hineni (crosspost from mayyim hayyim blog)

Last week I wrote about going to the mikveh before ordination for Mayyim Hayyim’s blog.

the first protestor

These are the words that I shared yesterday during my “closing conversation,” an opportunity each ordinee has to teach Torah to a group of faculty members.

I first started to dislike Avraham during my Bereshit class my Shanah Aleph year.

A couple of years before I started rabbinical school, I witnessed the devastation of my brother’s in-laws at the untimely death of their daughter. I felt helpless, and yet certain they would never be whole again. A parent who would kill his son in the guise of piety, I declared in a d’var Torah, can only be characterized as monstrous.

Shortly after answering Gd’s call, Avraham enriches himself in a new land, I argued one day in class, by unctuously convincing his wife to sleep with the pharaoh.

A few years later, Allan Lehmann pointed out to me that it’s not Avraham who originally leaves אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים; at the end of parshat Noach, we’re told that it’s actually his father who moves his family אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן. But it is Avraham who is credited for the pioneering journey.

Son, wife, and father: Avraham in some way betrays them all. Judy Klitsner argues, however, that this is just a feature of Avraham’s mission. Noting that his journey begins and ends with the words לֶךְ-לְךָ, she says: “Thus, Abraham is commanded to end his career as he began, as one who stands as perpetual ‘other’ to those around him. Arguably, Abraham was never destined to act as a model father, husband, or uncle [and I would add, or son]. He was to be a solitary living symbol, prefiguring the history of his offspring; a blessed nation with the potential to bring blessing to others, but dwelling alone.”

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my protest tallit (from Advah Designs)

The stakes for me in the characterization of Abraham are high. I am, after all, bat Avraham. I care about the patriarch(y). What use to me is the father of Judaism as dubiously venerated icon?

One of the unexpected discoveries in the writing of my Capstone, on מַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם, the mysterious priest-king of Gen. 14, has been the development of more compassion for this deeply flawed character of Avraham.

Genesis 14 contains the simultaneously quotidian and miraculous story of Avraham’s military victory in the “War of the Kings.” He goes to war to rescue the kidnapped Lot, whose fate he is alerted to by a refugee of war: וַיָּבֹא, הַפָּלִיט וַיַּגֵּד לְאַבְרָם הָעִבְרִי.

As many have noticed, the characterization of Avraham as ha’ivri is odd, and indicative of the fact of a reworking of an external source into the Avraham cycle. The book of Genesis has been thus far the book of Abraham, so why does the narrative perspective here shift to portray Avraham as outsider?

For many mefarshim, this nomenclature is an indication not just of how he is viewed by others, but in fact of how he views himself — and perhaps how we are supposed to see him.

Thus far in eretz Cana’an, Avraham has been a solitary actor, separating from the little family he has left, and interacting only superficially with the land’s natives. His life has been and will be characterized by these separations: from Sarah, from Yitzchak and Yishmael, from Lot, from Hagar. Drawing on one of the meanings of the root ayin-bet-resh, in Bereshit Rabbah Rabbi Yehuda explains, “All the world was on one side, ever ehad, and [Avraham] was on the other.”

I often feel isolated in my life, in my choices, in my beliefs. I left my birthplace, physically, metaphorically, religiously. I live outside Texas, outside the expectations of my family, outside my religion of origin. And I would say to the extent that I am a frequent holder of minority opinions in “the land that God has shown me,” I am also an outsider in my religion of choice.

Sampson Rafael Hirsch frames Avraham’s position as ha’ivri in more modern terms: He says of Gen. 14:13, “Abraham had remained the Ivri. This term may be interpreted as ‘he who came from the other side of the river,’ or, as Rabbi Joshua explains, ‘the one who stands aside,’ the one who stands in opposition to the rest of the world, the first ‘protester,’ as it were.”

Now that’s someone I recognize and I understand.

This understanding has also been a source of reflection, as I think about the ways in which my protest, my opposition — much like Avraham’s — has been hurtful. Last night at T’ruah’s gala, board member Rabbi Les Bronstein shared Torah from Rabbi Aaron Panken z”l some of what he would have said in his address at the ordination of HUC’s New York rabbis on Monday night. Da lifnei mi atah omed, Rabbi Panken teaches, in these times doesn’t just mean, “Know before whom you stand.” It is also a call to know what you stand for. I would add — and to know who or what you stand against.

To stand in opposition, even out of moral principle, is a blessing and a curse, to use Abrahamic language.

Somewhere in my Capstone research, I ran across an argument that in retrospect seems so obvious but is one I hadn’t heard made so explicit before: The mythology of peoplehood of the Jews is one of the few that doesn’t attempt to establish its people as native to the land in which they live. The ancestors of Theban royalty in Greek mythology, for example, claimed to descend from warriors who sprang up from the dragon’s teeth sown by the hero Cadmus. They are literally autochthonous, from the ground itself, but we Jews are outsiders from the outset.

The sign of the completion of our liberation, at the end of the book of Shemot, the book of freedom, is not our settlement in the land — a feat we don’t achieve even by the end of Torah — but the completion of the mishkan, the welcoming of the presence of Gd among us. It matters less where we stand as such than where we stand in relation to Gd and community.

I came to Judaism because I became convinced that it, and the Gd I want to believe in, could handle my questions. Because it is the place I want to stand and from which I want to protest. In this sense, I am indeed proudly bat Avraham.

leyning and crying

This is the d’var Torah that I gave this morning at Hebrew College on the occasion of celebrating a siyyum of sorts, the Torah that I have read the last six years in rabbinical school.

I’m so glad to see all of you here this morning, and I’m grateful for your presence. I am throwing myself this siyyum to celebrate the Torah reading that I’ve done since I started rabbinical school.

I didn’t know how to chant Torah when I started rabbinical school. Let’s be honest, I barely knew Hebrew at the beginning of rabbinical school. So my first bit of thanks should go to Rabbi Daniel Klein for taking a chance on me.

I enrolled in Cantillation my Mekorot year with Cantor Louise Treitman. I was terrified to have to do the singing aloud that the class required. I didn’t know how to learn music. I couldn’t keep the trope sounds or names in my head long enough to practice. But somehow I made it work. And so I first read Torah in this space on Rosh Hodesh Iyyar five years ago, the second aliyah, along with other members of my class. I think the feeling of standing here that morning has long since been eclipsed by the hundreds of times I’ve since stood here but that morning something grabbed me. And I grabbed back. I became one of the מַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ.

For the past five years, I’ve leyned almost every Shabbat. During the school year, I’ve tried to do the same here as often as I could on Monday and Thursday. I feel confident that I can chant any part of any parshah, and I feel confident that someday I will chant every part of every parshah. But I learned from experts, and I read alongside experts. I’m no expert. I still sometimes forget trope, misremember vowels, mispronounce consonants. I still find myself up at an amud with shaky knees.

But over these past five years, something has happened, and that something is that I’ve gotten better.

Part of getting better is knowing how to practice. I now know how to learn an aliyah: I know how much time I need, and how to split up that time. I know where and when to practice. And I know that practice, and more practice, and more still practice, is the only way to continue getting better.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claims that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” It’s not a sufficient condition for success, he emphasizes. His point is that that even natural ability takes an enormous amount of time to be made manifest. If I had to guess I’d say I’m probably at about 1/5 of that, maybe 2,000 hours over the past five years.

Where has that gotten me? I can start with statistically, because I’ve kept track, in a spreadsheet, of every verse of Torah I’ve read. To date, since April 2013, I’ve read 63.5% of Torah: 79% of Bereshit; 75% of Shemot; 52% of Vayikra; 38% of Bemidbar; and 69% of Devarim. I’ve read something from all but three parshiyot (Behar, Bechukotai, and Beha’alotcha), and I have a plan to remedy that before ordination.

Ironically, I haven’t leyned any of Genesis 14, the subject of my Capstone and a good 24 verses that I practically know by heart by now.

I’ve read all of Vayeira, Chayei Sarah, Mikeitz, Yitro, Ki Tisa, Vayakhel, Pekudei, Tazria, Acharei Mot, Vayeilech, Ha’azinu, V’Zot HaBracha and Ki Teitzei. Yes, I have leyned all of Ki Teitzei, the parshah I’ve been telling anyone who will listen how much I dislike.

A few years back Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a short piece in The Atlantic: “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things.” He talks about the experience of learning French as an adult: He doesn’t believe in fluency, he says, but he believes in getting better. He says, “There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.

But getting better, he notes, is really about getting better at stumbling. And for me, stumbling when reading Torah takes a lot of different forms.

10269515_10203449167287766_4003875064976983340_nOne of the most painful experiences I’ve had reading Torah was a few years ago, here, on Yom HaShoah. We were reading the weekday section of Emor. I got to the line

.וּבַת אִישׁ כֹּהֵן כִּי תֵחֵל לִזְנוֹת–אֶת-אָבִיהָ הִיא מְחַלֶּלֶת בָּאֵשׁ תִּשָּׂרֵף (Vayikra 21:9)

And I just started crying; it was just a ghastly line to be reading that day or any day, really. And I don’t think the coincidence even occurred to me as I practiced. It was only as I was up here, at this amud, in front of the scroll. In that moment I was overwhelmed with anger at Torah. I felt physically ill. I felt helpless, imprisoned by the unfeeling cycle of the weekly parshiyot that have been chanted for generations with the same regularity since Ezra instituted public Torah reading.

It’s Yom HaShoah, I thought, and I just made it possible for everyone to hear the Torah’s directive to burn a woman to death.

I wish that I had stopped and taken a few moments to compose myself, but after a brief pause I just kept reading, tears streaming and my voice catching. Some of you were in the beit midrash that day, and many of you realized what was happening. But at least one person in the room had no clue, and that person was one of the gabba’im. He just kept staring at me, blinking uncomprehendingly and incredulously as I warbled through the end of the aliyah. I think he thought I was crying because I was doing a poor job of leyning.

And to be fair, I have done exactly that. The worst was Shabbat Ki Tavo four years ago, when I was reading all 63 verses of the sixth aliyah: the tribes, divided between Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, shouting back and forth. It was my first paid gig at this synagogue. And my mind just went blank; I could hardly remember anything: not the words, not the trope. Total disaster. It was brutal. The balm for that morning, however, was one of the elderly congregants who came up to me afterwards and said, “I totally understand what happened. It was all of those curses! You are so sensitive that it was hard for you say them!” (The congregation was kind enough to give me another chance, and I continued leyning for them regularly on Shabbat for about a year.)

And as Rabbi Victor Reinstein and a few of the Nehar Shalom-niks that are here know, each year I cry leyning on Simchat Torah, my favorite holiday (obviously). I always read the end of Devarim, and I have to pause and let the tears flow for just a moment when I get to the line:

.’וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד-ה’, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב–עַל-פִּי ה (Devarim 34:5)

As conflicted as I am about Moshe as a leader, by the fall each year he’s become a good friend, and I mourn his death and the fact that he won’t get to see his life’s work completed.

In thinking about what I wanted to share today, I didn’t expect that so many of my stories would center around the gut-wrenching emotional side of leyning. And there are many other stories. But I think what I shared today makes sense for where we are in Torah right now, parshat Shemini.

It’s traditionally understood that this parshah contains, by words, the center of the Torah, the space between the two words דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ (Vayikra 10:16). “He diligently inquired . . .” In other words, דָּרֹשׁ ends the first half of Torah, and דָּרַשׁ starts the second half. In many scrolls, דָּרֹשׁ also ends a line, while דָּרַשׁ begins the next one. The Chida says:

This means – when you have expounded (darosh) the Torah to the point that you think you have exhausted all its meaning, and you think that you are at the very end of the line – not the line of layout, but the line of enquiry and scholarship – you should realize that you are really only expounding the beginning of the line.

The work continues; there is always more to say.

But I learned Vayikra from Rabbi Nehemia Polen, so I want to talk about a slightly different center of Torah. The chapter in which the words דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ appear begins with the death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu in a devouring fire. דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ is what Moshe does when he checks the offerings and discovers that Aharon and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, didn’t eat the sin offering that was meant to expiate the people. Moshe flunks his pastoral counseling class as he angrily confronts Aharon for not doing what he was meant to.

A grieving parent, Aharon responds. What, today, did God want me to eat the sin offering?

Nehemia says, what Aharon means is, My heart is broken, and I didn’t agree to stop being a human being when I became high priest.

And Moshe has no response. How can he? Aharon is right.

Nehemia points out that it’s the way of priests to put the most important things in the middle. It’s true of the mishkan, it’s true of the temple, and it’s true of the P source. What happens here in this exchange is the heart of Torah. And it’s about the human heart. There are times when it breaks wide open, and we have to attend to it even amidst our most sacred rituals.

Vayikra is about the intimacy we create and maintain with God, and about what the presence of God on earth requires of us. And right in the middle of that, in parshat Shemini, we’re told that relationship with the divine means that we should never stop acting with our hearts.

For me, this has meant that I have learned as much from the technical reading of Torah as I have from what has emerged in that process.

To end, I want to thank a few people specifically. Cantor Louise Treitman, first and foremost, as I mentioned before, my principal teacher of trope. To whatever extent I am good at this, it is because of her. (All failings are my own.) I’d also like include many other cantors and cantorial students and faculty. Cantors are the holy transmitters of sacred Jewish music, and it has been cantors who have been generous with their time and patience to help me learn to read many of our most precious texts: I’m thinking specifically of Cantors Risa Wallach, Lynn Torgove, Vera Broekhuysen, Hinda Labovitz, Sarah Bolts, and Aliza Berger.

I also want to especially thank Rabbi Shayna Rhodes, who was a never-ending source of encouragement. In true Shayna fashion, one of the ways that she was helpful was to criticize. As Ebn had done for her, she would correct all mistakes in my reading not just the ones that were technically correctable mistakes. I am a better reader of Torah because of her.

Thank you to Sigalit Davis and to Harvey Bock, for making me learn Hebrew grammar and pronunciation so well.

Thank you to Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Nehar Shalom, my spiritual home for the past five years. He created and nurtured a community of practicers in so many senses of that word. For years, I got up and read Torah nearly every Shabbat, and no one there made me feel anything but appreciated for my efforts.

Thank you to my classmates, the best people I know, and the ones who have supported me through everything, including this maniacal quest, these past six years.

And thank you to all of you, the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Many of you have sat patiently through some pretty questionable leyning over the years.

I am sorry that Rabbi Ebn Leader can’t be here today, but I want to share what part of what he wrote to me from Israel. “The Torah is eternal, but heaven forbid, she could also be eternally dead . . . It is the breath of those who read her words that give her life with which she can then continue through eternity. It is in the communal ritual of reading Torah, listening to it through each other’s voices, that we express our commitment to this ongoing process of giving life to Torah. Perhaps this is the meaning of חיי עולם נטע בתוכנו. God has planted within us the capacity to give life to that which is eternal. And through this of course, both sides, we and Torah, develop in wonderful and unexpected ways . . .”

May it ever be so, and may we strive to make true the words that we sing at the end of our ritual reading of Torah, the anthem of spiritual practice. הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה.

Thank you shavua tov, and chag sameach!

where you will go . . .

This is an addendum of sorts to the d’var Torah about #metoo that I posted here a few days ago, in response to a question from a classmate.

After reading my d’var Torah, one of my classmates asked me about the p’sukim from Hosea (2:21-22) that are traditionally said as an intention for tefillin, while completing the wrapping of the shel yad. I addressed it briefly in this post about tefillin, but I want to do so a little more fully here.

The verses say:

כא  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, לְעוֹלָם; וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים. כב  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, בֶּאֱמוּנָה; וְיָדַעַתְּ, אֶת-יְהוָה

21 I will betroth you to me forever; indeed I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in justice, and in loving-kindness, and in compassion. 22 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will know Adonai.

They sound so lovely! But the context is the prophet’s problematic metaphor of a marriage between Gd and Israel, in which Israel is portrayed as an unfaithful wife who has taken up prostitution (to put it delicately, in a way that the Biblical text does not). Hosea describes the punishment for this woman: physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse. In short, a complete debasement. The verses here are an affirmation of the reconciliation between Hosea and his wife, that is, between Gd and Israel.

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Marc Chagall, Naomi and Her Daughters-in-law (1952)

There is more than one way to understand these verses and their use in this ritual context. For instance, there is something to be said for the fact that saying these verses puts men (the ones who have traditionally laid tefillin) into the role of the woman, perhaps encouraging a kind of empathy for the subordinate position in which many women find themselves.

For more, I highly recommend the book A Feminist Companion to the Latter Prophets, edited by Athalya Brenner, which is about the book of Hosea and about sexual violence in all of the (latter) prophets. In fact, it is just one book in a series, A Feminist Companion to . . .,  and the series has saved me in many a class at my school that had no one but white men scholars on the syllabus.

But in the short time I have in completing the wrapping of my hand in the tefillin straps, I’m not interested in having to do those mental gymnastics. As suggested by the Siddur HaKohanot, I say part of the famous verse from the book of Ruth (1:16):

.כִּי אֶל-אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ, וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין–עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי, וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי

Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people; your Gd, my Gd.

In addition to having special resonance for me as a convert (as Ruth is generally understood by the rabbis), these verses are an expression of much gentler and more intimate loyalty. Ruth says them to Naomi as the two prepare to leave Moab, each having lost her husband, two women cleaving to each other in grief and in hope for the future.

holy body

Today I gave this d’var Torah in my class on Deuteronomy, on parshat Ve’etchanan.
10/20/17: There’s an update below, in response to a question from a friend.

In the wake of the recent horrific accusations of sexual harassment and assault against a famous and powerful Hollywood producer, there has been an outpouring of testimony in the media from women about their own experiences with the same. Specifically, the hashtag #metoo on social media has given some idea about how prevalent the issue is: Women have been posting the words “me too” or the hashtag #metoo to indicate that they have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault, and some have been sharing the actual stories.

I used to volunteer for and I served on the board of the DC Rape Crisis Center, and for years I saw how sexual assault cut across the lines of race, age, sexual orientation, religion, gender, disability status, etc. I worked shifts answering our 24-hour crisis hotline, and I made myself available to go to the hospital when a sexual assault survivor came in for a rape kit. I’ve had my own experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault. But I wasn’t prepared for what has happened on social media over the past few days.

Almost every single of my female friends has posted the words “me too.” In the stories that have been shared, the perpetrators have ranged from the entitled boss, to the sleazy uncle, to the nice guy next door — and everyone in between. As there is no standard survivor, there is no typical perpetrator.

People always asked how I could work at the rape crisis center. I used to say, yes, I’ve seen the worst that human beings can do to each other. But I’ve also seen the best that human beings can do for each other. People who have said to the survivor: I believe you. You are not crazy. You are not alone.

One of the things that I tried to do as a volunteer, especially at the hospital, during my short time with survivors, was to try to empower them, to give them back a sense of autonomy. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are actually about power — not sex — and what these incidents often have in common is that they make the survivor feel that her body is not her own, that it is public domain, that it can be used by others how they want, that she does not get decide what happens to it. This loss of control is absolutely devastating, and its effects are long lasting.

I’ve been thinking about these issues constantly over the past few weeks, ever since the allegations about the Hollywood producer emerged. And they took on particular poignancy as I delved into parshat Ve’etchanan. It is in this parshah that the sh’ma and ve’ahavtah are found — and therefore is also found the main source for the mitzvah of tefillin (incidentally my favorite mitzvah).

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photo credit: Vera Broekhuysen

Deuteronomy 6:8 says, וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ: “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they will be for frontlets between your eyes.”

Since the late Second Temple era, these verses, have generally been interpreted literally; thus emerged our current practice of strapping small containers with parchment inside to our arms and heads.

This idea — of signs or memorials on the hand and between the eyes — appears a few other places in Torah: later in Deuteronomy, but then also in Shemot. Jeffrey Tigay argues that the allusions in Shemot imply a more metaphorical practice.

Exodus 13:9 says, וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל-יָדְךָ, וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ: “And it shall be for a sign for you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes.”

Later in the same perek appears a similar formulation. וְהָיָה לְאוֹת עַל-יָדְכָה, וּלְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ: “And it shall be for a sign upon your hand, and for frontlets between your eyes” (Exodus 13:16).

The lack of explicit subjects (וְהָיָה, “it shall be . . .”) in the Exodus verses suggests that we are enjoined to hold ideasyetziat Mitzrayim, and chag haPesach, respectively — not הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, “these words,” as in Deuteronomy, on our arms and heads.

As Tigay notes: “Exodus 13 seems to be using sign, memorial, and headband metaphorically to indicate that certain historical events and/or certain ceremonies are to be remembered well, much like the metaphoric use of other items of apparel or ornaments that are close or dear to those who wear them. . . . On the other hand, the injunction to ‘bind’ these words in Deuteronomy 6 and 11 seems to be meant literally.  Here the reference is to words which, unlike events and ceremonies, can be literally bound to the body, and the following injunction to write these words on the doorposts and gates suggests that something concrete is intended” (The JPS Torah Commentary: Devarim, p. 443).

Ibn Ezra more trenchantly makes the point in his commentary on the first part of Deuteronomy 6:8, where he comments simply: מפורש (“literally”).

In 1967, the Lubavitcher Rebbe tapped into this literal understanding when he announced his famous tefillin campaign: On Lag B’Omer, at the end of May that year, on Eastern Parkway — just a short walk from my apartment in Brooklyn — the Rebbe spoke about the existential threat facing Israel at that moment.

The Rebbe was reportedly optimistic, and he assured the crowd that Israel would prevail. And indeed, less than a week later, Israel would launch the offensive that transformed its future. But that day, the Rebbe called for support for the young country: material support, but perhaps even more importantly, spiritual support. He urged Jews all over the world to lay tefillin, even if they weren’t religious, and even if they hadn’t done so since their bar mitzvah, or even ever in their lives. For the Rebbe, the performance of this mitzvah was a tangible contribution to Israel’s security.

In support of this ask, he cited a passage later in Deuteronomy, from parshat Ki Tavoוְרָאוּ כָּל-עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ, כִּי שֵׁם יְהוָה נִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ; וְיָרְאוּ, מִמֶּךָּ: “And all the peoples of the earth will see the name of Gd is proclaimed over you, and they will fear you” (Deuteronomy 28:10).

 In BT Brachot 6a, Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol explains that this verse refers to the shel rosh, the part of tefillin worn on the head, that bears the letter shin, symbolizing Gd’s name.

I’m ultimately uncomfortable with the Rebbe’s line of thinking at this moment in time, because he takes the association of tefillin with war pretty far: In his Likkutei Sichot, the Rebbe points out another difference between the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages about tefillin. In Exodus, what we have come to understand as tefillin are conceived of as two parts of one unit: . . . וְהָיָה לְאוֹת . . . וּלְזִכָּרוֹן and . . . וְהָיָה לְאוֹת . . . וּלְטוֹטָפֹת

But in Deuteronomy, the two verbs indicate that the shel rosh and shel yad are conceived of as two distinct acts: . . . וּקְשַׁרְתָּם . . . וְהָיוּ

The Rebbe ascribes the variations to the differing understandings of the conquering of the promised land. In Exodus, Moshe was meant to lead the people into Cana’an, and they would not face resistance. The effect of “tefillin” was conceived as singular. By Deuteronomy, however, it is clear that Yehoshua will be the one to lead the people into Cana’an, and there will be a mighty war. This two-fold plan now requires a double dose of security for the combatants.

And the idea of tefillin as apotropaic, as warding off danger, as a kind of protective amulet, is not the Rebbe’s innovation. The word טוֹטָפֹת (“frontlets”) is mysterious, occurring only in this context, in these verses in Exodus and Deuteronomy. It’s been interpreted any number of ways, including as denoting a “Jewish” (vs. pagan) amulet. But most seem to agree that טוֹטָפֹת are literal items.

The word תפילין (“tefillin”) only appears in later, rabbinic sources — where they are at times ascribed magical properties. Bemidbar Rabbah (12:3) presents tefillin as capable of defeating demons. In the Bavli, Rabbis Yohanan and Nahman use their sets to repel danger while going to the bathroom (BT Berakhot 23a-b), and Elisha is said to have been miraculously saved from the Roman persecution because of his scrupulousness in performing this mitzvah (BT Shabbat 49a).

It is these two principle characteristics of tefillin — literal markers of transcendence — that I find so compelling and that put them in my mind as I’ve followed the recent conversation about sexual assault. I don’t expect tefillin to be apotropaic: The only way to end sexual assault is for men to stop perpetrating sexual assault. But in an interesting way, this discourse around sexual assault has made manifest some immutable truths about the rape culture we inhabit. The tangible nature of tefillin avers transcendence.

If sexual assault makes me believe that my body is something to be abused, tefillin mean that my body is worthy of holding our most sacred text. And not just the words, but a holy scroll with the words: klaf, written by a sofer(et) with special ink, much like our sifrei Torah.

Tefillin mean that my body is not the purview of anyone else (or at the most the purview of Gd).

Tefillin mean that my body is part of maintaining the centrality of one of Judaism’s most prominent pieces of liturgy.

Tefillin mean that Torah is not just in my mouth and in my heart, as Deuteronomy will later tell us in parshat Nitzavim, but also on my hand and on my head.

If sexual assault makes me disconnected from my body, tefillin affirm the following truth: לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא . .. כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, “It is not in heaven . . . indeed it is very close to you” (Deuteronomy 30:12, 14).

If sexual assault is about power and dominance, tefillin are about intimacy and relationship.

This has been a hard week. But I hope that in the Jewish community these disclosures will lead to more conversation, most simply. Just further acknowledgement and discussion. But also conversation about the literal truth that almost every woman (and of course, some others) has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault at some point in her life.

The sh’ma gives us guidance: “Pay attention,” it says. Rape culture is all around us: We teach it to our children, it’s at home and at work, we go to sleep with it and we wake up with it. It is inscribed on our bodies and in our institutions.

We have a responsibility as teachers of the Jewish religious tradition to insist on and affirm the sacredness of the body. That this belief is deeply embedded in one of our most central texts. Through these disclosures, deep truths have been made manifest, and it is upon us to accord them holiness.

Update: One of my classmates asked me about the p’sukim from Hosea (2:21-22) that are traditionally said as an intention for tefillin, while completing the wrapping of the shel yad. They say,

כא  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, לְעוֹלָם; וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים. כב  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, בֶּאֱמוּנָה; וְיָדַעַתְּ, אֶת-יְהוָה
21 I will betroth you to me forever; indeed I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in justice, and in loving-kindness, and in compassion. 22 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will know Adonai.

They sound so lovely — but the context is the prophet’s problematic metaphor of a marriage between Gd and Israel, in which Israel is portrayed as an unfaithful wife who has taken up prostitution (to put it delicately, in a way that the Biblical text does not). Hosea describes the punishment for this woman: physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse. In short, a complete deba

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