What I Learned Wearing Ritual Fringes

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, June 19, 2020 / 27 Sivan 5780

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Summary: This week’s Torah reading concludes with the mitzvah to wear a tallit. For a long time, I fulfilled this by wearing the tallit katan, a small ritual undergarment. As a result, I learned much about myself and others. Some of those lessons seem very timely.

What I learned Wearing Ritual Fringes

At the end of this week’s parasha, Sh’lakh L’kh, God presents the Israelites with a new commandment. It is the mitzvah of tzitzit, of wearing a fringes on the corners of our garments. This passage becomes the third paragraph of the Sh’ma prayer, our central declaration of faith in God. It also is the proof text for why Jews use tallitot or prayer shawls during services.

Based on this, it also became customary to wear an arba canfot, a small fringed undergarment at all times. In this way, a visual reminder to remain connected to God and the path of mitzvot would always be close by. So it is a pretty important section of the Torah.

If you have never engaged in this mitzvah, it’s worth a try. My experience of doing so touches on many social issues today such as privilege and inequity, being “othered” and virtue-signaling. It also addresses matters Americans talk less about—such as the impact religious practices can have on us, our connection to God and spiritual self-awareness. That’s a big return on investment.

Over many years, I wore an arba canfot or tallit katan. It’s something I began to flirt with when we lived in San Francisco. At first, I kept the fringes on the outside of my clothes. This was a powerful practice with many ramifications, social, spiritual and psychological.

The Sociology of Fringes

Like a kippah, it identified me as Jewish to all the world. It was a sign of pride. It also indicated that I was “a serious Jew,” a “legitimate Jew” or even a “Torah true Jew” to those prone to think a certain way. Among observant populations, it was also a signal of privilege, allowing me easier access to the inner circles of their Jewish world, something like a membership card. As I was sometimes learning in Orthodox milieus, this was useful.

It was also a mechanism that made it easy to be “othered” by people who look down on Jews, or Jews who look down on those more observant than themselves. White Jews can benefit from skin privilege—we might pass as members of the dominant society. Those who wear head coverings and fringes, however, relinquish some of that privilege and open themselves up to hatred, bigotry and antisemitism. I have seen it and experienced it enough to know it is a real thing. And even though we are working to develop a society free of such bigotries, it is instructive for everyone to be on the receiving end. It encourages us to build a better world.

The Spiritual Meaning of Fringes

On a spiritual level, this custom made me feel deeply Jewish and attached to God and the Jewish community. It was a reminder of the spiritual path I was on, and a personal statement of commitment. Somewhat like a personal coach at a gym, the tzitziot (plural, fringes) would urge me to be punctilious in observance and personal conduct. They would remind me to drive more carefully, to treat people on check out lines well—to try to fulfill God’s commandments in all encounters.

The Psychological Impact of Fringes

Like any practice, however, unintended consequences can arise. I discovered that the same social and spiritual goods that I “acquired” by wearing the fringes on the outside of my garments also had psychological ramifications. It opened a path to self-righteousness—the sort of pride that makes you think you are better than others. Even though it was a calling card that opened doors to sectors of the Jewish world otherwise closed to me, I was also bothered by that unearned power.

As a result, I took to keeping the tzitziot on the inside of my clothes. That way, no one could tell themselves stories about what sort of a Jew I was and whether I belonged—or didn’t belong—to their world. Nor could I tell myself those stories. Additionally, religious self-righteousness isn’t exactly a good way to stay connected to God—it lead instead to a form of idolatry where I could nurture the idea of connection over the real deal.

Wearing the tzitzit in this more hidden manner worked for a time. It healed the unintended or less useful aspects of this commandment. It wasn’t performative, meaning that I didn’t have to manage the public aspects or signals that such a practice entails. Now the commandment was just between me and God, a pure and private act of devotion.

The Power of Practice

Eventually, though, the nuisance of wearing the garment itself became a spiritual impediment—even an automatic act of religious behaviorism, which is something we all need to struggle against. As the inner dimensions of my religious life no longer required this practice, I turned to a legal loophole. One is required to place ritual fringes on a garment with four corners. So if you aren’t wearing a four cornered garment, you don’t need fringes. There you have it, ten years ago, I stopped wearing the arba canfot.

That is a risky statement for a pulpit rabbi to make. Some will take it as a rejection of tradition, others as an excuse to extricate themselves from Jewish commitments they find onerous. That’s not what I am suggesting. Rather, adopting new-to-you Jewish practices can help you see yourself and the world better. We discover things we might not otherwise experience or believe to be true. We challenge our faith. If we are honest in that challenge, we deepen it, even if we eventually relinquish a given practice, as I did after fifteen years wearing a small tallit.

Here’s another thing. This commandment was given after a wide-spread societal failure. The scouts who God and Moses sent into the land of Canaan came back, ready to give up on their national destiny. They saw an impossible challenge in the immense size of the giants residing in the land. Thus they lost faith that there even was a promised land worth fighting for, worth struggling to achieve. Perhaps that’s a sin many Americans are also guilty of?

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What Jewish practices have you picked up, only to stop doing later? What first motivated you, and what led you to stop?
  2. Are there spiritual practices you have always desired to try out, and haven’t yet gotten around to? What are they, and what might prompt you to give them a go?
  3. What do you need to be reminded of?

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