Positively concrete

These days I’m refocusing on the Shema as the first and greatest commandment (Mark 12:28ff) and as foundational to my work in mussar. A few weeks ago one particular of the Shema got in my face: “You shall bind these words as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deut. 6:8). Jewish tradition provides a literal way to fulfill this commandment through tefillin, small leather boxes containing the words of the Shema, attached to leather straps that can be bound to the arm and forehead.

I’ve prayed with tefillin in the past, but never regularly, so that’s my assignment now. When I told my wife, Jane (who is always supportive of my Jewish practices) about my new assignment, she said, “But aren’t those words meant figuratively?” It’s a good question, based on Scripture itself. Back in Exodus 13, when Moses gives the law of redemption of the first-born, he says, “It shall be as a sign on your hand and as frontlets between your eyes . . .” clearly a figure of speech here, as the same terminology is in Proverbs 3:3, 6:31, and 7:3. I remember reading somewhere that Rabbenu Tam, grandson of Rashi, who wrote the definitive tract on binding tefillin, also believed that the language was metaphorical, but applied it literally anyway. The language might be figurative, but if there’s a way to fulfill it literally, all the better!

That’s the particular genius of Jewish tradition—it doesn’t overdo the contrast between inner and outer, but seeks to express the inner through the outer. It lays out a spiritual pathway with concrete steps.

Now, I need to point out that binding tefillin is a Jewish practice and a male practice, so it’s not meant for everyone. I’m not talking about it to encourage everyone to lay tefillin, but to share some of its lessons, especially about being positively concrete. For me putting on tefillin feels like getting girded up for prayer, like suiting up for a whole day of serving Hashem. It reminds me of the feeling I get when I pull on my bike jersey and riding shorts—it brings back the ride, the feel of the road, the elevated heartbeat and rush of adrenaline. I can see how regular laying of tefillin will do that for prayer. If you don’t lay tefillin, you can still find an outward routine that expresses and enhances your seriousness about praying.

But spirituality often gets contrasted with physicality. Christian Bible commentaries routinely contrast the spiritual, inward path of Christianity with the outward, carnal, superficial path of the Jews. When I look up “frontlets” or totafot in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (which is generally pretty good), I read,

Later Jewry took these ‘frontlets’ in a literal ostentatious way and were rebuked by Jesus. {#Mt 23:5} They tied little boxes on their foreheads and wrists and placed scripture verses in them as a reminder.

It makes tefillin sound a bit ridiculous, but I’m convinced that Yeshua wore them himself. At any rate, he wasn’t criticizing the practice itself, but the abuse of it, just as he did with prayer and almsgiving.

Concreteness gets a tough ride in Christendom, but a more biblical view sees the whole creation as holy, and spiritual growth as taking place within it, and in interaction with it. So, if we want to sanctify Shabbat, we find ways to so in our actions, and not just in our heads. If we love God, we find ways to do so by changing our behavior and treating our neighbors with respect and care.

When I bind tefillin, it reminds me that it’s a Jewish thing to be positive about concrete reality, and beyond that, it’s a biblical thing.


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