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Yep, that’s me wearing tzitzit. Last thing first, I’ll get to how I got to tzitzit in a minute. More germane to the Reform circles in which I run–tzitzit are controversial. There are some rituals Reform Jews rarely adopt, no matter how deeply they’ve searched their souls to determine whether individual mitzvot (commandments) have meaning for them.

But even though modern Reform has come a long way from its classically inspired tendency to reject most traditional ritual practices–from a distance, these days it can be hard to tell a Reform shul from a Conservative one–there are some things Reform Jews “just don’t do.” Although our movement demands us to be thoughtful and open-minded about the mitzvot, deeply ingrained knee-jerk reactions to ritual practices that resemble stuffy, old, or (horrors!) Orthodox Jewish practices still exist. Very often, wearing tzitzit is considered on the other side of some allegedly uncrossable line between Reform and Orthodoxy.

I’m no great fan of Orthodox religious haughtiness [Ed. note–though I’m coming to think such haughtiness is evenly balanced by the unfortunate tendency of Reform Jews to misrepresent our own movement–see quote below] , but I am a Jew in awe of our multiple millennia of tradition. And as a convert (as any Jew-by-birth will tell you), I tend to take that tradition a.) pretty seriously, and b.) without a lifetime of inter-denominational baggage to weigh me down. So I don’t categorically exclude commandments just because other denominations of Judaism tend to include them a lot more than does my denomination.

Denominationalism, itself, deserves a note here. I am a member of a Reform synagogue community. I pay dues; I sit on committees; I attend worship services. I read a lot about Reform Judaism during my conversion studies, and happen to agree with the movement’s stance on halacha (Jewish law)–that individual Jews have a right and a duty to determine how to intersect with the mitzvot themselves.

However, I also researched all streams of Judaism and rituals and styles of observance both near to and far from normative Reform. In fact, I consider myself a Jew first and foremost–a Jew who happens to agree with the Reform perspective, and who believes it’s my responsibility to financially support my worship community of choice. But I think the breadth and beauty of Jewish tradition is too amazing to for anyone to let others define their Judaism for them, to choose to squeeze their Judaism into a neat and tidy denominational box. If I didn’t maintain a synagogue membership (with Rippity Ryan), I guess that would make me a “post-denominational Jew.” Except I do think that denominations and synagogue communities matter–quite a lot. Just not enough to serve as an intermediary between Adonai and me.

So…what are tzitzit anyway? The Torah (Hebrew Bible) commands Jews to tie tzitzit (stringed fringes) to their four-cornered garments as a way to remind us of all the other commandments–so we’ll remember to (drum roll) follow them. Four-cornered garments aren’t common anymore, so many traditional Jews were a special garment called a tallit katan (small prayer shawl) in order to have somewhere to affix tzitzit.

There are many interpretations of how to do all this, with styles, sizes, materials, methods for tying the tzitzit, whether they should include a special blue thread, and whether to wear the tzitzit–and even the tallit katan–under your clothes our atop them all differing depending on whom you ask. None of this is germane here (though watch this terrific Punk Torah video for a short and groovy discussion of all this.) The bottom line is after a lot of forethought, the mitzvah definitely spoke to me.

In fact, the commandment concerning tzitzit is quoted in the V’ahavta, sort of the central statement of Judaism commanding Jews to always keep God’s mitzvot top of mind (immediately following the Sh’ma, Judaism’s central declaration about the oneness of God.) Reform siddurim (prayerbooks) removed the paragraph concerning tzitzit for many decades. It returned in the most recent Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah, but only as an option, and only if you choose to turn the page to find it.

Well I turned the page and found it, and thought about it. I looked for examples of Reform Jews who chose to wear tzitzit. The best example by far (though mind you, there are very few examples) was David A.M. Wilensky, the noted, 20-something, east-coast Reform blogger and writer. He wore tzitzit–though no kippah (as he notes, kippot are merely a tradition but tzitzit are a commandment)–for several years before ceasing the practice in 2010. He did so because he felt commanded to do so, and he received a fair amount of criticism for it, too.

Similarly, David and I both have a love-hate relationship with the Reform powers-that-be, and an unquenchable thirst for Jewish knowledge and exploration. But it takes guts to wear tzitzit in a Reform community. David had them. I decided to find out if I did, too.

I’ve spoken to many Reform Jews who casually dismiss mitzvot they find onerous, outdated, or “Orthodox” by saying one version or another of the following sentence:

“We don’t have to do that. We’re Reform. We can do whatever we want.”

Problem is, that’s not true. Reform Judaism allows individual Jews to make decisions regarding following the mitzvot for themselves, unlike other denominations which consider all mitzvot binding and only allow denominational or other rabbinic authorities to decide whether and where any wiggle room might exist. But Reform Judaism never tells Reform Jews to discard the mitzot out of hand. What Reform Judaism really asks is for Reform Jews to examine the mitzvot and determine how they speak to us, what meaning they hold, how deeply they move us, in order to decide which ones we want to–or for some us us, which ones we must–accept and adopt.

I turned tzitzit over and over and found in my heart a sense of being commanded to respond to the commandment to don them. That’s the best I can explain it, though I think that’s a pretty good explanation. So after much coaxing, Rippity and I made a special trip to Snootier-Than-Thou-Orthodox-Judaica-Store Rosenblum’s in Skokie and I bought a tallit katan. Two, even.

I wore them at work last week, to synagogue Friday night, and to a synagogue karaoke event on Saturday. They were an amazing topic of honest and interested conversation at work, which touched me. They earned a couple of sideways stink glances at synagogue on Friday night. By Saturday night, no one cared (or was too tipsy to notice.)

How I care is another story. I’m not sure if this is a long-term thing or a passing exploration, which is a valid place to be with a new mitzvah. Tzitzit could go the way of my former dietary restrictions, or it could stick around like my beloved tefillin practice. Only time, my heart, and Adonai will tell. At any rate, my cantor was kind enough to record the V’ahavta paragraph concerning tzitzit in trope (cantillation melody) for me so I could add the paragraph to my personal morning prayers.

One thing I can say already is be careful how you wash your tzitzit if you go cheap like I did. Discount Neatzit are no match for delicates laundry mesh bags. It’s just as well. One thing I did learn before I double-wrapped my unraveled tzitzit and placed them in the trash (yes, just like double-wrapping taken challah before tossing it) was that stringy strings don’t cut it for me. I definitely want to explore a more traditional tallit katan and more robust strings. Which may be a clue about where my heart is concerning tzitzit after all.

That doesn’t make me Orthodox–and Orthodox isn’t a dirty word, either. It makes me a thoughtful Reform Jew engaging with the tradition that belongs to us all. That doesn’t mean I won’t continue to get the stink-eye from some people if I choose to continue to wear tzitzit (hanging out, thank you very much.) If anything, I think what it does mean is that Reform Jews have a right to explore all Jewish tradition–and a duty to follow their hearts where that tradition leads.

If you’re a traditionally minded fellow Reform Jew reading this, Jewish tradition is your tradition. All of it. Let your love for it guide you. May the example of your thoughtful intersection with our tradition be the best answer–and an inspiration–for Reform Jews everywhere who may be silently yearning to explore beyond the confines of what some uninspired folks may suggest is normative Reform Judaism.

A great place to start is, simply, turning the page.

Categories: JEWISH RITUAL

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion

Contact: mikedoyleblogger@gmail.com

34 replies

  1. One of the wonderfully liberating things about being a Liberal convert is knowing that whatever I or my family do, the “Orthodox” (and I don’t think that name bears much historical scrutiny) will never consider me “authentically” Jewish.

    So instead of worrying whether what we do will make Uncle and Aunty Frummer accept us, we get on with wrestling with hallakah. Just as in this blog.

    Thank you for sharing your struggle with this mitzvot. It mirrors a lot of what we’re going through!

  2. Hey, as an Orthodox Jewish girl (and college student) reading this, Yasher Coach. Before you write off all Orthodox Jews, why don’t you call and Orthodox Jewish community, and get invited for a Shabbat meal, give the community that you think is “snooty” a chance. We are all Yidden, and we do indeed share an incredibly rich, and vibrant heritage. Before you write it off, learn about it. Furthermore, Hashem knows we have enough enemies without fighting among each other as well.
    Hatzlacha, and continue to plug into our rich heritage.

    1. Hi, Geula. Actually, among the warmest, truest, most honest welcomes I have ever received in my Jewish life have been from Orthodox Jews. For me, you’re (no pun intended!) talking to the converted. Frankly, I think liberal Jews give non-liberal Jews incredibly short shrift. Just last night over dinner I was talking with my partner about an Orthodox co-worker whose sibling scheduled their wedding in another state on a Saturday night–so of course my coworker and their family cannot easily be there. The punch line is that the sibling is not Orthodox but my coworker is. And my heart breaks for my coworker, because there is less than no reason to make a problem like that for someone you love.

  3. Hello all,

    I’ve had similar interactions. I am still in the conversion process of becoming a Reform Jew. By coming in from the outside to the inside you have a different perspective on things. Ill say that in the end we are all Jews and its not a good thing for people to eschew their fellow brethren simply because they interact with Adonai in a different manner.

    The breakdown/separation/distinction is a relatively new phenomenon and as such, I feel it is entirely acceptable for anyone to wear tzitzis. Its almost like giving someone a hard time for praying with your eyes closed or open, instead of closed or open as you do, or they do. You’re still doing a good thing.

    To me, wearing tzitzis is very spiritual. I really think twice before donning them because it does serve as a reminder of the mitzvot and simply helps place me into a different spiritual state, furthermore, I also know people are looking at me while I’m out in the public realm and therefore, I am a reflection on the entire Jewish community. I do not do anything that is not good while wearing them because I simply think about my actions just one more time. It basically helps you interact more positively with things and occurrences such as the interaction with a homeless individual. When I see such things as a homeless individual, I am more likely to think and ponder what the Jewish thing to do might be not only because it is the right thing to do and the norm, to help them out, but also that and the fact that others can’t not see a Jew helping another person out. For the public to see that, it not only helps improve and heal the World, but also strengthens the idea that the Jewish thing to do in that instance is to help those in need.

    The “stink eye” phenomena that you are referring to has only come to me from older individuals… people in their 70’s. I have to point out that by far it is a only very small minority of Jews that have done so to me… from what I’ve personally experienced. In my instances, it’s not so much a stink eye, but rather a hard time in an obviously rhetorical questioning of why I wear them. It has also only occurred in the synagogue where I am a member and from those whom I have never seen before, nor after.

    Because the two instances of rhetorical questioning came from individuals in their 70’s, it might simply be a generational thing we have both experienced. Those in that age group within the Reform movement grew up in a different time and assimilation within the United States was of higher importance than it is now because of the obviously discriminatory laws and practices of their time. For us, we have not been subject to those situations and have not had to deal with discrimination to the same level they experienced. It could further be one of those things that they do not need to be reminded of and therefore see tzitzit as useless artifacts from a time long ago.

    After saying hello and acknowledging their interest I would like to ask the next individual that asks myself a rhetorical question along those lines if they can give me three solid, reasonable and defensible positions to remove one of the 613 mitzvots.

    I still wear them.

  4. Hi Mike – your decision to wear a tallit katan really resonates with me. As a Reform Jew and a woman, living in Australia, I have the good fortune to attend a synagogue where people don’t bat an eyelid to see me wear tallit and kippah. But I can’t help wondering what they’ll think if I wear my tallit katan to services. Well done, you, for having the courage of your convictions! You inspire me to follow my heart.

    1. I’m happy to have inspired you. I will tell you, I no longer wear my strings, but that doesn’t mean I never will again. As I continue to explore mitzvot and practices that speak to me, some become more or less permanent and others ebb and flow. The most important thing is not to be afraid to explore. I say go for it!

    1. None of you have ever met real Orthodox Jews. You are all liberal, and probably would never talk about traditional christians, or Muslims, for that matter the way you talk about us. Give us a chance. I challenge every viewer on this website: Call an orthodox Jewish group in your area. Ask to come for Shabbat. Watch as large families take you in, without hesitating.
      Please, I beg you: before you make assumptions, meet some real, old fashioned, Orthodox Jews. See an authentic Shabbat.

      1. Ms. Silverman, how haughty can you be? “Authentic” Shabbat? I assure you that my Shabbat is just as authentic as yours. You do not have sole claim to the authenticity of Jewish practice.

          1. You do realize that using the word “authentic” is offensive in the way you are using it, right? You’re effectively saying that my Judaism is not as real as yours.

        1. Adam,
          I want you to think about the word “authentic” for a moment. I believe that “authentic” means real and true to tradition. An authentic Shabbat, or any other Jewish practice, for that matter, should steeped in, and true to the traditions of our ancestors. When you sign a contract, you sign the WHOLE DEAL. At Har Sinai, we signed a contract with G-d, and He never told us, “if any facet of these precious mitzvot become inconvenient, or out of fashion, feel free to drop them.” An authentic Jewish practice is by definition, true to halacha, real halacha, as it has been passed down through the generations.
          think about it, and then reply.

          1. Wow, way to characterize more than 2/3 of the Jews in the world. And way to be totally tone deaf to my point, too.

            My Judaism is just as authentic as yours is, and I’m done here.

            Michael, I’m sorry about this. It’s your blog, and I should have stayed out of the comments. My apologies.

    2. If you have ever been to an Orthodox Jewish wedding, you will know that we are not stuffy, and unemotional. We truly love the mitzvot, with all of our being. Otherwise, why would we submit to a life that, at least to an outsider, seems colorless and restricted???

  5. Kol hakavod to you for giving this a try. I don’t wear a tallit katan (though I know women in Jewish Renewal who do), but I think tzitzit are pretty grand. 🙂 I’m not a Reform rabbi per se (my smicha is Jewish Renewal) but I serve a Reform shul, and for what it’s worth, I’d be delighted to see any of my congregants experimenting with tzitzit!

    1. Thanks, Rabbi Barenblat. I’m actually reeling right now from the thing your B’Nei Mitzvah class told you about an aspect prayer in today’s RJ Blog Post (In Which My Kids Teach Me About Tefilah):

      “Maybe saying a prayer, they told me, is like leaving a comment on a blog post written by God. Sometimes one just wants to hit the “like” button (as on Facebook) and give something a thumbs-up: this sunset? “Like!” This ice cream cone? “Like!” And other times, one has more to say than just the sign of approval, and that’s when one might write a long comment, or post a video, to tell God thank you or to make a request or to continue the conversation in detail.”

      The last time I was floored like that I was reading Heschel. You’ve got one wise class there!

  6. Given the diversity of people reading this post at the moment, I thought it might be helpful to share the Reform movement’s statement of principles. Originally drafted in 1885, the principles have been revisited and revised several times since then (in 1937, 1976, and 1999) to reflect changes in the movement. The 1999 principles, or Pittsburgh Principles, named after the city in which they were adopted (and as opposed to the original 1885 Pittsburgh Platform) are linked below, and declare God, Torah, and Israel as the central tenets of the movement.

    Reform Judaism: Pittsburgh Principles (1999)>>

    Of note is the section concerning Torah, which I will copy here:

    Torah

    We affirm that Torah is the foundation of Jewish life.

    We cherish the truths revealed in Torah, God’s ongoing revelation to our people and the record of our people’s ongoing relationship with God.

    We affirm that Torah is a manifestation of (ahavat olam), God’s eternal love for the Jewish people and for all humanity.

    We affirm the importance of studying Hebrew, the language of Torah and Jewish liturgy, that we may draw closer to our people’s sacred texts.

    We are called by Torah to lifelong study in the home, in the synagogue and in every place where Jews gather to learn and teach. Through Torah study we are called to (mitzvot), the means by which we make our lives holy.

    We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of (mitzvot) and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these (mitzvot), sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.

    We bring Torah into the world when we seek to sanctify the times and places of our lives through regular home and congregational observance. Shabbat calls us to bring the highest moral values to our daily labor and to culminate the workweek with (kedushah), holiness, (menuchah), rest and (oneg), joy. The High Holy Days call us to account for our deeds. The Festivals enable us to celebrate with joy our people’s religious journey in the context of the changing seasons. The days of remembrance remind us of the tragedies and the triumphs that have shaped our people’s historical experience both in ancient and modern times. And we mark the milestones of our personal journeys with traditional and creative rites that reveal the holiness in each stage of life.

    We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfill the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all of God’s creation. Partners with God in ( tikkun olam), repairing the world, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age. We seek dialogue and joint action with people of other faiths in the hope that together we can bring peace, freedom and justice to our world. We are obligated to pursue (tzedek), justice and righteousness, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage. In so doing, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice. We affirm the (mitzvah) of (tzedakah), setting aside portions of our earnings and our time to provide for those in need. These acts bring us closer to fulfilling the prophetic call to translate the words of Torah into the works of our hands.

  7. As an update to my unstrung strings, I’ve decided to purchase tzitzit strings alone (without a talit katan, and no techelet, or blue string) and tie them myself to my now naked Neatzits. I’ll get thin handmade, which will be sturdier than the machine-made thin strings that unraveled, but not thick enough to make me look like I’m wearing a macrame plant holder from my waist.

    I’ll set aside an afternoon to practice and then tie them. It’s a complex process, though apparently once you get it down, it gets easier (as with all things.) Here’s an Orthodox-community video from Aish.com that does a great job of laying out the process: http://youtu.be/FehK2VPVlWE. The number of knots, windings, etc. vary across different communities as you might imagine, but the video gets the main points across well.

  8. Let me be straight and up front: I eschew Reform Judaism to the point where normally I would not have read a post that propounds Reform thinking in any form, but since you are clearly an “honest” thinker, I couldn’t pass it up. (And it looks like I’m a bit connected to your crowd, as I see from the comments, because it just so happens that I attended Anshe Emet in first grade.)

    Anyway, I found it ironic that of all mitzvahs, you latched onto tzitzit. If you delve deeply into halacha you’ll be surprised at how much flexibility you find in certain mitzvahs — and that where there is less flexibility there is also a reason for that. But tzitzit is the ultimate non-mandatory mitzvah. You only have to put tzitzit on a garment if it happens to have four corners, which is quite hard to find nowadays. People who wear a tallit katan are essentially going way out of their way to be obligated to carry out the mitzvah.

    1. Ben, thanks for your comment. I do delve, often. The irony you appear to find here I don’t think really exists. I haven’t latched onto, or only onto, tzitzit. There are many mitzvot which I obey out of a strong sense of commandedness that are part of every hour of every day of my life, and which some in my community find ironic that I actually bother to follow (a sentiment about the mitzvot that I don’t share.) I constantly search for ways in which I’m not as consonant with Jewish tradition as I’d like to be, and there are many other Reform Jews out there who feel similarly. You can “eschew” Reform, but know that what you’re eschewing is likely an outdated understanding of the movement. I think you might be surprised to learn how seriously some of us take halacha–even if we differ on the way we choose to repond to halacha.

      I’m not one who seeks a rational explanation for the non-ethical mitzvot, because I believe their reason for being is to be a lifeline to the holy, a way to connect to God minute by minute, hour by hour throughout the day. We can use those lifelines to pull ourselves as close to God as we want–or as we need–to be. Or we can ignore them (as many do.) That’s not to say I think we should follow the mitzvot because God gave them to us and that’s that. But that I think the effect they have is reason enough to respond to them (and is likely their point), and that their effect or procedure may not seem rational, and that that’s ok.

      The sense of “going out of the way” is actually one of the reasons tzitzit has meaning for me. I have ADHD and I forget things frequently. Keys, books, brachot, and my temper (out of the stress of dealing with ADHD on a daily basis.) I want and need as many tangible expressions of Jewish tradition and reminders of the mitzvot in my life as possible. The idea of seeing, touching, knowing the strings are there at my sides throughout my day has very concrete meaning for me–which is exactly their point. So on those terms, yes, I am deliberately choosing to go out of my way to respond to the commandment.

      I also want to thank you for the enormous amount of information concerning tzitzit and the tallit katan on your site. As you might imagine, such information and advice is pretty absent on liberal Jewish websites, and the information your site provides has been a great help in learning about the mitzvah and ways in which I could begin to adopt it.

  9. I found this post moving and very beautiful; I also LOVE that you confronted head-on the tendency of Reform Jews (and plenty of Conservative, Reconstructionist, and other Jews) to dismiss mitzvot out of hand believing it’s the philosophy of the movement.

    However, calling Rosenblum’s “Snootier than Thou Orthodox Judaica Store” is just plain inaccurate. The place sells tallitot and kippot for women (I mean, guys can totally wear them, but they’re pink and frilly and lacy), for crying out loud! They fit girls and women for tefillin with zero complaints and no judgment– a serious no-no in many Orthodox Judaica stores. The Jews By Choice class at Anshe Emet got a private tour of the store last year, and the owner made clear that he does everything he can to make people of all denominations feel comfortable in the store.

    1. Thank you. Regarding Rosenblum’s, I will say I have always had wonderful service and friendliness from the women who work there. But the owner has invariably been gruff, short, and discurteous towards me over several visits. I don’t know why. I always have chalked it up to not wearing the “right color” kippah for his tastes. It always makes me angry, but sad, too, because I feel like it’s so unnecessary. There have been many things I’ve wanted to ask in the store when he’s been there (looking for ritual objects, advice, etc.) but I’m always so turned off, I end up leaving and either going to Hamakor on Dempster or ordering online from somewhere else.

      1. With all due respect, as someone who knows the owner of Rosenblum’s (and is a cousin to the owners of Hamakor), I can assure you of this:

        It’s not you. It’s not the “color of your kippa”. He’s like that to EVERYONE.

        The few times I’ve been in there since I moved away from Chicago, I simply try to avoid him and ask someone else for help, if I need any.

        1. If that’s true then I’m even more sad about it. No one interfaces with the world like that without a reason. I hope someday that reason goes away, for his sake. And mine–I appreciate the traditional things stocked in the store and it keeps me away.

  10. Great post as always, sir. One silly (but annoyingly obligatory) question: how do you get your tzitzit to protrude while keeping your shirt tucked in?

    I subscribed to your blog today, and hope to read many more excellent posts such as this.

    Kol hakavod & todah rabbah.

    1. Thank you for reading! It’s actually easier than you’d think. I wondered the same thing, too. Just tuck in shirt and tallit katan together at front and back, making sure the strings are at your sides. The sides of your shirt will just follow along, leaving enough of your strings showing to adjust as needed.

  11. Words fail me as I try find a way to tell you how much I appreciate your intelligent discussion of deeply heartfelt issues. Thank you.

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