Making the mundane holy

Rabbi Adam Bellows serves United Hebrew Congre-gation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Light.  

BY RABBI ADAM BELLOWS

In the beginning, when G-d was creating the world, humans were created in G-d’s image. That we were created b’tzelem Elokim, “In the image of G-d,” has been a positive and a negative for the Jewish people. It is a negative concept if G-d is a man because it means men, not women, are created in the image of G-d. It is a positive concept if G-d is our inspiration toward the good. If we are created in the image of G-d, and if G-d is perfect and good, then we humans can strive to be like G-d.

In Parashat Eikev, we learn of one way to be like G-d. In Deuteronomy 11:18, we read, “Therefore impress these, My words, upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol between your eyes.” 

Jewish tradition interprets this verse to mean donning tefillin, or phylacteries. Tefillin are a small wooden box on one’s forehead and another on one’s forearm. Each contain scrolls with the Shema prayer, and both are attached to leather straps used to bind them upon the body. In the Talmud, the rabbis discuss that even G-d dons tefillin (Berachot 6a). Thus, when humans wear tefillin, they emulate G-d. 

A poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi, depicts the holy moment of wearing tefillin

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“When I wrap the straps around my arm / Shekhinah holds my hand. / Her small brown fingers intertwine / with mine. She holds on tight. / She whispers courage in my ear. / Says ‘don’t hold up: be held.’ / Kisses my forehead, a mother / checking for fever or giving a blessing. / Our fingers tangle like lovers. / She strokes my palm and I shiver. / In grief I always think I’m alone — / think no one sees me, or wants to. / She shakes her head, exasperated / and fond. I keep forgetting. / Long after I’ve let go of her hand / she’s still holding me.” 

Here, Rabbi Barenblat’s experience wearing tefillin reflects a moment of communion with the Divine.

For many, wrapping tefillin turns the mundane into the holy, as even praying, itself, can become a mundane activity. The marks of the leather straps remain on the arm for several hours as a reminder to do mitzvot.  

In his 1976 book “Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stated that “Judaism is a theology of the common deed, of the trivialities of life, dealing not so much with training for the exceptional as with the management of the trivial.” 

In other words, Judaism is about making holy the seemingly trivial and mundane. It is about creating holy, Jewish moments and spaces for everyone.

For instance, Jewish leaders within the LGBTQ+ community have striven to create rituals and blessings for otherwise mundane tasks. A common practice for transmen, for example, is to bind one’s chest in the morning. Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Ari Lev Fornari created a blessing to be said when doing so, reflecting blessings recited when donning tefillin in the morning. The blessing reads, “B’shem mitzvat tzitzit v’mitzvat hityatzrut”, “For the sake of the mitzvah of ritual fringes and the mitzvah of self-formation.”

New and innovative liturgies and rituals for members of the LGBTQ community are a piece of turning the mundane into the holy. They are a piece of creating a holy space for everyone. They are a piece in creating space for marginalized groups in our community. They remind us that Judaism can also be experienced in America by those who are not straight, white and cisgendered. They remind us that everyone, however they self-identify, is created in the image of G-d and can find holy moments throughout their Jewish life.

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