(This is the fourth installment in an occasional series on the fundamentals of Jewish life. The others are:
Thank you for reading!)
I must say that I have been recently surprised by the number of people, and in particular Jewish men who are bar mitzvah (i.e. 13 years of age and older) who are declining to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) when they enter our sanctuary. When I was growing up, a tallit was de rigueur for all men and older boys, and in fact a ritual that we looked forward to participating in. (I mentioned earlier that the Torah describes this mitzvah / commandment in the portion we read this morning.)
Now, things are a little different today: with the resurgence of Orthodoxy in the last few decades, many more of us are exposed to the minhag / custom, which has become prevalent in Orthodoxy, that some have of not wearing a tallit until one is married. BTW, the reason that we expect all Jewish men of bar mitzvah age to wear a tallit in synagogue is because we assume that most of us are not fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzit under their clothing, the tallit qatan. So we urge people to fulfill the mitzvah of tallit gadol, the big one with which we are all familiar.
Also, of course, in a highly integrated community like this, we often have people here who regularly attend Reform synagogues, where wearing a tallit is optional, so they are not inclined to put one on merely because they are in a Conservative synagogue. And we are also living in a time in which nobody likes to be told that they “must” do anything, regardless of where they grew up.
Furthermore, of course we encourage women to take this mitzvah on as well, although we do not require it of women, only adding to the level of confusion. Even though it has traditionally been observed by men, the Talmud (e.g. Menahot 43a) and many prominent rabbis throughout history (e.g. Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Rambam) indicate that women are not merely encouraged, but required to perform the mitzvah of tzitzit (similarly, Jewish sources also permit women to wear tefillin, including the great Maimonides).
But I am going to make the case for why you should be wearing a tallit, regardless of your gender.
According to what we read in today’s parashah, the tzitziyyot, the knotted threads that hang from the four corners of the tallit, are mnemonic devices. We need to be reminded of our obligations, not only to God, but also to each other. That is the goal of religious practice, and that is the whole point of the tallit, according to what we read today in Parashat Shelah Lekha. Let me explain:
I recently heard a wonderful episode of the NPR podcast Hidden Brain called “Creating God.” The guest, social psychologist Azim Shariff, described an academic study that showed that Muslim shopkeepers in the souq in Marrakesh, Morocco, gave more money to charity when they heard the azan, the Arabic call to prayer which is sounded from mosques five times a day.
What this demonstrates is that when we are reminded of religious tradition – mitzvot, commandments that compel us to do good things for each other and our community – we are more likely to actually DO those things. We are more likely to work for the common good; we are more likely to remember those around is in need; we are more likely to reach out to others.
We need those reminders: Reminders of the value of our Jewish heritage. Reminders to keep our traditions close, because they bring real value to us as individuals and to our community and the world.
There is a strain of Jewish thought that says that mitzvot have no intrinsic value or meaning – that they are simply commandments that must be followed (Rashi is among those thinkers; so too the modern Israeli commentator/gadfly Yeshayahu Leibovich). For example, there is a mitzvah / commandment in the Torah known as shilluah ha-qen, the requirement of shooing away the mother bird before taking her young from the nest (Deut. 22:6-7). The Mishnah (Berakhot 5:3) tells us that this should not be interpreted as displaying mercy so that God will be merciful to us. Rather, it is merely a statute to be followed, just like so many others in the Torah, because it is there.
But I cannot be Jewish in this way. I need to connect with my tradition with my heart and mind, to understand that God asks us to do certain things for a reason. I need motivation, and cannot suspend my reason and logic, and, I think, so too most of us in the Conservative Jewish world.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who feel that Jewish values are the most essential feature of Jewish life, that we should behave not according to ancient law codes and customs, but rather that our behavior should be guided by traditional values evident in Jewish text: tiqqun olam (repairing the world), hakhnassat orhim (welcoming guests into your home), biqqur holim (visiting the ill), derekh eretz (respect), praise and gratitude and so forth.
But values are not enough. There is an intermediate position, a path that pursues both the traditional actions, the mitzvot, and also encourages thought about the values that drive them. And that’s the kind of Jew that I want to be. Sign me up for that: the marriage of action and intent.
An example: in this approach, tefillah / prayer, admittedly a hard sell for most modern people, can be deeply meaningful, but only if you actually wrestle with the text. The mere recitation of words in a foreign language because ancient rabbis dictated a standard framework for tefillah is, well, uninspiring. But the combination of meaning, words, themes, music, meditation, and choreography brings me clarity, improves my concentration, helps me to examine myself, gives me a daily dose of qedushah / holiness and humility, and frames my day.
And in my mind, this type of Judaism is suggested by today’s parashah. We chanted the passage which we know and love as the third paragraph of the Shema, the one about the tzitzit (Numbers 15:37-41). The passage says explicitly that wearing the tzitzit (plural: tzitziyyot) is to remind us of the mitzvot and not to stray from the right path. But then it goes on to invoke the Exodus from Egypt, a seminal event in the establishment of the Jewish nation. The passage thereby suggests that the purpose of the mitzvot is not only their performance, but connecting them with our history, our peoplehood, and our obligation to remember where we came from and the obligations we have to aid the oppressed, the bound, the enslaved.
The tallit gadol, which many of us are wearing right now, is generally thought of as a ritual article, that is, something worn during services. If you wear a tallit qatan, you are always reminded of all of the above all day long.
But I’d like to suggest the following: when we are not in the synagogue, we need reminders. We need metaphorical tzitziyyot. We need to be reminded of the important things: yes, the values; yes, the customs; yes, the laws. We need to connect the doing with the understanding. And we do that through physical rituals.
Ladies and gentlemen, the struggle for the Jewish future will not be merely about reproduction; it will be a struggle for meaning – for understanding the values embedded within Jewish practice, for relating those things to how we live our lives on a daily basis. We need the “why” behind the “what.” And wrapping ourselves up in a tallit is an essential part of that process.
The tallit is so integral to Jewish life that we see it every time we look at the flag of the state of Israel; it is such an intimate part of our experience as Jews that there is a custom of burying one’s tallit with the deceased – it is effectively the only thing we take with us when we leave this world. And I think it’s the only ritual item that makes us feel as if we are being swaddled in our tradition.
So how do we maintain those reminders when we are not wearing a tallit? The metaphorical tzitziyyot remain after we take it off.
We feel swaddled in our tradition when we make the Shabbat special, a day apart from the craziness of the week, in whatever ways we can, traditional or otherwise. And when we make dietary choices that reflect our holy relationship with God’s Creation. And when we sanctify our relationships and always seek to partner with God in repairing this world. And when we seek out the ancient wisdom in our textual heritage.
That is why I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to the tallit: the physical ritual of being wrapped up in a tallit serves as a kind of glue that binds us to our tradition; it reminds us daily of our values and customs and practices and how they improve our lives and our society.
So go on, swaddle yourself up in a tallit, and you will find those metaphorical tzitziyyot when you take it off, and thus keep the reminders of Jewish life in front of you. That is how we will continue to build a better world.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/29/2019.)