Hefker/Nepantla

A reaction paper for my work with the Border Institute…

In his essay, “The imago Dei as Embodied in Nepantla, a Latino Perspective,” Javier Alanís evokes the image of “Jesus the homeless Jew” who was “born in Nepantla, a middle zone where cultures and peoples met and intermingled.” How does the Border Institute’s resident Jew hear those words?

I hear them in “Hebrew translation,” which is to say I recognize ideas present in my faith though fleshed out very differently. “Torah” functions for the Jew (in many ways, though not all) as Christ does for the Christian. It is the Way, the Truth, the Light, and living it in this world is the key to life eternal. Interesting, then, to consider Alanís’s essay in light of this midrash, a Rabbinic teaching from roughly the time of Jesus, which offers an answer the question, “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?”:

Torah was given dimus parrhesia — freely and openly — in the hefker — the ownerless place. For had it been given in the Land of Israel, they would have had cause to say to the nations, “you have no share in it.” Thus was it given freely and openly, in the ownerless place: “Let all who wish receive it, come and receive it!” (Midrash Mekhilta, Parashat Bachodesh 1:4 (ca. 300 CE))

I was not previously familiar with the term nepantla, but it strikes me that the Nahuatl term is analogous to the Hebrew hefker, and that the midrash uses it rhetorically in much the same way as Alanís does. Hefker/Nepantla is a dangerous place (as anyone who has spent time under the desert sun — Sinai or Sonora — can attest), but it is also rich with possibility. There is an openness in “wilderness places” that is absent in more settled places. A multicultural, polyglot society (and isn’t it rich that the midrashic teaching on this topic makes its point by using Greek loan words?) has a creative potential all its own.

Before moving to El Paso nine years ago, I hadn’t really lived in the hefker/nepantla. Upstate New York, the midwest, and North Carolina offered little in the way of “psychical space where one experiences displacement as a way of being.” At most, my Jewishness bestowed upon me a certain outsider status — though I cannot say that I often felt it very acutely. Here, I am a minority within a minority, “Anglo” by race and Jewish by religion. Linguistic displacement is a common occurrence, and because I am, by profession, in the “religion business,” theological displacement is common as well. I have learned to be grateful for the opportunity to feel that displacement. As one whose self-understanding is bound up with my status as a descendant of Avraham ha’Ivri — “Abraham the Transient” — I believe that living in El Paso offers unique opportunities for Jewish expression.

What role can my faith community play in the formation of a border region? Drawing on the vision of a “Torah in the hefker,” we can study and witness Torah in these three ways (yes, it’s going to be a sermon…):

A Torah of Diversity – In the wilderness, the nepantla, where so many of us are from somewhere else, we can study and witness to the value of diversity.

A Torah of Economic Justice – In the wilderness, the nepantla, where natural resources are scarce and poverty is endemic, we can study and witness to economic justice.

A Torah of Immigration – In the wilderness, the nepantla, where border-crossing is a way of life, we must never forget that WE WERE ALIENS in the land of Egypt.

All of these paths to a “Torah in the hefker/nepantla” are best navigated with our neighbors of different faiths, races, and backgrounds. To really embrace them requires one to let go of the comforts that come from staying within one’s own community. Again, the Midrash is instructive:

“God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Num 1:1). This teaches us that only one who can make himself into a wilderness — hefker — can acquire Wisdom and Torah” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 1:7).

* * *

I thought this poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai would somehow be integrated into my reflection, but it didn’t work out that way. Rather than worrying about how to artfully include it, I’ll just offer it as a musing on another sort of nepantla. Between 1948 and 1967, the area in which “An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion” is set was a no-man’s land in the truest sense of the word.

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the “Had Gadya” machine.
Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.
Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

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