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.