T’fillin – The Perspective of a Conservative Convert, Reform Jew



by Jacob V. Aftel
Ohef Sholom Temple of Norfok, VA

Well, there it is – mentioned four times in the Torah; Exodus 13:1-10, Exodus 13:11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21 where we are commanded that “you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.”  Them and they of course refer to the words of G_d.  The specific words are the story of the exodus and the mitzvot.  Of the 613 mitzvot, the act of laying t’fillin is considered by its adherents to be a serious one to ignore.

Beyond the commandment to do so, the Torah does not describe the t’fillin nor does the Torah instruct how the t’fillin should be put on and worn.  Oral tradition is mostly responsible for the handmade, relatively expensive adornment used as an adjunct to daily prayer.  The interpretation of the directive in the Torah is how we ended up with t’fillin.

Among Jewish groups the Sadducees and Medieval Karaites, the commandment was considered to be metaphorical, a reminder from G_d for us to keep his word foremost in our thoughts and deeds.  The Pharisees considered the commandment to be instruction to literally wrap t’fillin (totafot) on the arm and the head.  Thus the actual construction of the phylacteries is tradition bound and has developed over the centuries with a strict list of criteria resulting in Kosher t’fillin.

When my father-in-law was alive I attended Shakarit services at Beth El and there was something communal about arriving and putting on t’fillin.  There was small talk with a pause for the brachot upon wrapping the arm piece and the head piece and then one was girded for prayer.  Then there was the point in the service when everyone began removing in reverse order to the tune of Aleinu.  The ritual of t’fillin was an integral part of the service, so much so that there were loaners for the forgetful and newcomers.

I used to notice how folks were regarded when they would come to services after a long absence or for the first time.  There was congenial insistence that they remember to put on t’fillin.  Some politely refused the offer or ignored the offer in favor of the meat of the service, prayer.  To my memory no-one was judged or looked down upon because they didn’t put on t’fillin.  But there were the knowing looks exchanged among the regulars that said, “he isn’t one of us.”

Now, I told you that story to tell you this one.  I read 2 English language Jewish newspapers with regularity; Haaretz and Jpost.com.  Advice from friends that have lived in Israel leads me to take the “news” with a grain of salt.  I enjoy the opinion pieces and the postings readers provide at the end of the stories.  I am troubled by one aspect of Jewish life in Israel as it is presented in these papers.  It is the assertion that the Orthodox makes the rules with an apparent rubber stamp from the government.

There was the op-ed piece that suggested it would be appropriate to stone Jews being caught eating traif during Passover.  Also reported is a recent trend to declare a convert not Jewish because the Kosher-police observed them not living up to their obligation to lead life according to halakhah.  So it would appear that converts living in Israel should keep on their toes and not just worry about his or her obligation to G_d but also bear in mind that they are being watched and judged on their daily activities, sometimes with grave consequences.

This brings in the whole debate about whether Israel is a democracy bound by secular laws, a democracy which yields to halakhah at the discretion of rabbinic courts or a theocracy.  Israel, depending on the time of day and reporting agency appears at times to be all three.  And since Judaism has different streams (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionism), it begs the question as to which stream every head must bow and every knee must bend.  From an outsiders view point (one who does not live in Israel) all indication is that the Orthodox, Haredi, has the greatest influence for policy making adjudication.  Further it makes it more complicated as to whether there is more or equal emphasis placed on Torah (d’oraita) laws, rabbinic (d’rabbanan) laws, or long-standing customs (minhag).  Israeli government is complicated enough without having to consider how the above fold into the equation.

Now, I told you those stories to tell you this one.  I am a convert, a conservative convert.  I went to the mikvah and had a ritual circumcision.  I even had a bar mitzvah.  My wife is interested in converting and it will be a reform conversion which will include the mikvah trip.  We are both in love with the idea of making aliyah and living in Israel.  I have done some research and the websites of information don’t scare me.  I am a professional and could most likely find a job.

But I don’t wear my t’fillin out where people can see it anymore.  And being reform, a lot of my observance is what I am convinced is necessary to connect with G_d.  It appears that is not good enough to be a Jewish citizen in Israel.  It has become obvious to me that it is not enough for Israel to exist as a country in the Middle-East.  It must exist as a Jewish controlled (read Orthodox) state that tolerates others within its borders as long as they don’t mind diminished status as citizens.

I am secure in my Jewishness and being an American Jew has allowed me the fantasy to believe that I am as Jewish as the next Jew.  So it is with some disappointment that it appears I will have to settle for trips to Israel as a secular tourist and remember that I am a Jew in America.

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10 Responses to “T’fillin – The Perspective of a Conservative Convert, Reform Jew”

  1. avatar

    I don’t know that I would consider either Haaretz or Jpost “Jewish” newspapers… and I’m not sure their editors/reporters would either.

  2. avatar

    There seem to be at least three threads in this post –
    1. Interpreting the commandment to don t’fillin
    2. The tesnion in Israel between democracy and theocracy
    3. The special problems that may be faced in Israel by those who choose Judaism under non-haredi auspices
    As someone who stopped putting on t’fillin approximately one week after becoming bar mitzvah, I’ll abstain from discussing that part of Mr Aftel’s blog (which seems to be included to demonstrate his Jewish bona fides) – but will make a couple of suggestions about points 2 and 3.
    1. One way American Jews can help mitigate the democracy-theocracy issue is by contributing to the Israel Religious Action Center (www.irac.org).
    2. The other action step is to join ARZA — and go on ARZA trips to Israel, which are religious and spiritual, not just secular.
    It’s always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

  3. avatar

    Thank you for the comments.
    To Mr. Levy, what should I read?
    To Mr. Kaufman:
    As one who follows the initiatives and programs that the IRAC is involved with, I hope that progress is made. The reason for the blog was to raise awareness in my own small voice. I don’t think my perspective is unique. In your words, my blog was my candle and a lamentation at the state of affairs in Israel.
    I have not been fortunate enough to visit with AZRA or any other group. I beleive that a tour like that would be wonderful, but it would be insulated as well. I would like to think that prgressives that live in Israel can get to the point that they don’t have to look over their shoulders to see if they are being judged over their religiosity. I want Israel to be the Jewish homeland for all Jews without qualification.

  4. avatar

    Jacob–
    Some comments as a fellow ger/giyoret:
    1. I realized a while back that to read the JPost Talk-backs was to expose myself to great toxicity for no productive reason. There are better things for me to spend my time reading.
    2. Your write: “I am secure in my Jewishness and being an American Jew has allowed me the fantasy to believe that I am as Jewish as the next Jew. So it is with some disappointment that it appears I will have to settle for trips to Israel as a secular tourist and remember that I am a Jew in America.” If you are secure in your Jewishness, then why add the “fantasy” clause after it? If your that is your identity, then how could you imagine travelling to Israel in only a secular sense?
    Unless you are going to be trying to get married there, why trouble yourself with what the blackhats think?
    It was my good fortune to visit Israel 3 years ago, on a trip my husband and I planned on our own. I have to tell you, if there was any pressure to cover my religiousity, it was from the majority secular-culture Israelis. But, I prayed Shacharit at the Kotel with more kavanah then I had ever experienced previously, and I attended tikkun leyl Shavuaot at SHI and HUC feeling like a full participant–I don’t need any charedi validation.
    4. “I want Israel to be the Jewish homeland for all Jews without qualification.” So anyone who declares himself/herself Jewish may make aliyah?
    Even Christians who have decided that they are merely ‘completed Jews?’ I want to be considered Jewish in Israel every bit as much as you, but “without qualification” becomes extremely problematic.
    You make a point about declaring yourself a conservative convert. Does that mean you yourself make a differentiation about my gerut, done under the auspices of a Reform rabbi?

  5. avatar

    Thanks so much for the conversation. The fantasy clause is a reaction to how I percieve my frum quotient might be measured in Israel. I have no such reservations here in the states. And as my piece points out my perception is not founded, yet, on a personal experience.
    I understand the tabloid nature of the 2 papers listed and would welcome suggestions in other directions. But from what I have read, Israeli citizens do appear to have to look over their shoulder and be careful. I am sure that a religious tour group would be treated with defference and respect. After all, when the tour is over they go home and pose no threat to the religious balance.
    By saying without qualifiation, I have these qualifications, birthright Jew or recognized conversion of the major streams. A self declared Jew has not met even the most basic rule of halakhah. I was refering to, for example, an Orthodox Jew not recognizing a Reform Rabbi as a Rabbi or Synagogue Building funds not being made available to a Reform Shul.
    My point of claiming a conservative conversion is merely a statememnt to show where I come from and where I am. As mentioned, my wife (now converted) is as Jewish in my eyes as you or a birthright Jew. Again thank you for the conversation.

  6. avatar

    I’ll accept Jacob Aftel’s post as his way of lighting a candle to call attention to the religious inequities in Israel enabled by the disproportionate influence coalition politics gives to the Orthodox factions.
    Having been an ARZA activist throughout ARZA’s lifetime, I have been part of ARZA’s consciousness-raising on this issue for these 30 years, but have come to believe that we went overboard, and got Reform Jews angered when we should have been working to get them connected.
    As Ruth so astutely points out, it’s our Jerusalem too, and Torah comes out of Zion to us, if we let it in, and if we go to the source, all the more so.
    Those readers of this blog who are of an age to remember Johnny Mercer will remember him as the great midrashist who taught us to Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mr. In-between.
    There are enough Israel-bashers without our adding to their cacophony. And we can certainly praise the progress the Progressive congregations and Progressive movement have made in creating a presence and in knocking down barriers.
    To paraphrase Ruth’s message, instead of looking over your shoulder, look proudly at your t’fillin and look straight ahead. The view is worth it.

  7. avatar

    Thank-you for engaging my response, Jacob. I’m very happy that you clarified your positions. Mazel tov to your wife on becoming an MOT!
    (Tangentially, IMHO it would be an interesting blog-post to hear about about your experience as your spouse becomes Jewish as well.)
    RE: JPost and Ha-Arezt. I read them, and Ynet too–I’m just very careful about reading the comments. If I do read the Talk-Backs, I don a psychological haz-mat suit.
    Larry’s words are wise as usual: I would encourage you to make connection with Israel. The Israelis I connected with found me–a liberal Jewish convert–a curious and interesting creature. Mostly, their experience with religion is either Orthodox or nothing, and my inkling is that more exposure to Jews like us would help the cause of progressive Judaism there. I would love to tell you more about my intense experience in Israel, but that would be way to long…

  8. avatar

    Ruth said — I would love to tell you more about my intense experience in Israel, but that would be way to long…
    Too long for a comment, perhaps, but not for a blog post. Please share.

  9. avatar

    Ruth:
    Thank you on behalf of my wife, she is on cloud nine having completed her journey into the tent and is looking forward to a life long pusuit on what it means to be Jewish.
    I am a Sunday School teacher and Hebrew teacher at my shul and love to learn and share what I discover about being Jewish. Thanks to everyone who commented, it made my first blog enjoyable and I look forward to sharing more.

  10. avatar

    Jacob:
    I was raised and became a Bar Mitzvah in an orthodox shul in the Bronx. My parents both survived the Nazi death camps during WW II. When my wife and I moved to Connecticut, we joined a local conservative synagogue. When we move to the town we live in now, we joined the local reform synagogue. I love my congregation, and I am of the belief that G-d cannot possibly think that we can live in a 21st Century world, and blindly obey laws that were written almost 6000 years ago. We attend services regularly (most of which are conducted in Hebrew) and we truly believe that “tikkun olam” is what brings us closer to G-d.
    We made our first trip to Israel last year. I did not put on t’fillin at the Western Wall. But as I stood by the wall, reciting Kaddish for my late mother, and the She’hecheyanu prayer thanking G-d for allowing me to reach that moment, and asking G-d’s continued blessings on my wife and my children, I had tears rolling down my face, and I truly felt the Divine Presence right there next to me at that moment. Israel is an amazing country, but for me, that was the true highlight of my visit.
    I will not allow the holier-than-thou “keepers of the faith” to take my Jewishness away from me. I hope you will not allow them to do that to you either.

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