Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, 3 February 2017
וְהָיָה֩ לְךָ֙ לְא֜וֹת עַל־יָֽדְךָ֗ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן֙ בֵּ֣ין עֵינֶ֔יךָ לְמַ֗עַן תִּֽהְיֶ֛ה תּוֹרַ֥ת יְהוָֹ֖ה בְּפִ֑יךָ כִּ֚י בְּיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה הוֹצִֽאֲךָ֥ יְהוָֹ֖ה מִמִּצְרָֽיִם
And it shall be to you for a sign upon your hand and for a remembrance between your eyes in order that the law of the Eternal shall be in your mouth, for with a strong hand did the Eternal One your God bring you out from Egypt.
The majority of our medieval commentators understood this verse literally to mean an ordinance to wear tefillin – small boxes with the words of the Shema inside that are wrapped onto the arm and forehead so that they sit as a sign upon one’s hand and in between one’s eyes.
Whilst we are not traditional Jews, we would not be Jews at all if we did not have the law of the Eternal in our mouths! We do not have 3 daily worship services but nearly every member household I have visited has a mezuzah – a small box on the doorpost of the house with the same words, the Shema, that are in the tefillin. We do not publically recite the Torah three times in the week but we do within our Shabbat and Festival services and facilitate and encourage further study.
What is it that draws us towards the mitzvah of mezuzah and not of tefillin?
Firstly, few Liberal Jews maintain weekday worship services and the donning of tefillin is not mandated for Shabbat and the festivals.
Liberal Jews have often rejected the traditional ‘means’ of fulfilling a mitzvah, a commandment, elevating the relevance of the ‘end,’ its essence. In this verse we are spoon-fed the ‘end,’ so that the law of the Eternal shall be in your mouth. It is the metaphoric interpretation that Liberal Judaism has favoured over the literal one of the Sages. We do not need to bind words to our arms or forehead, rather we internalize them.
Another reason for Liberal Jews not to have favoured tefillin as a ritual is that traditionally it excluded women. Whilst the daughters of Rashi – probably the most famous medieval biblical commentator – were said to have worn tefillin and there are no rabbinic sources prohibiting it, Orthodox custom has discouraged women.
For all these reasons, they have been eschewed by Liberal Judaism, until last week, it was announced that there would be a monthly Monday morning Torah Service with the option for those that wished to lay teffilin to come a little earlier.
In her ‘Compelling Commitments’, Rabbi Elli Tikvah-Sarah eloquently describes an approach to mitzvot – commandments – that I believe provides and explanation for the desire for some Liberal Jews to lay tefillin.
We have always encouraged the use of Jewish rituals that enrich the lives of our members and whilst they do no harm to another, only concern the individual and their relationship with God. Exploring rituals, creating new ones and developing older ones is very Jewish. To do so in an egalitarian way is very Liberal Jewish. It may or may not be for me; but I support those who are seeking ways to further their relationship with God and do so in community.
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