Vegetarian Tefillin & Finding Humility

September 12, 2014
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On a sunny, spring afternoon in Israel, my heart was beating faster than usual as I entered the dusty Judaica shop on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street. I stepped up to the counter and asked to purchase a new set of tefillin. It felt like I was doing something so wrong, and yet so right. Why? How could fulfilling a mitzvah as important as wearing tefillin feel wrong?

I am a vegetarian. I do my best to keep away from doing anything that causes harm to animals, including the purchasing of products made from animals. Certainly, for me, killing an animal and turning its skin into long, polished leather straps qualifies as causing harm. And so I entered the shop with much trepidation, my body physically responding to the crisis of conscience brewing within me.

But while a significant part of me dreaded the fact that an animal would need to have died to meet my spiritual needs, I was also excited at the prospect of new spiritual opportunities that would open to me with wearing tefillin. Why the sudden spiritual dilemma?

Most Jews don’t have this problem, since most aren’t vegetarians, and most don’t wear tefillin (if recent demographic studies are accurate). As most progressive Jews don’t attend weekday shacharit services, the opportunity simply never presents itself. But many do wear tallitot when praying at shul on Shabbat. At some point, soon after I began attending daily shacharit services, I became aware of this potential conflict in my life: as someone who has always worn a tallit when I pray, isn’t it hypocritical to not also wear tefillin? With the instructions appearing side-by-side in our liturgy, wouldn’t reciting shema v’ahavta be somewhat contradictory? What was I going to do if I decided that I was living a life of theological conflict, and needed to reconcile this problem?

Certainly, I’m not the first Jewish vegetarian to deal with this problem (see here and here and here and here and here). Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. Is this really a matter of great theological significance? Perhaps God understands that some people aren’t able to bind His mitzvot on our arms and between our eyes (See Exodus 13:9, 16 and Deuteronomy 6:8 & 11:18). Surely God can appreciate my desire to act with compassion to all creatures? While Judaism is replete with instances where the death of animals is tolerated and encouraged (consider the litany of templar animal sacrifices), within our tradition there also exists a strong thrust towards the protection of unnecessary harm or pain to all living creatures. The prevention of pain to animals is a concept introduced in the Talmud, known as tza’ar ba’alei chayim (BT Bava Metzia 32b).

I told myself this time and time again as I davened shacharit sans tefillin. And yet, each time I uttered the words in the shema, “bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes,” raising my hand to touch the absent spaces on my arm and between my eyes where the tefillin should have been, I felt like I was cheating.

The question kept haunting me: do I wear tefillin and compromise my belief in the sanctity of all life and the prevention of pain to animals? Or do I not wear tefillin and compromise my belief in God’s commandments?

In my search to live a life of Jewish spiritual integrity, I needed to question how I could reconcile choosing one item of ritual garb but not the other. And in my search to live a life of human integrity, I needed to question how to reconcile my desire to wear an object made from leather with my desire not to be responsible for the death of an animal.

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When I was ten, my mother – who was a vegetarian at the time – was told by her doctors that she wasn’t meeting her nutritional requirements, and needed to start eating meat again. I remember watching tears stream down her cheek as she struggled with eating a piece of chicken for the first time post-vegetarianism. In that moment in Jerusalem when I grasped the small, leather boxes in my hands, this image of my mother entered my mind. Was I compromising my values? Was I going to be tormented every time I wrapped these leather straps around my body?

I knew that this dilemma needed to be resolved one way or another. Today, I’m happy to say that I’ve arrived at a solution that appears to be working. Here was my thought process:

No matter my ultimate decision, I assumed it was going to involve compromising some element my integrity. Either it would be my values on animal ethics, or my values of Jewish responsibility. Faced with that prospect, I came to understand that this dilemma was less about an entire personal moral code being rejected, and more of a singular decision regarding which values I was ultimately going to prioritize.

I decided that not wearing tefillin entailed a regular violation of my beliefs – their absence was something I had come to feel and realize on a daily basis – while the act of purchasing tefillin was a one-time compromise; it wasn’t as if I was indulging in barbecue chicken every day. I have come to realize that making a decision that acknowledges and honors this dissonance is itself an act of moral fortitude, rather than a compromise to my own personal integrity.

To a degree, wearing tefillin (or the act of purchasing a set) is indeed a “violation” of my belief in not causing pain to animals. Yet – as with most things which we make compromises for – it is in service of a greater purpose. The Torah teaches that the purpose of tefillin is to remind us of the Exodus from Egypt, while Maimonides writes that one who wears tefillin will be “modest and God fearing, and will not be attracted by idle talk. He will have no evil thoughts, but will devote all his thoughts to truth and righteousness.” (Mishneh Torah on Tefillin, Mezuzah and Torah, Ch. 5-6)

To be sure, when I look down at the leather straps around my left arm each morning, I am not only reminded of God’s redemptive mercy and of my own moral obligations, but am acutely aware that my wearing of tefillin is an an act of compromise that I make arising from my soaring commitment to God and Jewish living. Were I only to choose those elements of Jewish tradition that align perfectly with my modern, Western, liberal values, I would ultimately be supplanting Judaism with those values. Thankfully, most of the time, my Jewish values line up rather comfortably with my liberal values. But not always. In those moments of spiritual dissonance, I have found the opportunity for reflection and spiritual realignment. Such moments need not be absolute moral dilemmas, but instead have the power to radically direct our lives towards goodness.

I find great satisfaction in the humbling power of doing something far outside of my own comfort zone for the sake of my Jewish observance. Much like we make compromises for our life partners – often doing things which we would rather not do – the act of wearing tefillin for me is a compromise which I do for the sake of my commitment to God and Torah.

On a larger scale, my wearing of tefillin has come to represent a broader approach to progressive Jewish life, in which we do not reject that which is seemingly incompatible with contemporary, liberal values, but instead embrace the dissonance and search for opportunities to find make new meaning in our lives. Honoring this complexity of life is a process which has the power to elevate personal connections to Jewish life in deep and strong ways.

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Jesse Paikin Jesse Paikin is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Prior to his rabbinical studies, he worked at the Union for Reform Judaism as coordinator of Israel Programs for high school and college students. He has also received certification from HUC-JIR in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults. A displaced Canadian who thrives on living in other countries, Jesse is originally from Toronto, and has lived in Montreal, Jerusalem, and New York City. Jesse has worked as a Jewish Educator in a variety of settings, including NFTY in Israel; Kutz: NFTY’s Campus for Reform Jewish Teens; Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, and Temple Kol Ami of Thornhill, Ontario. He is currently an Educator and Senior Youth Group Advisor at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. Among other things, Jesse is a voracious music listener, a vegetarian pretending to be a vegan, and a lover of the hidden fedex arrow. He blogs regularly at jessepaikin.wordpress.com, and can be found on twitter at @jessepaikin.

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