As the fringe gets longer, the conversation gets wider

Crossposted to Jewschool

Tzitzit.

They’ve become a recurring thread in my life. I put them on three years ago and have missed only a few days since. I keep wearing them, talking about them, blogging about them, thinking about them. I just did a search of my blog for “tzitzit.” It’s a sizable percentage of posts that contain the word. My first post for Jewschool was even about tzitzit.

Now, finally, it seems I’ve become a progressive evangelist for them.

Here at the URJ and NFTY‘s Kutz Camp, I taught five Reform high school students about tzitzit an hour a day for five days. Two girls, three boys. One girl had spent part of her life in a yeshiva and one boy was from South Carolina or something like that.

The catch was that I required them to wear one of my fifteen or so sets of tzitzit for the five days of the elective. Four of them took me up on that requirement, the one who didn’t being the girl form the yeshiva. She told me it just wasn’t right for a girl to do that. More on that later. The other four all placed an order for their own tzitzit from my preferred online tzitzit dealer at the end of the week and kept wearing mine until theirs arrived.

Each day we debriefed. The four who wore the tzitzit each day all faced comments from their fellow Kutz participants ranging from confused to encouraging to negative. Some even called their parents to tell them about it. One mother wasn’t surprised, that mother being the most reminiscent of mine when I told her. One parent asserted confidently that it was a phase and not to buy more than one. Another seemed indifferent.

We also studied some texts. We looked at some midrash, some Torah, and some commentaries, cheif amongst them Rashi and Nehama Leibowtiz. I even finally found a use for the WRJ Torah Commentary, which has a great discussion of the sociological underpinnings of tzitzit.

Before the camp session was over, four or so more kids had approached me about trying it out.

And then, at this post from earlier this year, a comment appeared: “I’m curious– what’s your opinion on reform women wearing tzitzit in daily life?”

Well, why shouldn’t they? I know a few who do, but it’s even rarer than progressive men doing so. I can count the women and girls I know doing it on one hand.

But in the final assessment, I don’t think wearing tzitzit is good or bad, really. I don’t even think that women doing it is good or bad. I just want to broaden the conversation about it. And now, some girl who used to go to a yeshiva is going home with the tools to talk about it. And three guys and one girl are going back to mainstream Reform congregations acorss America, where their mere tzitzit-wearing presence will certainly start a conversation.

Or at least they’ll earn themselves a few suspicious glances.

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27 Responses to As the fringe gets longer, the conversation gets wider

  1. Larry Kaufman August 4, 2009 at 12:27 pm #

    In my very egalitarian kahal, one sixtyish woman, Israeli by birth, participates fully, but will not wear a talit , because, she explains, she can feel her grandfather’s disapproval. When she said this, I was reminded of the special liturgy for a pre-Pesach Sisterhood Shabbat many years ago, which included a prayer, “Teach us not to be our own Pharaohs.” Your story demonstrates that you can take the girl out of the yeshiva, but you can’t take the yeshiva out of the girl.

    What’s missing from your post is the WHY of the others’ decisions to wear the tzitzit (you’ve explained yours in the past).

    Meanwhile I’ll take a look at the discussion in the Women’s Commentary..

    • David A.M. Wilensky August 4, 2009 at 3:03 pm #

      Good point. I guess they do it (thought I can’t be sure) for the same reasons I do. They wanna be reminded of whatever their obligations may be and they want to feel connected.

      • Rebecca Tolman August 4, 2009 at 4:23 pm #

        David ditto on wearing tzitzit because we ant to feel connection. I wear/wore them to feel connected to both our tradition and am yisrael as a whole and as more of an identifier ie to say that I’m proudly putting my self out there as a Jew to the world and actively taking my place as a member of the jewish people

      • Yosef Rabin August 6, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

        I spoke today with Rabbi Michael Balinsky of Chicago Board of Rabbis who referred me to this blog.

        This is part of the letter that I wrote to Rabbi Balinksy.

        Please feel free to contact me on this issue and share your thoughts.
        613yos@gmail.com

        Yosef Rabin

        A relationship is only as strong as the amount of time and effort put in and Judaism is no acceptation.We have to take Judaism outside the synagogue and infuse it into our everyday lives and this is exactly what tzitzit symbolize. By taking this simple four cornered garment and adding strings to them and I am tying myself to God, our nations past, present and future. We are never detached from the source, we are always engaged with our Judaism and the bond grows ever stronger. Jews worldwide are already comfortable with the concept of a Tallit Gadol, so the next step is to introduce to them the Tallit Katan.

        We know that assimilation has hit Jewish males far harder than Jewish females. I think that by encouraging men (although not the exclusion of women) to take on this mitzvah of tzitzit, you will be giving them something that they feel is there own. A little something, which makes them unique. It is human nature to want to feel unique and Jewish males need this more than ever. In addition so many Jewish females are looking to marry Jews, but the males are just not interested anymore. There have been many articles written in pervious years that have highlighted this point. By males wearing the tzitzit on a regular bases, this will help them connect to Judaism and hopefully bring them to a point where they will want to marry Jews. In addition it will also act as an indicator to Jewish women that the guy might be interested in marrying Jewish. So as we say, one mitzvah leads to another.

        I decided to do a trial run in Chicago with this project to see how unobservant Jews would react to it. About a month ago I raised a few dollars and bought about 30 tzitzit and then went out with a friend to see if non-observant Jews would be receptive or not. I have to say we were pleasantly surprised. In about an hour we distributed about 15 tzitzit outside of the Liberman Nursing Home. People did not only take them, but wore them out and drove away with the tzitzit still on. We then traveled to the Holocaust Museum where we gave out another 10 or so and again people were happy to receive them. For many it was there first time ever putting on the Talit Katan.

  2. Aaron August 4, 2009 at 2:02 pm #

    I, too, wear a tzitzis for many of the reasons you state. My question for you: do you wear yours with the fringes out? For the most part, I leave mine in, especially at work, but increasingly at home I gather them at my sides and let them hang out.

    Keep up the blogging–it’s quite enjoyable!

    • David A.M. Wilensky August 4, 2009 at 3:04 pm #

      Always out. Never in. If I can’t see them, they aren’t working.

      • Aaron August 5, 2009 at 8:05 am #

        Often, when I wear them tucked in, the knots fall under my pockets, so when I put my hands in my pockets I can feel them (no jokes, please. Ok, a few jokes. =D ). Does the job, perhaps not to the letter of the mitzvah, but certainly in spirit!

  3. friend August 6, 2009 at 3:48 pm #

    You have forgotten the main reason we (as the Jewish people) wear fringes- we are commanded to. Just like kashrut and many other things, by wearing tzitzit we are fulfilling the mitzvah. I hope that when you taught the class at Kutz you did not leave this out of the discussion. While wearing tzitzit might make you feel good, you must not forget that you are also fulfilling a commandment from G-d and that should be reason enough.

    • Larry Kaufman August 6, 2009 at 4:20 pm #

      I resonated to friend’s comment, because it echoes a point I discussed last year on the Reform Judaism blog — http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2008/06/why-talitot.html

      Do we follow mitzvot because they’re relevant, or satisfying, or simply because they are there?

      In any event, this has been an interesting thread — pun intended.

    • David A.M. Wilensky August 7, 2009 at 7:30 am #

      We certainly discussed that! Especially when examining the traditional sources that we studied together.

      Unfortunately, for me and for the Reform kids I was teaching, that’s not enough. We begin, friend, from what I assume is a radically different starting point than you do.

  4. Batya August 10, 2009 at 7:43 am #

    Random question here– What do you think about colored tzitzit? I’m a woman in the process of conversion and once my conversion is offical I plan on wearing tzitzit. I know so people are upset about the whole “wearing a man’s garment” thing and I found a website that sells beautiful women’s tzitzit with pink and purple and light yellow threads, which make them stand out as for a woman. What’s your opinion on that?

  5. David A.M. Wilensky August 10, 2009 at 9:48 am #

    As for it being a man’s garment, check out the comment thread on the version of this post I put up at Jewschool (http://jewschool.com/2009/08/04/17194/as-the-fringe-gets-longer-the-conversation-gets-wider/#comments). There’s a robust discussion about tzitzit and gender there with some great links you might be interested in, Batya.

    I don’t really care about the color. In fact, a friend who began wearing tzitzit at roughly the same time I did wears multi-colored ones and he loves them. I think it’s a little odd-looking, but there’s nothing wrong with it. I like it being recognizable, I suppose, with plain white.

    I don’t really care one way or the other about techelet either.

  6. Gabi August 10, 2009 at 10:03 am #

    David,
    yeah, you hit it right on for why I started wearing them. my sister has now determined that we are having a jew battle at my house to see who is most religious. I have been asked to talk to my assistant principal about wearing them and he was understanding, but also concerned. Out of curiosity, do you ever feel bad for doing things on sabbath while wearing your tzitzit or that you are giving jews a bad image by going out on shabbat? This is one of the topics that my principal brought up with me.

    Batya, I think the colored ones are really cool. i really like the rainbow one we found during our class, they are more expensive though.

  7. David A.M. Wilensky August 10, 2009 at 12:37 pm #

    Gabi, it’s not an all-or-nothing game as the most Orthodox amongst us would have us believe. Everyone resides somewhere on a spectrum of observance and if your place on the spectrum includes going out for a leisurely meal on Shabat and wearing tzitzit while you do it, fine.

    But if you feel bad about it or if it feels incongruous to you, that’s definitely something real to think about.

    • Yosef Rabin August 10, 2009 at 1:17 pm #

      The same Torah that commands us to wear tzitzit also commands us not to drive on shabbat., see Shemot 35,3 “You shall not make a fire throughout your inhabitations on the Shabbat Day”. If a person messes up and drives on Shabbat he can always repent, but that is a far cry from saying I can pick and choose without consequenc.

      Any thoughts?

      • David A.M. Wilensky August 10, 2009 at 7:07 pm #

        As soon as you accept, as I and Gabi do, that Torah is not miSinai (at least in part) and has been written, edited, or contributed to in whole or in part by regular old human beings, we’ve got problems.

        This is what I really truly believe: that the Torah is the grand narrative, but not history of my people and my religion. It contains both great words of wisdom and life-enhancing ritual acts as well as total anachronisms. I even believe that one Jew’s anachronism is another Jew’s beautiful mitzvah and vice versa.

        So once you think that, as Reform Jews often do, what you’re saying, Yosef, doesn’t fly. If you believe it, you believe it. And if you don’t, you don’t.

  8. Yosef Rabin August 10, 2009 at 7:49 pm #

    You are right that is the great insurmountable divide between Reform and traditional (orthodox) we understand the entire Torah to be the word of Hashem. Every word, letter and syllable has meaning and therefore I cannot choose what I want to do. If millions of our ancestors claim that they heard the word of God, that there was indeed a mass revelation, that is how define an historical event. Why does no other religion make a claim as this, its a great story, God gathered a million or a billion people spoke to them, so it must be true!

    The other religions cannot claim such a thing happened, because it did not happen to them, they could not uphold such a great lie! Thats why Christianity as we know it, started with a private revelation on the road to Damascus and Islam began with an accent on a Donkey. That is the one up the Muslims have over the christians, at least they have a donkey as a witness to their founding moment, whereas the Christians have hearsay!

    We on the other-hand know via the testimony of all the founders of our nation 600,000 males between 2-60, plus all the females, elderly and children you have several million at least, heard the word of G-d directly! We have their testimony, which has been passed down every year, in every generation on Seder night (at least).

    Its interesting that the yemenite Jews who were exiled over 2500 years ago towards the end of the first temple and were pretty much not heard from till the modern area, have the exact same Torah minus one letter in parhat Noach.

    While yes it is a problem, can you imagine how awesome that is that we al have the same version of events Har Sinai included! Torah M’Sinai is not a belief it is an historical event, which had incredible spiritual and national implications for the Jewish Nation and continues to define it until this very day.

  9. David A.M. Wilensky August 11, 2009 at 7:53 am #

    Torah miSinai is not a historical event and your proof doesn’t make sense.

    Your proof is that lots of people who were there saw it happen. Except that they’re all dead and I can’t ask any of them about what happened. So I’m not quite sure how that proof works out.

    • Yosef Rabin August 11, 2009 at 12:13 pm #

      How do we known than that anything happened? Historical events are based of the testimony of people and the faithful recording of that event, which is then passed down to future generations.

      • David A.M. Wilensky August 12, 2009 at 7:15 am #

        Yeah, but we generally have some other kind of evidence to back it up. Which is severely lacking in this case.

        In any case, I’m pretty convinced that I’m not gonna convince you of anything and I hope you know that you’re not gonna convince me of anything either.

  10. Gabi August 13, 2009 at 2:15 pm #

    Thanks David! That helps me alot. It wasn’t that it made me feel guilty, more that i was curious because it was brought to my attention and I put some thought into it and was wondering your opinion on the fact. I am having a great time wearing my tzitzit. They have helped me not to do/say so many things. I really miss our daily meetings. They were so much fun!

    • David A.M. Wilensky August 13, 2009 at 7:25 pm #

      That’s all really good to hear, Gabi. Keep in touch.

  11. Yosef Rabin August 14, 2009 at 12:49 am #

    David,
    Sadly you are right. There is nothing really left to talk about, you are talking about nice ideas, that are at best, “divinely inspired”. I am talking about how to uphold the word of God, which we have been bound to for over 3,000 years. Honestly I would love to continue the discussion but I do not see how this is possible its almost like we have two separate religions. One by Godly command and one by the thoughts of man.

    Yosef

    • David A.M. Wilensky August 14, 2009 at 8:25 am #

      And yet, we’re still both committed Jews. I relish in the differences.

  12. Hinneni August 22, 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    I’m going to agree, believe it or not, with Yosef, that we almost have two religions, one divinely inspired and one the product of men.

    The marvel of Torah is that we can bring new understandings to its message, holding it sacred by keeping it relevant even as time and circumstances change. Authentic Judaism is governed by halacha, from the verb to walk, to move forward. In most of the world, that authentic Judaism carries its halachic authority in its name, Progressive, a more accurate descriptor of who we are today than the more historical but less precise Reform.

    That other approach to Judaism was created by men who were fearful of progress, who stopped the clock to focus on ritual trivia as essence rather than as embellishment, who met their release from enforced ghettoes by building and enforcing their own. Their usual name, Orthodox, is built on the Greek word for straight. Yosef, more power to you as you walk straight; the path that God created, though, twists and turns.

    So, for those who would divide the varying approaches to Judaism into separate religions, and who would claim that only one can be authentic — it may not be the one Yosef thinks it is.

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