March 02, 2005
For a while now I've been toying with the idea of piercing my nose when I turn thirty. I like the glint of little nose-studs. I think they're cute. And after spending a couple of weeks in Rajasthan, where every woman we saw had her nose pierced, I've come to think of noserings as delightfully common ornamentation, like earrings or bangles. (Rachel Kranson wrote a great essay about noserings in Biblical days, "A Nose Ring Of Her Own: Our Foremother Rebekah was Given One at the Well," published in the summer 2002 issue of Lilith.)
My thirtieth birthday is imminent, though, and I have to admit I'm probably not going to pierce anything to celebrate it. (My mother is probably heaving a sigh of relief even now; facial piercings make her queasy.) What's far likelier is that I'll give myself the other present I've been contemplating: a set of tefillin.
To many of the people in my life, a nosering would be a lot less strange. At my Reform shul, tefillin are uncommon (they're not worn on Shabbat, and we're too small a community to maintain a regular weekday minyan, though a few of us meet for a meditation service most Fridays). My friends won't get it -- though by now they're accustomed to my (peculiar, but harmless) effervescence about Judaism, so they'll be glad to see my enthusiasm even if they don't share it. I'll bet even my family will be surprised: some see tefillin as an anachronistic holdover from our grandparents' time, while others place tefillin squarely in the purview of men. Why on earth, I can imagine these assembled throngs chorusing, would I want tefillin?
It would make a great story if I said I'd always wanted them -- if, like Reb Goldie Milgram, I'd imitated my grandfather's davvening gear. So much for grand narrative. I did want to be just like my grandfather, but that manifested in other ways. I never saw anyone in my family lay tefillin. I'm sure my father had some, once, but they'd been given to one of my brothers long before I was born.
No, my first encounter with tefillin came after my grandmother died, which was ten years ago this spring. My father and I took my grandfather to a weekday morning minyan at the Conservative shul in San Antonio to say kaddish. The minyan was mostly older guys, in short-sleeved shirts and bolo ties with their sportcoats half-off to make room for the phylacteries. It never occurred to me then that I might someday consider tefillin intriguing. Tefillin were something old men wore, something which had nothing to do with me.
That changed on the first morning of my first retreat at Elat Chayyim. As I stepped into the beige yurt for shacharit, my breath caught. Seated cross-legged in the early-morning sun, a group of people (mostly women) intently wrapped their leather straps, enshrining little boxes of holy texts on bicep and forehead. There was a deliberateness and a reverence in the act, as though they were preparing themselves for something really important. Maybe it was the transgressiveness of seeing women performing the mitzvah, or maybe it was the clear kavvanah (intent) behind the act, or maybe I was just ready to get it; whatever the reason, I was mesmerized.
Seeing people lay tefillin is no longer foreign to me, but I still find it riveting. Over time I've teased out four reasons why:
1) I like the idea of making prayer tactile, giving myself a physical reminder of where I want my focus to be. It's easy to get distracted, even during meditation and prayer. (Sometimes especially during meditation and prayer.) Tefillin strike me as an elegant way to remind myself that I'm praying with my body, not just with my mind or heart. They're a workaround for that pervasive, and surprisingly damaging, body/mind divide.
2) I like tefillin as concretized metaphor. Like my wedding ring: I don't need a ring in order to be married to my sweetie, but wearing it reminds me of him, and of us, and that makes me happy. Tefillin, too, strike me as a tangible reminder of an intangible connection.
3) I like the way the two boxes (one for the head, one for the arm nearest the heart) can stand in for right thought and right action, and can sanctify both. Judaism places a high premium on what we do, not just what we believe; tefillin's physicality, and the location of the shel yad (on the arm), combine to emphasize the importance of acting righteously in the world.
4) Tefillin make sacred texts almost into fetish objects, and as a writer with a deep love of how language manifests I think that's incredibly cool. I like things with words on them, and I'm fascinated by words on the page, on parchment, on cloth, on scrolls. (You should've seen me at the British Library when we went to London for our first anniversary!) I like the idea of wearing little boxes of words during prayer.
This isn't a new train of thought for me; I blogged about this in the fall of 2003. Looking back at that post, I see that my wedding ring metaphor isn't new, and that eighteen months ago I was already waxing rhapsodic about how the physical act can have emotional and spiritual ramifications. Naomi Chana bought herself a set of tefillin not all that long ago, and her reports jive with my imaginings. (She recommends these.) Let's face it: to a text-obsessed, ritual-fascinated Judeogeek like me, tefillin sound completely fascinating.
So what's stopping me from buying a set right this minute?
One thing: I don't have a weekday davvening practice. Shouldn't I commit myself to davvening every day (or at least davvening regularly, some number of days a week), and then get myself the tefillin once I've proven that I have the discipline to use them? What if this is like the impulse to buy new sneakers or a rowing machine, accessories for a healthier life I secretly know I'll never adopt? Is it disrespectful to buy liturgical objects if I won't use them daily as they were intended?
But the more I think about it, the more that line of argument seems spurious. In some parts of the Jewish world, tefillin are a standard bar mitzvah gift -- and you can't tell me most thirteen-year-old boys manifest the height of spiritual commitment. Tefillin shouldn't be some kind of merit badge earned through regular devotional practice.
I don't think buying tefillin will transform me into someone who meditates or prays every morning. But I think using them, even if it's only on retreat or on the rare occasions when the desire to meditate first-thing beats out the desire to check my morning blogroll, will help me approach familiar practices with new intention. And I think that when I take them off and pack them back in their little velvet pouches, they'll leave an invisible imprint that will color my day.
Seems like a neat way to celebrate myself, and my unorthodox but heartfelt relationship with Judaism, as I begin decade number three.