As any Bar Mitzvah boy will attest, the transition from minor to adult is manifested by the wearing of tallit and tefillin. (In the 1950’s and 1960’s many traditional synagogues organized Tallit and Tefillin Clubs as a way of keeping young Jewish teens engaged in Jewish ritual.) The first scriptural mention of tefillin appears in Exodus 13:9 as an addendum to the laws of Passover. These “signs” are intended to be a reminder of extraordinary events ascribed to God that led to the exodus from Egypt. Exactly how tefillin are supposed to fulfill this purpose goes unmentioned by the text.
The psalmist says: “I have sought You (God) with all my heart” (Ps. 119:10), which leads the thirteenth century French scholar, Rabbi Menahem HaMeiri, to comment that the search for God includes the five senses. This search is facilitated by tefillin. The construction of tefillin, as explained by the rabbis (and as evidenced by tefillin archaeologists discovered at Masada) demands four compartments in the head piece and one on the arm. According to Meiri, the four in the headpiece correspond to the four senses based in the head: sight, smell, hearing, and taste. And the one on the arm: touch. Implied in his commentary is that Jews try to seek God through the instrumentalities we have, even though the prospects of success are impossible since God exists beyond the realm of the senses.
Interestingly, while giving a novel explanation for the structure of tefillin, Meiri simultaneously offers a profound lesson for all faithful Jews. Meiri suggests that Judaism does not demand blind allegiance to an unknowable God but ongoing inquiry. As an undergraduate at New York University, I had the privilege of studying with philosopher professor Israel Knox. To this day I remember his brilliant definition of faith. “Faith is a personal response to matters of ultimate concern that reason must examine but cannot exhaust.” For Professor Knox as well as for Meiri, faith requires inquiry and examination even knowing that the answers might be elusive. Faith is not acceptance but struggle.
When tefillin are applied it ought not be with the intent of simply fulfilling the law but delving into the mystery of the human-divine connection in the hopes that the insights gleaned will lead us to a deeper appreciation of God.