When a Reform Jew Lays Tefillin

Let’s get this on the table up front. I’m a Reform Jew who lays tefillin. Not just that, I wake up, say a modeh ani in thanks for having done so, ritually wash my hands, dress, pull out my tefillin bag and siddur, wrap up, and daven (pray) much of shacharit, the morning prayers, every morning except for Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath.)

Theoretically, the foundational tenets of Reform Judaism allow Jews who adhere to the movement to adopt any mitzvot (commandments) or ritual practices that speak to them and enrich their spiritual lives. Even though the Reform movement has become increasingly welcoming of tradition since the 1970s, there are still some lines many Reform Jews won’t cross.

Tefillin is almost always one of those lines. You can keep a kosher kitchen, light Shabbat candles every Friday night, and walk around with a kippah 24/7, as some Reform Jews variously do. (Take away the kosher kitchen and I’ve just described part of my Jewish religious observance.) No one will bat an eye. But mention that you wrap tefillin and pray every morning? For many Reform Jews, that symbolizes the allegedly “superstitious” nature of ritual that reform-minded Jews originally sought to cast off in the nineteenth century. Some Jews derisively label the ancient practice a form of religious sadomasochism.

Such criticism, though, highlights what to my Jewish convert eyes seems to be a relentlessly entrenched sense of discomfort among the majority (at least, it seems to me the majority) of Reform Jews when it comes to unfamiliar mitzvot and ritual practice. That’s not surprising. Most contemporary Reform Jews over the age of forty grew up in synagogues where tradition and ritual were just tiptoeing back into fashion. Their parents grew up in shuls where it was still largely verboten.

The under-40 Reform crowd–especially those who attend independent minyanim (essentially, independent congregations) and, to their credit, their parents who attended similarly tradition-friendly, independent chavurot before them–tend to have a different take. They may not want to live in an entirely shomer mitzvot (commandment-observant) manner–something I would argue it is entirely possible to do within the framework of the Reform movement, without having to adhere to Orthodox  or Conservative expectations, but that’s a blog post for another day–but at least they may not turn their nose up at liberal Jews whose spiritual hearts tend to roll in a more traditional direction.

The gist is that, from a tradition-minded Reform convert’s perspective (and there are many such Reform converts), while the movement may say that ritual and tradition are welcome, there’s still a big, fat zone of discomfort about the issue among many rank-and-file Reform Jews. I’ve read and heard many different types of objections to the thought of anyone swimming in the deeper end of the ritual pool from my fellow liberal Jews. Beyond the liberal Jewish rejection of the non-egalitarian bias that Orthodox Judaism still imposes on the full participation of women in synagogue life, a rejection with which I agree, I believe none of the other anti-traditional mollygrubbing.

What I think it really comes down to is plain, old unfamiliarity. My parents didn’t Jew this way. I’ve never Jewed this way. How can you be a Jew-in-practice this way? It just seems so odd. So alien. Eww. Cooties.

Except…doesn’t that sound a lot like the way some non-Jews react to Judaism? Unfairly, on an uninformed basis? At times, frankly, with deliberate ignorance? You can answer that question for yourself. But it’s one thing to say you wouldn’t feel comfortable adopting a particular Jewish ritual. It’s quite another to ridicule someone else’s style of observance just because it makes your feel uneasy.

Especially, as I suspect is often the case, when such pointed criticism is merely a way of trying to deflect others from realizing that the ritual in question has simply gone completely over your head.

Converts will always feel Judaism more immediately, more deeply. Like the sh’ma (Judaism’s core statement of belief) says, truly with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. Because of that, we’ll always be on the receiving end of that patented, Scooby-Doo, ear-scrunching “Hruh?” response from less tradition-friendly Jews. But that response–for converts or any other Reform Jew who feels touched by rituals and traditions that are more common in non-Reform communities–doesn’t matter and should dissuade no one from following where their Jewish hearts lead them.

Ultimately, the ancient depth and breadth of Judaism must supersede the contemporary denominational lens. I may attend a Reform synagogue, but my Jewish practice–and yours–need not be bound by arbitrary denominational limits–or fish-eyed looks from fellow congregants, for that matter.

But since I do swim in Reform waters, it’s worth pointing out that it’s totally cool not to lay tefillin. And it’s totally cool to do so, too. Absolutely and unequivocally, either one. As a Reform Jew, to adopt or not to adopt such traditional practices is up to you and your relationship with God. Period.

So what are tefillin, anyway? I’m wearing them in the photo atop this blog post.

Tefillin are what non-Jews may know as “phylacteries” (although no Jew has ever called them that.) Essentially, they are a set of two small leather boxes containing parchments with scriptural quotes on them, worn on the bicep of the weaker arm and on the forehead, and affixed by the wrapping (“laying”) of leather straps around the arm, hand, and head.

The Hebrew bible never actually says what tefillin are, but rabbis from the Talmudic era (some 2,000 years ago) conceived of their current form. You put them on in the morning–and unless it’s Yom Kippur, only the morning–and you pray. (Learn more here, here, here, and here, among many, many other sites you can turn up via Google.)

The ritual is an interpretation of a passage from the Hebrew Bible–repeated in the paragraphs that accompany the sh’ma–to bind the mitzvot to your hand and between your eyes as a way of keeping the word of God always in mind. Orthodox and Conservative Jews take the commandment literally. Reform Jews understand the commandment figuratively–keep God in mind as if the mitzvot were carried on your hand and forehead.

I understand the commandment figuratively as well. However, one of the greatest uses of ritual is to give us a way to express our understanding of that which is holy. Yes, the commandment may be simply a metaphor. But its literal interpretation helps me express my humility, respect, and love for the meaning behind the (potential) metaphor. And from a Reform perspective, that’s the exact kind of religious reasoning that should undergird the adoption of any mitzvah.

Like Franz Rosenzweig long before me, for most of the past year I adopted the Reform movement’s standard answer of “Not yet” when asked whether I observed deeper Jewish traditions. It’s a great answer–it’s better than “No” and much better than “Never!” After all, we never know what they future may hold.

It came as a surprise a couple of months ago when my inner sense of God seemed to steer me towards a curiosity about tefillin and morning prayer. (Then again, one mitzvah really does lead to another, so I wasn’t completely surprised.) In response of this growing whisper, did what any self-respecting Reform Jew would do: I went “Hruh?”…and then I started learning. I read and talked to people about the practice, tried it on for size in my head for a few weeks, and then made a decision.

That decision was to go ahead and buy tefillin. A very friendly clerk at my favorite Judaica store, Hamakor Gallery in Skokie, helped me tie them for the first time. (And kept silent about the fact that my partner, Ryan, had already bought me tefillin from Hamakor for my birthday–Ryan went back the next day to return them and I got a nifty thermal coffee maker instead!) Wearing them for the first time felt absolutely right and very nearly familiar. I thought wearing them might freak me out. Instead, I would share Ryan’s later reaction when seeing me wearing my tefillin: “I’m surprised that I’m not surprised at all.”

I do not attend a morning minyan to pray. (I couldn’t name a Reform morning minyan in Chicago, and I’d rather not yet attend a Conservative one–although I may in the future.) I use the morning weekday service from Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur (prayerbook), dropping out the mourner’s kaddish (since I wouldn’t be a minyan and it wouldn’t make sense) and leaving in–with Adonai’s pardon–everything else. Sometimes I chant in the Reform style; sometimes I fast-mumble and shuckle like an Orthodox Jew. Usually it’s a little bit of both. (And it’s rarely this funny.)

It took me a week to figure out how to wrap the tefillin tight enough that they wouldn’t fall off and loose enough that I wouldn’t lose consciousness.

It took me a day to realize that laying tefillin and davenning in the morning centers my day and connects me to God, Judaism, and the ethical and moral goals I hope to abide by in a very literal way I could never have anticipated without actually trying it. For anyone with ADD, like me, who has a tendency to forget God, man, and good sense all day long due to nearby shiny objects, that’s a truly wondrous, strengthening, fulfilling effect for tefillin to have on my spiritual life.

It takes me 25 minutes. I get up earlier to do it, and sometimes I’m late to work because I make it a priority. I look down from time to time at the tefillin marks on my left arm that slowly disappear by lunchtime and think about the thousands of years of Jewish tradition and millions of Jews that came before me. And about Adonai’s presence in the ordinary moments of my life. I feel utterly Jewish in those moments.

How jealous some of my fellow Reform Jews would be to experience the wonder I receive from the very thing that they criticize. We are, truly, one people. No matter what your comfort zone tells you.

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