The Kedusha in Discomfort

By Maia Cattan

Where do I find kedusha, holiness, in the world? I’ve found it in personal prayer, in a beautiful view, in song, around a campfire, on a run in the park, in looking around a Shabbat dinner table – I’ve found it in lots of unexpected places. How do you teach others about finding kedusha? Well, for many the obvious place to go is to Jewish ritual practice, where often kedusha is found. For many that is because kedusha is tied to halakha, Jewish law, or to a sefer Torah, a Torah scroll, or to a mikvah, ritual bath, or to tefillin, phylacteries.

This semester as we explored our personal and communal connections to kedusha we had the experience of making our own tefiilin. Perhaps, this was a way to connect us to a ritual that most of us have not had experience with. Maybe, it was a way to show us the process and intentionality of creating a holy object. It could be, that this was a way to tangibly explain what kedusha looks like. But, for me, instead of kedusha I found a deep sense of discomfort.

During the tefillin making process we learned that there are a lot of rules, that as Rabbi Greenberg said, are “halakhah l’Moshe mi Sinai” or laws given to Moses at Sinai. These ten rules relate to the materials, the order, the colors etc. of the tefillin. We also learned that in order for the tefillin to be considered kosher those things that were part of the ten halakhot have to be done by halakha following, Jewish, men.

I am not an Orthodox Jew and most of the steps in making tefillin require one to follow halakha in order for the tefillin to be considered kosher. I am a woman and halakha does not require nor encourage me to make or wear tefillin. I am even a vegetarian and all the materials involved were made of animal product. So, with every step I felt further and further away from my previous understanding and experiences of kedusha. But, nonetheless, I made my tefillin, followed every step, engaged in conversation with those around me about the process, and deeply questioned my sense of discomfort.

A week later our tefillin were done and the time came to try them on. Rabbi Greenberg made an announcement that those who wanted to could put them on, and those who were uncomfortable “especially the women” did not have to. I was taken aback. His announcement made me realize I was probably not the only person in the room who felt uncomfortable. His announcement also made me realize that partly the reason for my discomfort was the way in which tefillin were framed as a holy object, but not one that was for me. As a Jewish woman, tefillin were never a part of my Jewish practice. They were a very important, very holy, and apparently a very clear representation of kedusha. And, I, as an engaged Jewish individual had never engaged with this ritual or this object. Instinctively because of frustration perhaps with myself, my education, my experiences, or the process as a whole, I decided I was putting the tefillin on.

Wow. I have never been more uncomfortable. If I thought making the tefillin was pushing my boundaries, putting them on threw me way past any boundary and overwhelmed me with a sense of distance.

Seconds later, Rabbi Greenberg began to lead everyone in the shema and v’ahavta. I was immediately thrown back to one of my earliest memories – a memory I didn’t even know I had.  I used to lie in bed and my dad would come in and remind me to say the shema and veahavta. Of course, when I was really little he would help me remember all the words and teach me new parts I didn’t yet know. I said these words every night for many years of my life. These words became a natural part of my daily routine – I could say them in my sleep.

These words that I have known my entire life were inside these tefillin and were being said out loud in this moment. Although these words were my words, in this moment I felt like I was learning them for the first time. No matter how uncomfortable, how distant, how disconnected I felt from the tefillin and from the experience of making them in this moment I felt kedusha. From this experience I have learned that finding kedusha requires an embrace rather than a rejection of moments, practices, rituals that might seem foreign or not our own. Out all of the places in the world, all the experiences I’ve had, in which I have found kedusha I would have never guessed the kedusha I could find in this moment of discomfort.


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