Black and White: Another Take on Wearing Tefilin in Public

Being over six feet tall it is no wonder that I hate traveling by plane, it seems that my legs are just too long. Being that tall and ritually observant does make traveling in the early part of the day interesting. Just this week I had to take six AM out of LGA to ORD. On these such occasions I find myself having to get my Jew on in public. For me that was next to the United help desk in Chicago. There is really nothing quite like having to suit up with my tallis and tefilin in flagrante in the terminal or even worse on a plane. While I might attract extra attention to my underpants with my head covering, my tefilin actually look like I am strapping a bomb to my arm and head.  What is my commitment to these rituals?

While I usually experience wearing tefilin with a deep sense of pride in our tradition, in the context of this week’s portion and recent events, it might actually be a little more complex. At the end of Bo,  this week’s Torah portion, we read:

And it happened when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to send us out, that God killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I offer to God all male first issue of the womb, and I shall redeem all the firstborn of my sons. And it shall be a sign upon your arm and an ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand God removed us from Egypt. (Exodus 13:15-16)

While they might ground a plane for my putting on tefilin, it seems that God is the terrorist killing all of the firstborns. What is the cost of our rituals? Did others need to be harmed for our nationalistic expression or religious freedom? I realize that most observant Jews take putting on tefilin for granted. We pray and often live amongst our own. We have  forgotten the significance of this symbol. It takes leaving our own little world to realize the meaning of content and context of our inner ritual lives.

This past week marked the celebration of the memory of  Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To mark the occasion Adina and I went out this past Saturday night to watch Selma.  MLK taught the world the importance of seeing beyond the superficiality of race. In his unforgettable words, ” I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It is a sad truth that most observant Jews spend more time worrying that our tfilin are completely black then the racial inequality in this country. We have missed the forest for the trees. We have gone along with the narrative that the commitment to wear tefilin means you are an Orthodox Jew and the commitment to doing social justice means you are a Reform Jew. For all Jews the daily ritual of tefilin reminds us of our opportunities and responsibilities to help those who are less fortunate. We all have a responsibility in having been freed from slavery to work for liberation for all. I do not feel shame in wearing tefilin in public. I  wear my tefilin with pride, it creates accountability.

– See a similar piece on wearing a Kippah and a related one to this post on tefilin

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1 Response to “Black and White: Another Take on Wearing Tefilin in Public”



  1. 1 study and work abroad Trackback on February 7, 2015 at 3:09 am

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