully formulated dogma, my preconceptions, of having to be right or wrong, of understanding true humility; because, inherent in a question is the fact that I do not have the answer. The challenge arises to move beyond fear, and to accept that my question would undoubtably usher in new questions. Over the years, G-d has fanned the flame of curiosity and wonder in my heart and every day I am excited by new “whys” and “what ifs” of my own and to the discovery that often my questions tell me more than the answer ever will.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells us: “It’s not that questions lead to answers, it’s what they do to the mind and soul [that’s important].” In Genesis G-d asked Adam, “Where are you?” G-d didn’t ask this question because he didn’t know where Adam was. He asked it to awaken something in Adam.

Something I learned long ago in the liminal space of a question was that some questions have no answer – especially those that stem from deep suffering and pain. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner shares in Honey From The Rock:

The first mystery is simply that there is a Mystery. A Mystery that can never be explained or understood. Only encountered from time to time. Nothing is obvious. Everything conceals something else.

The Torah doesn’t answer every question. The Rabbis understood this from the first word of Scripture – B’reishit – In the Beginning. The Rabbis asked the question, “Why was the world created with the letter bet (ב)? [One answer they gave is…] Just as the bet is closed on all sides but open at its front we don’t know what existed before Creation nor do we know what is above or what is below.” [4] Our quest for knowledge and understanding, therefore, should be focussed on what is before and ahead of us.

There will be a time when G-d will wipe away every tear, fill every void, and answer every question. Until that time may we each have a holy curiosity that springs forth from the heart of G-d and is rooted in Truth. May each question we voice be for the sake of Heaven and may our souls throb with the wonder and awe of G-d, His Word, and His Creation.

1. Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, p. 67
2. Taken from an Rabbinic teaching “arguments for the sake of Heaven” or rather for the sake of G-d’s Name and Kingdom. See Pirkei Avot 5:20
3. “Never lose a holy curiosity.” ~ Albert Einstein
4. Genesis Rabbah 1:10

* photo credits
1. Copyright: andreykuzmin, 123RF Stock Photo
2. Copyright: famveldman, 123RF Stock Photo

5 thoughts on “THE QUESTION as a Liminal Space ~ Cindy Elliott

  1. Just love Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel take on it “We are closer to G-d when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers”….another profound statement and comforting to know!!!!

  2. A great comfort! In my Greek thinking I love the answer and the absolute. When you journey into Hebrew thinking it feels very shakey. I feel like a mouse on a wheel. I run and run and never get to the answer but now I can see the beauty in the question. Peace

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