In this week's portion, Moses finishes his first speech, reminiscing what it was like at Sinai, and mentioning several times that he will not be going into the land because of the people's guilt. Moses also repeats a theme several times of observing the commandments of God and things will be good. If the people do not, then things will be bad. But he also tells them that even when things are bad, things can become good again, by going back to the mitzvot. Moses repeats the Ten Commandments, and then some words which we are all familiar with: (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
Hear Oh, Israel, the Lord is God the Lord is one! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul-life and all your might. These words which I command you today will be on your heart. You will teach them and speak of them when you dwell in your house, when going on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. You will bind them for a sign on your hand, and they will be bindings between your eyes. You will write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
There is so much I do here and there is so much that I do not. I struggle with the Shema. We say these lines but how much do I do? The Torah geek I am, I do speak and teach at the drop of a hat. I have mezuzot on my doorposts, including my office door. It is You will bind them for a sign on your hand, and they will be bindings between your eyes that makes me struggle the most. It is the mitzvah of tefillin that I struggle with so much I’m even having a hard time writing this week, one of the many problems about getting this out late.
Tefillin of course are leather containers with straps that fit on one’s head and arm. Contained inside are four passages from the Torah. Two are from Exodus (13:1-10, 13:11-16) and two are from Deuteronomy, (6:4-9 11:13-21). They have in common some variation of the theme of bindings and signs:
Exodus 13:9. And it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the Lord’s Torah may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand has the Lord brought you out of Egypt.
Exodus 13:16. And it shall be for a sign upon your hand, and for frontlets between your eyes; for by strength of hand the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 6:8. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.
Deuteronomy 11:18. Therefore shall you lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes.
All of these passages contain two common elements: “sign upon your hand” and “frontlets between your eyes.” Beyond that there is variation between each one. The two Exodus passages mention reasons for the mitzvah explicitly: to remember the Exodus from Egypt. In the context of the Exodus passages, these are really about the observance of Passover, and indeed both are prefaced by two of the four sons of the Passover table, the son who does not ask(13:8) and the simple son (13:14) . Interestingly this pattern extends to Deuteronomy 6 as well, with the wise son asking the question, several verses later in 6:20.
From the word binding, found in each of these texts, the rabbis believe that the words should be actually tied to the person. Because of some interesting word plays with the word L’totafot, The rabbis also decided that the head tefillin needed four compartments, one for each of the different passages. The details of the tefillin's construction and use make up a section of Talmud found in Tractate Menachot, one I am for my last final for grad school busy trying to explain. But in explaining tefillin I am also bothered by tefillin and my past with tefillin.
Another reason this is late is a business trip I needed to take this week to the town where I went to College. While the school was obviously closed for the summer, on a trip down memory lane I did stop at some of my old haunts in town and did remember thing from almost two decades ago, some good and some bad. I ate dinner at creperie in town which was the favorite date spot of most from campus. I remembered one date which ended in a very romantically. Unfortunately, that also brought back the bad memories as well, as this same woman became a nightmare in my life. After eating dinner in this place, I walked over to where my apartment was, or should I say used to be. It is now a parking lot, completely paved over in asphalt and “free parking” signs. Much of the town I knew is closed and shuttered.
I realized the town had changed and so had I. The guy who walked across the campus had no Jewish identity. In my time in college and for years afterwards I rejected my Jewish identity. I was, in my mind, a Taoist. Thinking back to that time I needed a spiritual religion a religion where I was in deep connection to a divine source. The Conservative Judaism of my youth never provided that. In the Orthodox schools and conservative (or Conservadox) synagogues of my teen years, there was obligations. There was resentment and ridicule if I did not do things. This was the religion of heartless Halakah. Tefillin were mandatory, and not wearing them got me looks of hatred from the more religious. The problem with such a system is that you need to know how to do something exactly right in order to be approved of. I was so shy and scared of looking like a bigger idiot by doing thing wrong, I never put them on. The ridicule continued. I realized like the son missing from the tefillin, the wicked son who asks “what is this service to you?” I was the outsider, and like the English translations of the Haggadah we used for much of my youth, even asking that question made such a horrible human being I should not be a Jew.
So I wasn’t. I stopped being a Jew.
Instead I was someone, taking from Chinese mysticism, who believed in a transcendent unifying divinity, one I could paradoxically never completely comprehend given its infinite nature but could connect to. I could give all of my soul mind and effort to connecting with this unification called Tao. I think back to what I wanted then and am still surprised at it. Today I would summarize that belief differently than in verses from the Tao Te Ching. Today I would quote this week's parsha:
Hear Oh, Israel, the Lord is God the Lord is one! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul-life and all your might. These words which I command you today will be on your heart.
I always remember the canned tomato sauce commercial which declares “it’s in there!” In the last twelve years, I learned that describes Judaism well. There was a whole side of Jewish thought that has been missing from my and I believe many people’s education. The Baal Shem Tov reminded many of this in the 18th century. Some great thinkers in this century, notably Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber, has reminded us that Judaism is not just Halakah, law, but also Aggadah, story, theology and belief. Jews, for various reasons continually forget this, and when they do, it is not passed on to the next generation.
Tefillin however are a galvanizing symbol of the struggle between halacha and aggadah. Its literally internal message of remembering ourselves once as slaves and of transmitting our culture to the next generation seems to have been lost. Instead it had become a symbol of fundamentalism. Men who wear tefillin and those who don’t is equivalent to observant and non observant, even Jew and non Jew. Whether one wears tefillin or not binds to one or the other pole. I do not wear tefillin because I do not want them to be a symbol of mindless obedience, but a love note to God, and they cannot be that. The emotional impact is too great. I have had many times where I have gotten stares of hatred from ultra-orthodox men because of my refusal. The Lubabvitchers on the street corners trying to get me to wear them look at me as though I am a neo-Nazi. In one time I will never forget, I was not counted in a minyan. I was not considered Jewish, because I refused to put on tefillin.
My harsh feelings for tefillin have not abated; their use as a fundamentalist symbol remains. Yet I do obsess about the one way that their fundamentalist stigma can be broken, it is a constant theme of my Jewish related paintings. I believe fundamentalism can be destroyed by feminism. I never draw a man in tefillin, but instead a woman. Women are not banned from wearing tefillin; they are exempt under the time-bound Mitzvah exemption. To the fundamentalist, there is no difference, since women are for making and caring for babies. For them to have time to pray Shacharit with tefillin and talit on is just wrong. Yet to anyone else, exemption means they don’t have to, but if they wanted to, they could. I’m still single, but the day I pray with tefillin on will be the day I am standing next to my wife, in tefillin and talit, and we are praying together. Before that, the pain of mindless fundamentalist halakah, of the religious behaviorism Heschel wrote about will prevent me from ever laying tefillin.
It’s sad, but those who most want to follow a mitzvah, destroy the mitzvah for everyone else.