Is the Door Closed?
A Brief Liturgical History

The ties that bind.

I learned recently that there's a thriving black market in stolen tefillin and Torah scrolls.

No, really. I discovered this while out to lunch with a friend, who told me that when her house was robbed this past summer, one of the items stolen was her husband's tefillin.

I suggested that the thief saw their velvet bag and assumed it held jewelry. My friend said that had been her original theory, too, until she talked to another friend who's a former prison chaplain. He had some amazing stories about guys who were doing time for fencing stolen Judaic items, especially Torah scrolls and tefillin.

This story struck me both because it's so bizarre, and because I've been fascinated by tefillin lately. To explain why, I want to look at the Shema. Not at the first, and arguably most important, line (which merits its own post at some point), but at the paragraphs which follow. (The first paragraph can be found here, and subsequent paragraphs here, if you scroll through the guy's personal commentary a little.)

This two-part teaching -- the Oneness of our Source, and that we should love God with everything in us -- is central to Judaism. The teaching contains instructions for its own dissemination: it tells us that these are words we should transmit to our children, should speak in our homes and on our travels.  Further, we should manifest the teaching in a variety of physical ways: on the doorposts of our houses, by wearing fringes on our garments, and by binding it as a "sign" or "frontlet" between our eyes. In every case, we are instructed to do these things in order that we may be mindful of God's mitzvot (usually translated as "commandments," though some argue the word's root is more akin to "connections") and do them.

Doorposts: check. I've always had a mezuzah on my front door. Whether you regard the mezuzah as protective amulet, or as a veneration of a pivotal text, it's continued proof that the Jewish tradition values words on the page, which I can't help being pleased by. (And we put them on our doorposts! Religion really is all about liminality!)

Fringes: yes and no. The commandment is generally interpreted to apply only to four-cornered garments (apparently more common in Biblical days than they are now). When I don my prayer shawl, I'm appropriately fringe-y...but I don't wear a tallit katan (lit. "small prayer shawl," the fringed undergarment which would enable me to wear tzitzit all the time). In my experience, that's a practice followed at the Orthodox and Hasidic end of the spectrum, but not over here in the so-called "liberal" end of things. To be honest, it's not a practice I've ever missed. Don't hold your breath waiting to see me in fringes, unless wacky faux-Western garb comes back into vogue.

Frontlets (a.k.a. tefillin): nope. Never worn them. But I'm starting to find them increasingly interesting. For one thing, the word is related to tefilah ("prayer"), making these little leather boxes of words a kind of prayer incarnate.

My first encounter with tefillin came some years back, when my father and I accompanied my grandfather to a weekday morning minyan to say kaddish for my grandmother. I was intrigued by the weekday morning service, which was new to me. Especially startling was the sight of a dozen of the congregation's men, in their short-sleeved dress shirts and Bolo ties, shrugging out of their sportcoats to wrap the leather strap of tefillin around one arm.

At the time, tefillin seemed like an anachronism. That began to change for me in 2002, on my first Elat Chayyim visit. I woke early for "interpretive shacharit" (a morning service which proved to include meditation and chanting: right up my alley) and discovered that many of the people there were laying tefillin. Women outnumbered men that morning, so most of the people binding arm and head were women. I was struck by the sight. I knew intellectually that in most Jewish denominations women now lay tefillin, but I'd never seen it done.

As they wrapped, the women recited a variation on the verses from Hosea that my husband and I spoke in our wedding: "And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness..." (Hosea 2:21-22, JPS translation.) Wow, thought I: what an amazing way to physically remind oneself of one's essential connection with God. The leather binding is a physical reminder of a metaphysical attachment. Like a wedding ring, a signifier of a connection which transcends it.

The image has stuck with me. I find it compelling, although I have mixed feelings. Part of me chafes at the notion that the physical representation is necessary. God is in everything (or: everything is of God; or: everything emanates from God: or, everything is essentially connected with God), so why should we need tefillin to make that connection clear? Wouldn't it be better to arrive at a state of consicousness where one's connection with the sacred is always active, without the "crutch" of the physical representation of that connection?

But the more I think about it, the more I think tefillin are a fascinating workaround, a cosmic string-tied-around-the-finger, a way of reminding ourselves to remember what we always forget. God is infinite and ineffable: we're not. That's the weird miracle of creation and incarnation, that an infinite Source compresses Itself into finitude. Being finite, our minds can't actually grasp God. Maybe that's why someone (we, or God, depending on your point of view) arranged for things like tefillin: because we're fallible, and we need to be reminded.

On a good day, when I wrap myself in my prayer shawl I feel enfolded in Presence. It's a good feeling: connectedness, rootedness, alignment with the source of sacredness from which all things flow. Intellectually, I can tell you that that connection is always there, whether I'm conscious of it or not. But I get wrapped-up in work and to-do lists and the assorted paraphernalia of day-to-day life, and I forget what roots me.  Sometimes donning my tallit is a good reminder.

Tefillin, I think, must work similarly. God is One, and we should love the Source of all being: we want that teaching to inform how we see the world, so we tie it to our foreheads like a helmet-strap flashlight. We want that teaching to color how we work in the world, so we affix it to hand and arm. We do the physical act not because it "actually" matters, but because it's a tool to raise our consciousness closer to God.

And then we untie the straps and put the tefillin back in their bag and get on with our day. Because Judaism is a religion for this world, and study is meaningful specifically because it can lead to action. But maybe the straps leave an imprint that can be felt, if not seen. Maybe since we're finite beings trying to stay conscious of the Infinite, they're a nifty hack of our finitude.