Choosing tefillin?

In light of the recent conversations in the Jewish media about women and tefillin, I want to share another narrative of a woman and her relationship to tefilin.  I have laid tefillin regularly for the last nine years.  Until then, I was denied the opportunity to lay tefillin, but not because I am a woman.

Growing up in the Reform movement, my gender didn’t deny me access to ritual.  Some women wore tallitot, some didn’t.  Some men wore tallitot, others didn’t.  Some wore kippot; other’s didn’t. I grew up strongly embracing the mantra of “informed choice” or “choice through knowledge” that rooted the Reform community.  I always said yes to the choice.  I had a friend from public school who kept kosher so I learned a little bit about kashrut from her and her family. I stopped eating cheeseburgers and bacon and pepperoni pizza at age 10, hoping that doing so would bring me closer to God.   Over time, my saying yes to kashrut and yes to various aspects of Shabbat observance evolved into an obligation and a commandment – a literal mitzvah.

I didn’t know tefillin existed.  I wasn’t free to choose whether or not I wanted to wear them because my choice was impaired.  I didn’t know there was a choice to be made.  Informed choice had failed me – if I was never taught about it, how could I decide?  How could I even try it on and see how it felt?

When I was teaching 7th grade religious school at a local synagogue during college, I stumbled upon tefillin in a textbook about prayer.  Curious, and hoping to provide my students with exposure to the diversity of Jewish practice, I arranged to borrow the rabbi’s set of tefillin for class one afternoon.  But I had no idea what to do with them – I recited the information from the textbook and mimicked the brachot and even attempted to put them on for my students.  Honestly, though, I looked at these leather boxes and straps as completely foreign.  Here I was, incredibly active in my synagogue, NFTY, camp, and Hillel, and at 20 years old, completely estranged from a ritual object was absolutely part of the corpus of Jewish literacy that I had hoped to provide to these pre-B’nai Mitzvah kids.

Several years later, I started rabbinical school.  Within the first month or so, we had a morning focused on synagogue skills in which we rotated through different activities like learning how to do hagbah and roll the Torah and, surprise, lay tefillin.  I remember feeling hopeful and excited at seeing this on the schedule, but in the moment, as I listened to the tone of the presentation, it felt, again, like an outside observer to a ritual that “those people out there” do.  After 20 minutes of context and explanation, we had a few minutes before we were shuffled off to the next workshop to try to say the brachot and put them on. As hard as I tried to have the kavanah that I might have if I were putting them on during shacharit, it was just a demo.  I was acting out what I would do for that fateful day when I would actually try them on in shul.

Within the next few months, I did lay tefillin in shul.  I also learned much more about tefillin themselves and even wrote a paper on them that year.  Tefillin hold parchment with the text of the Sh’ma and v’ahavta but until that time, I did not know the traditional text of that either.  Only in rabbinical school did I finally learn that there were three paragraphs to the text.  When I first attempted to lay tefillin as a religious school teacher and when I first davened with them a month after that workshop, I believed that the texts within them were the Sh’ma and V’ahavta that I had known all my life.  That is – the Sh’ma, the first paragraph (v’ahavta), and the second half of the third paragraph (l’maan tizk’ru…) were what I had known to be the Sh’ma and V’ahavta.

I discovered in liturgy class that there were two significant sections of the traditional paragraphs that had been missing from my Jewish education until that point.

Removal #1: The second paragraph (v’haya im shamoa) was excised out of the Reform liturgy because its theology is one of reward and punishment.  If we demonstrate our love for God and follow God’s mitzvot, Deuteronomy 11:13-21 tells us, then God will reward us with rain in its proper time; if we don’t, God’s anger will well up and the needed rain will be withheld.  That cause-and-effect was unsettling and not authentic to how many people in the Jewish community see the world – so it was removed in order to make the Sh’ma more in line with the community’s beliefs that God doesn’t necessarily intervene in such direct ways. But how many of us – regardless of movement – have asked ourselves whether or not the world works that way? How powerful could it be if we were able to use the liturgy in our siddur as a  way to confront the challenges and the comforts of such a belief?  Grappling with the text can only make us stronger.

Removal #2: The first section of the last paragraph (vayomer…) discusses the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit.  In 1848, when the first Reform siddur to remove these sections was published in Berlin, the Reform community saw tzitzit as ritual garb that didn’t resonate with the western European sensibilities that they were trying to adopt.  Tzitzit also act as a reminder of the mitzvot, and the Reform community then – and now – is still wrestling with its relationship to commandment.  So again, in order to make the movement’s practice fit the words of its liturgy, Reform siddurim omitted Numbers 15: 37-39 but retained verses 40-41.  I admire the effort to make liturgy reflect our beliefs so that the words of our prayers are authentic.  That is why this section has been brought back as as option in Mishkan Tefilah, the Reform siddur that was published in 2007.  In recent years, more and more Reform Jews are wearing tallitot so the rationale for removing the section no longer applied as strongly.

There is no Reform tefillin – no tefillin, as far as I know, that contains the text of the modified Shema paragraphs.  What were I to do if I found meaning and obligation in wrapping tefillin but also felt allegiance to the text that I had always known?

In spite of these two removals to the text of the Sh’ma, deep within the never-deleted first paragraph (v’ahavta…), lies the verse that is the foundation for tefillin – Deuteronomy 6:8 – “And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be a symbol between your eyes.”  When I wrap tefillin each morning, I try to have the kavanah that I am indeed binding the mitzvot as a sign on my arm and laying them as a reminder between my eyes so that my actions (arm) and my thoughts (mind, between my eyes) are a reflection of God’s presence, the values and commitments of the Jewish community.

Will there ever be a day when the Reform community will have a resurgence of tefillin, just as has happened with tallitot?  Maybe not.  But I do believe that the Reform movement does have an obligation to teach its congregants about tefillin.  It is, after all, informing them of the rabbinic understanding of its own liturgy.  We owe our community Jewish literacy. Without literacy, choice is no longer authentic.

About the Author
Jill Cozen-Harel is a rabbi who lives in San Francisco. Among other things, she has worked as a chaplain and educator.