A Secular Jewish Reason For Wearing Tefillin

Tefillin Wearing That Does Not Harken Unto Religion

Within the culture of Judaism, we have both a civil tradition and a religious tradition. Within the civil tradition, we have civil behavioral laws that focus and insist upon recognizing the sanctity of life, ensuring social justice within our communities, passing along Jewish traditions to the next generation, financially sustaining our way of life, and seeking the preservation of the Jewish family-nation for as long as sky is above the earth. Within the religious tradition, we have ritual behavioral laws that focus upon ritual cleanliness – whether of person or things, observance of specific holidays within the lunar-solar calendar, and devotion to wrestling with and observing mitzvot with obligatory intent. Of this latter, specific things like wearing tzitzit and tefillin, or not mixing certain items, such as gendered clothes or certain types of food, come to mind. These would fall under religious obligations that secular Jews do not observe as legally binding and obligatory upon them. Some observe them, regardless, and many do not. The reason for this is because, as secular humanistic Jews, we question the unproven existence and influence of a supernatural divine entity that is requiring of us in a legally binding way to follow Torah’s legal codes. We don’t believe in such an entity for many rational observable/demonstrable reasons, which renders the obligatory nature of these Torah laws as not binding upon any Jew. We, instead, recognize that all of Jewish culture, including its Torah civil-ritual laws, is the creation of the Jewish people. That we created these laws and it is we that created the mythologized history around them to justify their legal validity. Understanding this, we choose to focus more upon the civil behaviors within our lifestyle focus, that of people taking a stand for and helping people. We believe that ethics are the human creation to aspire towards, and that it is we humans that keep it going and giving it new meaning – just like any cultural tradition.

Now, we Jewish people who are secular oriented and focused, and often a tad religion phobic, have challenges with embracing and applying Torah civil-ritual law or ways within our lives, being more focused on the actual fuller history of the Jewish people and what this means to our survival – how we can directly affect this. The most noticeable way of our doing this, we are known for rejecting Torah law as non-binding while, at the same time, embracing certain customary dress wear and ritual behaviors, despite them being steeply rooted in civil-religious Jewish tradition. Some examples are observing traditional holidays, albeit without the theological emphasis included in, by seeing them through the lens of demonstrable history and rendering them humanistic in purpose, and wearing of such items such as tallit with tzitzit and kipa, justifying the wearing of them as a commitment to an ethnic cultural identifying/connecting behavior and historical way of life.

There is one traditional ethnic/cultural item, though, that you will not see being justified and worn among secular humanistic Jews, and I have ponder on the why of this. This item is the pesky wearing of tefillin. In Torah, both tallit with tzitzit and tefillin are connected to the highly religious overtones of a supreme divine being commanding this of us and, in return, will protect and nurture and save the Jewish people throughout the years and the generations to come, as is the case with all the other mitzvot. So, I have to wonder about this. If secular humanistic Jews are willing to wear the tallit with its tsitsit of mitzvot reminder, then why not the tefillin, as well? What makes this one, the ritual applying of a parchment box, separate from the liberation and reformation that we afford the tallit with tzitzit? Is it because tefillin is somehow seen as being just too religious, and thus uncomfortable in being put into a humanistic ritual of service? If so, then why? This is what I intend to explore here in this article.

Both the Jewish holidays, also religiously commanded, and the tallit with tzitzit can be justified amongst secular Jews as engage-able practices, because of finding meaning in them in a non-theistic and humanistic way through their more ancient and civil of purposes. With the holidays, its tied to ancient seasonal harvest festivals and a historical focus on social justice events, and so forth. With the tallit and its tzitzit, it is all about that cultural ethnic identity thing. But, in the case of tefillin, it is not that easy. Out of all three, it is the one that is most rooted in the religious aspect of being Jewish. For, there are no secular or historical reasons for its wear outside of this. Tefillin upon the hand and forehead have a specific ritual purpose, they are to be a reminder of the Torah mitzvot and how a supernatural being saved an enslaved ethnicity and turned them into a Jewish family-nation. The head tefillin represents Torah, the Teaching, and having focus upon this, and the hand tefillin represents Mitzvot, and the actions we do or don’t do to fulfill them in our lives. So, I get the aversion to wearing tefillin, when considering Torah civil-ritual law as non-obligatory, and the not wanting to give reverence to a Jewish religious ideology in the doing so. But, if we can liberate the tallit with tzitzit and the holidays from this religious mandate, why can’t we be creative enough to liberate the tefillin, as well? After all, it too can be a great ethnic identifier and connector to our ancient heritage, if liberated properly. The first step to this is to understand why religious Jews are obligated to the wearing of tefillin.

Not too long ago in the history of our people, a radical change occurred in Jewish expression and self-identification. A change from being a historically dispersed nation-hood of Jewish communities with myths about our origins to one of being a people of a religion, a world religion, with a history of our people based directly on the legends built into it. Meaning, our history as defined by these myths were now emphasized as our Jewish reality, and this gave rise to a new form of Jewish expression about ourselves known as religious fundamentalism. The Torah was now looked upon in its canonized form as our connection in continuity with our ancient past, with the view that there is literalism to be found in the now unchangeable text and all discrepancies can be explained as being purposefully there to allow evolution in the application of Jewish Torah law. This now deeply religious focus upon myth as history and laws as religious commands, created a directly religious purpose for our existence as Jewish people within this world as a whole, and led to the rise of religious Jewish communities based in tenants of faith and belief. Segregation of women and men for religious purity reasons and patriarchal-ism in its modern form as we understand it today became the emphasized norm within these communities, as evidenced with the continued existence of Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox communities and their way of life to this very day.

In this time of radical change in the definition of what it means to be Jewish, urged by a great liberation for recent history Jews that made it now possible for Jewish people to be once again, as it was in ancient BCE times, to be legal citizens of host nations, a more literal focus upon the myths of our people as the recorded actual history took root along with a more evolved modern religious eschatology to near replace the ancient nationalistic one. In the minds and teachings of modern religious Judaism, very different from the nationalistic Judaism of our past, the use of tefillin now had a specific purpose as an act of commitment, of demonstrated innate conviction, to the religious ideology of the Jewish communities employing its now daily use, and as a reminder of who we are as a religious community of people – as defined by religious Judaism’s support of seeing us through the mythologized history through emphasis on Oral Law and non-Torah/TaNaKh sources of myth written to elucidate modern Jewish religious laws and the Torah accounts of Jewish history. No longer was the wearing of tefillin the ritual of the priestly or rabbinical few but, rather, was now the religious mandate upon all male Jews, specific, as an act of religious submission to the will of Torah’s supernatural god, and to the radically expanded upon Torah laws as defined by the Talmud, and as an act of faith in the modern enlightened religious eschatology of a “world to come” and the messianic future for the Jewish people.

So, the discomfort about laying tefillin by secular humanist Jews is both understandable and justifiable. Tefillin use as it is today is directly connected to the modern religious ideology of the Jewish purpose, the religious mandate of Jews as a religious society within the world. But, tefillin wearing practices existed well before this religious mandate, as far back as into the BCE era. Additionally, it is not entirely clear that the use of religious artifacts was strictly the domain of just males. The archaeology shows that both women and men were educated in Torah and participated fully together in synagogue experience, and that prayer Judaism had not yet been invented. So, what was the purposeful use of tefillin back in those days? Historically, it was a ceremonial rite of wear that was worn by Torah scribes and those who observantly memorized and kept the oral traditions of Israeli national law and mythologized history, and neither Torah or archaeology shows it or says it to be a ritual act to be conducted daily by all of a specific gender, nor is there any specific ceremonial rite directly associated with the use of tefillin as a mandatory part of it. The first signs of a predecessor to tefillin use can be directly found by the headwear of Egyptian royalty, which happens to resemble the physical shape of Jewish tefillin.

So, from a historical standpoint, the use of tefillin and purpose for its use by secular humanistic Jews is fully up for grabs. Employing the ceremonial aspects and the historical connective-ness aspect, tefillin wearing can be meaningful for us in a variety of potential ways. The most notable is the use of it for our rite of ascension ceremony, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, when a young man or woman becomes a declared adult within our ethnic communities. Another possible meaningful purpose for its use could be the wearing of tefillin while engaged in group or individual Jewish historical studies. As an act of focusing the mind and body into this intended purposeful act, much like the way we wear tallit with tzittzit when coming together to celebrate our Jewishness and our Jewish ways. The benefits in the ritual wearing of tefillin, and in any ritual for this matter is derived, personally and communally, from the doing of it. Why else do we light candles on Shabbat and for every Jewish holiday? Why else do we put on a four cornered garment, rather than just dress up in modern clothing for every Jewish occasion? Why else do we employ any kind of Jewish specific ritual in the celebration of anything Jewish? The answer to this is the reason, if we are going to do it, for our wearing of tefillin, as well. We create the meaningful purpose, and it does not matter what religious Jews deem and insist upon as the purpose for tefillin wear.

Torah itself, where we first learn of the mitzvah of tefillin wearing,  does really tell us in the first place when we are to wear tefillin or how often. Only, that the reason for tefillin wear is ritually ceremonial, as an act to remind ourselves of who we are historically and that we are people who embrace and uphold an ethical lifestyle. Torah, as well, does not specifically tell us what tefillin should look like or be made out of. Rather, it only says that we should “remember” or remind ourselves in the morning and in the evening who we are as a cultural ethnicity – the “why” we exist, so that we can teach it to next generation. Jewish tradition is to reinvent ourselves as an ethnic culture and, because of this, it would not be inappropriate to reinvent the shape and purpose of tefillin for use as a secular Jew or community of Jews. For a religious Jew, the purpose of wearing tefillin is to obey the will of a God that cannot be directly known. For a secular humanistic Jew, the purpose of wearing tefillin can be ceremonial to remind us of our awareness to remember and teach all of Jewish history and our emphasized purpose of continuing the evolution and application of Jewish humanistic ways into the future.

Just as there are many different tallits available for the wearing, a secular version of tefillin does not have to be shaped or made in the same manner as the tefillin of religious Jews. It could be a flat square parchment box or a raised box in the shape of a four-sided triangle. Such peculiarities are subject to change historically in the first place, as the needs of the Jewish people change over time. I favor the flat square parchment box idea, personally, as one who likes the ritual of wearing tefillin (just not the present shape of them, or the religious reason for their wear). This is the image of the flat square secular tefillin in my mind: The head tefillin would fit more like a band, and the hand tefillin would wrap around just the hand. On the head tefillin would be the words “remember this” inscribed in Hebrew, and the hand tefillin would have the words “protectively-attend this” in Hebrew. Inside each parchment box would be a passage that expresses the Jewish commitments to remember the full Jewish history and to do as we say we will ethically do. Possible times and places and reasons for wear as secular Jews is really individually and communally up to us, but why not have tefillin wearing as an option for ancestral connection within secular Judaism? Non-obligatory, but there and an added rite to deepen our connection with our Jewish roots.

How cool would it be to visit the Western Wall in Israel and not reject a part of Jewish cultural life, the religious part, by refusing to engage in a cultural icon of our people? But, rather, join them in our stand on the humanistic way of approaching Jewish culture, by donning ever so briefly our secular tefillin right along with them? Does this seem far-fetched to imagine? I’ll remind us, then, of our philosophy to say what we mean, and mean what we say. Is this not our motto? Among secular humanistic Jews, there is no obligation to wear tallit with tzitzit, but it is an encouraged practice. So, the option to do so and finding historical and culture meaning in this is available, without a compromise to the non-theistic living of life. So, too, should be the embraced option of wearing tefillin, in such a non-obligatory but encouraged way. For, the beauty of incorporating any ritual behavior in one’s life and as a community is about one thing really – it is about focusing oneself upon what one believes and aspires to. It takes a personal act of innate conviction to do these things within your life. So, why not also represent it in a uniquely cultural ritualistic way, through the wearing of tefillin?