Tefillin

July 3, 2009

“You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a frontlet between your eyes”.

I’ve never been totally convinced that the Almighty really did intend us to take a series of lines from the Torah, put them into funny little square boxes with long strips of leather attached and then to put them on every morning to pray, but I’m glad I do it nonetheless. And what about winding the strap round your forearm seven times, but without counting?

Every religion needs something a bit strange, and for me, laying tefillin is just a bit strange. It’s the spiritual equivalent of a unique selling proposition.

I grew up without tefillin and for me they epitomised everything that was wrong with religion; blind faith manifested in a ridiculous ritual. I just couldn’t get over how crazy it looked.  It undermined my pride in Judaism and even made me angry and embarrassed.  I saw the arm strap as a heroin addict’s tourniquet, and imagined an accompanying syringe filled with spiritual claptrap.

Perhaps this is the natural cynicism that one will find in most teenagers, especially those who grow up in an irreligious home.  Maturity should have seen my cynicism become indifference.  I ought to have stopped thinking how daft tefillin are and just got on with life, but that never happened.  I was always fascinated by tefillin, and as my spiritual journey progressed, I realised it wasn’t going to go very far without me buying a set and learning how to put them on.  That’s when I came to understand that laying tefillin, being such an obscure tradition, is something that defines Judaism.

As far as I’m aware, no other religion does anything like this.  Sure, they may have their own strange customs, but they don’t make black boxes out of the hides of particular animals, put particular prayers inside them in a particular order then stitch them up and add straps with clever little knots, and a detailed set of user instructions.

I also appreciate them on an aesthetic level.  Tefillin are beautiful things, and all the more beautiful when one considers how much care and attention goes into making them.  How the sofer writes with his attention fully on the job in hand, not listening to the radio or thinking about the weekend.  They are beautiful in that they look so perfect.  They are perfectly square, perfectly black, and the straps of my tefillin fit me perfectly now that we are familiar with each other.  When I wear them, and I create the “shin” on my hand, it looks great.  It’s a lovely, strong, clear “shin”.

My son has recently started to lay tefillin and now I think I really understand the meaning behind these peculiar objects.  His tefillin are enormous on him and the strap winds around his hand about 20 times. It keeps coming loose as the straps are rather stiff and we’re still trying to get it to fit his head properly (I think his head must swell and shrink with the weather or something).

The first time I helped him to put them on was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.  Here I was, continuing a tradition that stretched back at least 2000 years.  Doing my little bit.  L’dor v’dor.

As he gets older I imagine he’ll wonder why on earth we do this ridiculous thing.  I imagine he’ll stop laying tefillin at some point, or at least he’ll only do it occasionally.  And I hope that if that’s the case they’ll sit quietly in a drawer somewhere, patiently waiting for him to rediscover them, their beauty, and the tradition they represent.  And maybe he’ll start to use them regularly again one day and realise how peaceful one can sometimes feel when bound up in the straps, as I sometimes do when I daven shacharit.   It may look ridiculous but it’s no more ridiculous than some of the hats I see in shul.

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That Julie Burchill

July 3, 2009

I know it’s old news but I’ve been busy and it’s been bugging me and I don’t know why.

The JC editorial begging Julie Burchill not to convert provided some comfort with a plausible reason for JB not going through with it.  We need more non-Jews supporting us in public, so let’s try to keep those mouthy Jew loving gentiles as they are – gentiles.

My argument for not allowing her to convert is altogether less charitable, but it’s a lot more simple.  I loathe her and it would be an embarrassment if she became Jewish.  It’s already enough of an embarrassment that she used the word “we” albeit with a nod to the chutzpah employed, when asked about her interest in converting to Judaism.  That sentence…”The filthy stain of antisemitism which unites Christian and Muslim is based on their pathetic envy of the perfect, enduring faith of the Jews. We/they rock!” had me reeling at her crassness.  That’s not how Jews view Christians and Muslims I hope, and there’s no place for those attitudes in Judaism as far as I’m concerned.

I grew up as a teenage NME reader suffering Ms Burchill’s spiteful twaddle as the self-styled queen of rock journalism and I couldn’t bare to think she was joining the faith.  How would you like to find out that the school bully was your cousin?

However, I admit this is no criterium for assessing her suitability as a Jew.  So let’s consider some of her other magnificent characteristics.

Married three times and dumping her sons with their fathers after walking out on the first two.  OK, so there are plenty of Jews who are serial spouses. What else?

Well, perhaps no other converts to Judaism have celebrated their use of recreational drugs with quite the pride of our latest celebrity applicant.  Again, I’m not saying there isn’t a drug problem amongst Jews, there is, and it’s serious, and Ms Burchill is now clean, I believe, but do we still want to welcome someone with such a cocky attitude to cocaine?

In the last 10 years Ms Burchill has found God.  Several times.  First she become a Lutheran, then a Christian Zionist (whatever that is) and now she talks of converting again. Make your mind up sweetheart, or at least why not just skip mainstream Judaism and join Madonna at the spiritual top table.  I’m sure pseudo-Kabbalah will be right up your alley, and of course the social climb, sorry, religious journey will be complete, won’t it?

Look, I know the Liberals will convert someone as long as they tell them they enjoy smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels now and again but please guys, think hard about letting this one in. Please.

If you’re wavering think on this:  the orthodox reckon you will let anyone in.  Here’s your chance to show you do have some standards.