The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Tefilin – Ignorance and Arrogance

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1.  The boy who caused a security alert by wearing tefilin on an aeroplane clearly had no common sense.  Worse than that, he was reflecting a prevalent communal attitude that for non-Jews not to know instinctively all about us is culpable ignorance on their part, an attitude which of course in reality merely reveals monstrous arrogance on our part.

2.  I have always wondered why Rashi finds it necessary, when the word “totafot” is used in the Chumash to describe tefilin (Shemos 13:16), to quote a Talmudic opinion that it is a compound word formed from two foreign words including an African one.  Why is this thought worth telling us?  (One might even wonder why the Rabbis thought able to attribute a word of Loshon Hakodesh to a compound of two pre-existing foreign words; something for another time.)

3.  As the Rambam discusses in Moreh Nevuchim, many of our mitzvos have their counterpart in other religions, while some are exclusive to Judaism.  And it is important to know which is which: apart from anything else, knowing whether one of our strange rituals is in fact sufficiently common to other religions to be likely to be recognised and understood by others can help to avoid misunderstandings, not to mention security alerts.  So perhaps Rashi wants us to know that this particular ritual had a rough equivalent in at least two other cultures of the time.  Nowadays, of course, there is no equivalent of tefilin in any of the religions of which most of us have heard (although it would not surprise me to learn that there is an equivalent in some religion somewhere).

4.  There is good Biblical precedent for the idea that we should go out of our way to ensure that our religious practices and ideas will be understood by others  in their own terms.  When Moshe Rabbeinu describes our history to the King of Edom (Bmidbar 20:15) he says that Hashem sent an angel to bring us out of Mitzrayim. We spend half of seder night each year saying that Hashem took us out personally and not by angel – so why does Moshe change the story?  Again, perhaps because the King of Edom could reasonably be expected to understand and accept the notion of an angel intervening, that being within the sphere of his own religous ideas, but would not be able to understand the notion of a single, infinite God.

5.  Common sense is always useful, and never common.  It behoves us to remember that we are a tiny minority of the people of the world, and that we should have the humility to remember that if we want our strange practices to be tolerated and even appreciated we should be prepared to take a few moments to explain them in terms that other people can understand and accept.


Written by Daniel Greenberg

January 31, 2010 at 9:26 am

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