21 January 2010

From Time to Time: A Tefilin Story

this post was written this morning before the news about the grounded plane with the Jewish teen wearing tefilin--an extraordinary coincidence that's left me scratching my head all day.


"I guess because it's so old and sacred, it's cool...but I don't connect stuff like that with Judaism," wrote one seventh grader about putting on tefilin. "For me, the most sacred thing is studying and rethinking and debate and discussion...But meticulous conventions and rules really don't have anything to do with me."

Another wrote, "I feel like I am carrying something very important and I feel special that I am young and doing this before I even become Bat Mitzvah!" This expression was mirrored by someone who wrote, "I liked the feeling of having something really important on me. I felt more connected to Judaism."

Her friend wrote, "Even though it wasn't my first time--I liked experiencing it in a room with others my age trying it as well." (The empathic response of what happens in a "minyan" as opposed to individual prayer and spiritual expression.)

Look at this one: "It makes me feel like I have something sacred in me and on me. And I think that it's an interesting design of the object." Aesthetics of course play a large role in our relationship to ritual. I love how attuned to that these kids are.

Descriptions like "silly" and "cool" and even one who loved it but it made her "nauseous I wanted to puke but it was spiritual, too" speaks to the fascinating and conflicting feelings that arise when trying an ancient ritual for the first time. And hammers home the point for me about how critical it is in non-orthodox communities that we expose kids to as much ritual as possible, if only because as people age, they often tend to get "set in their ways" and can demonstrate less, not more, openness to all that Judaism has to offer. In childhood and in an educational context, trying things is what it's all about, hence these lessons for Bar and Bat Mitzvah age kids on Jewish ritual objects.

The following week, we mirrored what we are doing these Shabbat mornings with the Maimonides Study Group--studying his laws of Tefilin from his Book of Love. The text themselves that one finds in the boxes are evocative of both the Exodus from Egypt as well as our Covenantal Relationship with God, which is heavy stuff regardless of age. The adults are plowing deep into the language of covenant and God's reality in history; the kids couldn't stop arguing about what kind of God would require the sacrifice of animals for any sense of worship at all. It leads to a conversation about the evolutionary nature of God's relationship to human beings, how our perception of and understanding of God changes over time.

"Like my parents," said one kid, realizing something. "They were once TOTALLY powerful to me, now, not so much."

That hubris of youth--God bless them--is an opportunity to engage with the idea that relationships and understanding of certain assumed hierarchies do evolve with time--both parental and Divine. And it had me thinking all week about the ways in which liberal Jews have "rebelled" against the image of God the Father over the past century and a half by walking away all together as opposed to staying in an ever-evolving relationship, where wisdom is mined from sources more defused than vertical power structures.

Horizontal encounters yield more--think of it visually.

That first seventh graders quote, "For me, the most sacred thing is studying and rethinking and debate and discussion...But meticulous conventions and rules really don't have anything to do with me" is another way of saying, sure, I'll try anything, as long as I can study, think, debate and discuss it so that it means something to me.

That's an approach that one can hang one's hat on--assuming of course one chooses to cover one's head from time to time.

1 comment:

DP Greenberg said...

I think there's a movie in this that we can pitch to Jonathan Kesselman: "Tefillin On A Plane." Samuel L. Jackson and the whole bit: "I'm tired of this mo-fo tefillin, on this mo-fo plane!