The Non-Slip Tallit
I was in Teaneck, New Jersey over Thanksgiving with my family. And, on Shabbat morning, when I was walking to shul with my nephew Adi, he told me about a new invention called ‘the non-slip tallit.’
A traditional tallit is like a huge blanket which covers your whole body. To make it wearable, most people fold it over in a standard way (like this). The problem is that unless you stand perfectly still, the tallit is going to slip during the service.
And, so every so often you have to re-fold the tallit over your shoulder (like this—demonstrate). And, sometimes that can get annoying, especially if it happens a lot during the service. So, my nephew Adi told me that a friend of his invented a non-slip tallit. There is something about the fabric/the design that causes the tallit to stay in place once you’ve folded it for the first time.
So, my response was—I can see the advantage of that. But, I don’t want a non-slip tallit, for two reasons. First of all, I Iike refolding my tallit. It’s kind of like the baseball player who gets up in the batter’s box, and paws at the dirt with his feet, and moves his bat around. When you see a batter do that, you know he’s played the game before. It’s the same with a tallit.
But, there is an even more important reason I don’t want a non-slip tallit. A tallit shouldn’t be perfect. The tallit is a symbol of healing. And, you can’t have healing unless you acknowledge brokenness.
And, we see that brokenness is incorporated within the tallit. There is a moment in the service that we bring together the four corners of the tallit, which represent the four corners of the earth. And, we say, ‘va’haveinu l’shalom mei’arba kanfot ha’aretz/bring us together in peace from the four corners of the earth. That implies that we’re not currently at peace. It takes a conscious action of movement to repair the brokenness of the world.
The tallit is not meant to stand still. We don’t live in a non-slip world. We slip. All of us do. And, the tallit gives us the opportunity to recover. The tallit encompases the idea that when we fail, there is still hope that we can repair ourselves and our world.
That’s a central message in our Tradition. There are no non-slip people in the Bible. The Bible presents us with very real people. They slip plenty, and they slip badly. But, there is heroism in their struggle to overcome their limitations. And, that gives us hope.
Today’s parasha begins a story of what a psychologist friend of mine called a multi-generational conflict. And, the source of the problem is also the source of the solution: love. The Torah says Rebecca gave birth to twins, Esav and Yaakov. Yizchak ahav et Esav. Isaac loved Esau. V’Rivka ohevet et Yaakov. Rebecca loved Jacob. My first reaction to this story for so many years is—what’s wrong with these parents? How could they be so foolish as to prefer one child over the other?
But, we could flip it. Maybe what the Torah is telling us is to work backwards from the hatred that ensued in this family. At the root of all this family ugliness was ironically something very beautiful: love. Within this family, this realization becomes the basis of finding common ground. As mature adults, Jacob and Esau come to realize that they share the love of their parents.
Joseph and his brothers are able to reconcile, because they, too, find that they share a common love. Judah is the brother who proposed selling Joseph. Later, he loses two children of his own. It changes him. Instead of seeing himself as the wounded child and his father as the wounder, he empathizes with Jacob’s loss of Joseph. He sees himself and his father as having this loss in common. And, that’s why Judah fights so hard to rescue Benjamin. In trying to save his father from yet another loss, for the first time he is seeing himself in his father. And, the question for us is: can we learn to see each other that way too?
Like many other families throughout America, I was nervous about Thanksgiving. I voted for Hillary. And, many members of my extended family voted for Trump. Janine and I made a pact before we left for Teaneck. No talking about the election. Don’t bring it up. And, if someone brings it up, quickly change the subject.
That was the conventional wisdom around America. The family should be a refuge from politics. Many people feel that way about the synagogue, too. But, I want to challenge that view based on what happened in my own family over Thanksgiving.
Nobody in the family opened any conversation with: ‘what did you think of the election?’ And, that was really wise. But, issues related to the election kept coming up, and I was surprised by what was said.
For example, my nephew Beni is a young Orthodox rabbi in Teaneck. There is a mosque in his neighborhood. Beni told us, at first, he was resentful of the Muslims moving into his neighborhood. And, then, he said, “I realized that’s exactly how people reacted to us in America when we first came here.”
Now for a liberal Jew in Bellevue to make that statement is not surprising. But, for an Orthodox rabbi in Teaneck to say that, that is a very big deal. Throughout the weekend, I was surprised again and again, by how much diversity of opinion there was in my family. There was much more openness than I had ever imagined. And, I wouldn’t have known if we had avoided talking about it.
My nephew Adi, who is an Orthodox rabbi in Israel, said that women rabbis in the modern Orthodox world is going to become the norm, and it’s as it should be. I was amazed to hear him say that. My nephew Beni told me that the most recent convention of the Rabbinical Council of America, the mainstream organization of Orthodox Rabbis—their convention was all about LGBQT—the whole convention, with panel discussions including psychologists who chastised the rabbinate for not being more open. I was stunned by this. And again, how would I have known? Most of the time, I have no contact with this community.
I should have known, because I talk to Muslims. The last time we met, one of our group asked our Muslim friends if there were anything in their tradition they’d like to change because of their modern views. Farida spoke up. Farida is a woman of very strong opinions. She and I disagree passionately on Israel. And, she is an ardent defender of Islam.
And, Farida wears a hijab, not the obvious uniform of a feminist. So, it surprised me to hear Farida say she would like to see the women pray side by side with the men instead of in back of them. She said she is distracted by looking at the men in front of her with their shirts hanging out. If they were to the side, she wouldn’t see them.
She made us all laugh. And, this was one of many examples that evening when I was surprised by how much willingness to question Tradition there was within the Muslim group. We are not the same. But, we had more in common with than we realized—just as I had more in common with the members of my family than I had realized. And, that was delightfully refreshing.
Now that we’ve all calmed down a bit since the election, the time has come to ask: what are we going to do? I’d suggest two paths. First, whatever our political beliefs, let this election be a wakeup call to fight passionately for the things we believe in. And, second, and perhaps even more importantly, what are we going to do to change the nature of the conversation we have been having in America and within the Jewish community?
It will not change by itself. I would start by inviting everyone to join our Muslim-Jewish dialogue that is already in its fifth year. But, we should not end there. It would be ironic if we can have a civil discussion with Muslims, but not with our fellow Jews, or between Democrats and Republicans.
I have had more than one person say to me ‘what can I possibly learn from a conversation with person x who is obviously so wrong?’ My own experience with the Muslim community and within my own family has taught me otherwise.
If you are interested in creating an effort to seek more openness to other points of view, let me know. And, may the tallit that reminds us that we all slip and fall be a symbol of hope that if we are willing to listen with an open heart to each other’s dreams, our community and our nation can be made whole again