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

Comments

  1. Salem, so brilliant and compassionate! Rachel

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