Out here on the fringes, we wear the fringe

This rather long-winded post is crossposted to Jewschool, my first ever piece for them.

When the early Reform Jews of Germany set out to begin their Jewish Reformation, one of the first “arcane rituals” they tossed out was the practice wearing talit. They didn’t just stop a talit katan during the day, but the ceased to wear a talit gadol when they prayed. Tzitzit, in essence, left their lives completely.

The symbolism here is not lost on me. Tzitzit are a meta-mitzvah. The Torah tells us, once in Bamidbar and once in D’varim, to affix fringes to our four-cornered garments. The reason? We should see these fringes and be reminded of all of the other mitzvot that we must follow. And so, as the Reform Jews began their trek into the world of autonomy, abandoning mitzvot left and right, they saw fit to discard the most mitzvah-y of all mitzvot, the mitvah that reminds of all the other mitzvot.

I, however, wear tzitzit. And I am a Reform Jew.

I run, these days, in two Jewish circles. On the one hand, I write for RJ.org, the official blog of the Reform movement and I’ve spent the last two summers and will spend the next one working at a Reform summer camp. On the other hand, I run in the pluralist, trans-, multi-, post- and non-denominational Jewish, working for LimmudNY and exploring groups such as my usual prayer circle, the non-denominational Chavurat Lamdeinu and the Upper West Side’s Kol Zimrah.

And in both of these circles, I see tzitzit in increasingly shocking numbers.

David Singer, a blogger and friend of mine, once incite a whole slew of participants at a Reform summer camp to make their own tzitzit, charging them with the responsibility of making choices as Reform Jews, even if the choices aren’t the most popular choices within the movement. A few months later, I was in Israel and donned my first talit katan. I haven’t stopped since. A few months after that, I was a participant of NFTY’s nation biennial convention. There, I counted, amongst over a thousand Reform high school students, no less than fifteen wearing tzitzit. Two of them were girls. At that convention, NFTY elected its first tzitzit-wearing president.

And in the non-denominational world, tzitzit seem to have caught on as well. In the halachically liberal worlds of Reform and non-denominational Judaism, choices are made all the time. We must confront the fact that we have decided to find ourselves bound by only some of the mitzvot. That fact is one of the central struggles of my life.

Which brings us to the reasons I’ve been wearing tzitzit every day for nearly two and a half years. The first brings us full circle to the idea of tzitzit as the meta-mitzvah. I once declared that tzitzit are my anti-asshole fringes. I can be a mean person. I often say things without considering how they will impact the people around me. To that end, I think that on my best days, tzitzit keep the mitzvot about how to construct interpersonal relationships in the front of my mind. On my most thoughtful days, tzitzit encourage me to confront the challenging fact that I see myself as partially bound by mitzvot and to continue considering what that means and what its implications are.

On my most provocative, angry days, I revel in the act of putting on a garment that is a giant thumbed nose in the face of the Reform establishment that I’m still struggling to have a relationship with. I like being asked about my tzitzit, which happens to me daily, no matter where I go or who I’m around. I like giving liberal Jews something chew on. Many have never considered the idea that liberal Jews might wear tzitzit at all.

And on my worst days I worry that I’m wearing them only to get a rise out of people or only to let people know that I’m Jewish, reasons I see as superficial and false to the very notion of tzitzit.
I have been fascinated to bear witness to the slow rise in wearing tzitzit that both the Reform and non-denominational worlds have experienced in recent years.

But I’ll take my love affair with the fringe a step further: This obsession with kipot has got to end. The idea that keeping your head covered is universal amongst Jews and a normative sign of respect toward God is peculiar to European Jewry. Syrian, African, and even the Israeli communities late antiquity did not see keeping the head covered as normative. The Talmud itself commends the practice as an outward sign of piety, but does not require the practice.

Conversely, tzitzit are universal amongst Jews. All Jewish communities saw tzitzit as normative from antiquity and all understood and continue to understand their meaning in the same way. While kipot are some nebulous sign of respect for God, tzitzit remind us to follow God’s law and remind us of our connection to our desert-wandering ancestors who first donned them.

13 Responses to Out here on the fringes, we wear the fringe

  1. Rich January 30, 2009 at 6:17 pm #

    In some ways tzitzit are subtler than Kipot. Kipah screams “Jewish like a Jewish Jewy Jew,” while tzitzit require a bit of inside knowledge to parse correctly.

    If I am at a morning service without a Kippah, I think . . . “ah well, its custom.”

    If I am without a tallit, however, I squirm and fuss, until I can borrow one from the Rabbis’ green room.

    And then there’s the other matter. My understanding is that one should wear a tallit for shacharit, for a Torah service, and for leading service. I have had arguments with even the most ritually inclined of my rabbis because when we read Torah in the evening, he holds that it is not custom to wear it in the evening, and I hold that it should be worn for a Torah service, regardless of time of day.

  2. davidamwilensky January 30, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    If being a shacharit without a kipah causes you only to thinl “ah well, it’s custom,” not having one in front of the Torah at night should not cause you to squirm and fuss. After all, the only reason you wear talit at the Torah is because Torah is read in the morning. What should make you squirm and fuss is reading Torah at night!

  3. rtol88 January 31, 2009 at 4:32 am #

    David I always thought you were supposed to wear a tallit If you were reading torah or doing an aliyah. Correct me if I’m wrong here. Also in terms of morning or evening torah reading I always got the vibe that maariv was a minyan optional service where as in shacharit you need to make more major changes to liturgy to make shacharit a minyan optional service. My take on this is that this makes it seem like shacharit is the more for lack of a better word anatomically prepared service in term of having a minyan ready for the torah service. note we are only talking purely about that liturgical aspect of it. I can’t really think of a better explanation then that.

  4. davidamwilensky January 31, 2009 at 8:14 am #

    Rebecca, I should rescind what I said about wearing a talit up to the Torah. I actually don’t know if that’s a legal issue, though I would guess that it’s minhag.

    As for minyanim, you should always try to have a minyan. On a Torah reading day, you may lose more in the morning by not having a minyan, but that doesn’t make it any less important to have a minyan for ma’ariv or for a non-Torah reading shacharit.

  5. Batya August 2, 2009 at 2:11 pm #

    I’m curious– what’s your opinion on reform women wearing tzitzit in daily life?

  6. David A.M. Wilensky August 3, 2009 at 6:56 am #

    I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t wear them. I know a few who do, but it’s certainly still a jarring sight even for me, when I see a woman wearing them. I’d like it to be less jarring, though. I’d like to see many women doing it. Even in Orthodox communities, you have many women who pray three times a day, though they’re not obligated to. Why shouldn’t they wear tzitzit too?

  7. feygele August 5, 2009 at 5:49 am #

    If our server crash hadn’t eaten them, you’d see posts form last August that included a great discussion about all the women who wear tzitzis, and how visible they are, at the NHC Summer Institute. Certainly not everyone considers the sight jarring – I don’t and most in this community don’t.

  8. David A.M. Wilensky August 5, 2009 at 6:01 am #

    well feygele, given my recent post here and at Jewschool and given the fact that NHCSI is currently going on, maybe now’s the time to have that conversation again.

  9. JazzyJ August 13, 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    I am a liberal Jewish women who has started the process of converting to orthodoxy I love seeing men (I have never seen a women) wearing tzitzit. what greater mitzvah than wearing tzitzit which reminds you of all the mitzvot. I have just brought my own tzitzit im 22years old but I have not strated to wear them showing yet. What a shame that I feel i can’t fully express myself but i hope that more young girls and women will start to question why we dont join in with this amazing mitzvah and that hopefully the men will encourage us to do so.

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