The Tefillin Project
When my father died, I inherited his tallit and his own father’s century-old hand-embroidered velvet bag that contained the mysteriously sacred tefillin, the bindings for head and arm that are referred to in the Torah. Collecting these historic treasures did not interest my brothers and I became curious to discover the religious experience that was associated with this action.
Recitation from the Torah, the divine Jewish texts,in synagogue is an ancient Jewish ritual once reserved for a boys’ rite of passage to Jewish education and adulthood. After thousands of years of exclusion, only in recent decades has the conservative and reform Jewish movements allowed girls to wear a tallit, and to study Torah. Although I could recite the words from the S’hema, the holy prayer that commands a Jew to put on tefillin from memory, it was an awesome moment when I opened my grandfather’s bag and wound the black leather straps on my arms and placed his leather tefillin on my head for the first time.
I am now photographing women who want to participate in this historic religious experience, as we learn what it means to follow the commandment to bind ourselves to a higher power. It seems to be a natural continuation of my forty-year photographic documentation about the sexual and cultural representation of women.
If prayer defines our relationships with our God, our communities and our world then the Tefillin Project, along with chanting such prayers as the S’hema, can be a positive contribution to ignite aspirations for wisdom in ourselves and others. Wearing tefillin can be seen as a spiritual charm that can give a woman a moment to have a deep conversation and connection to her God, to her relationships, and to her hopes and strength.
Speaking the first paragraph of the S’hema fulfills the mitzvah to study Torah, as proscribed in the S’hema itself ‘and you shall teach them (the words of the Torah) and speak of them when sitting in your home, as you go on your way, when you are ready to sleep and when you awake.
And let these things which I command you today be upon your heart... and you shall tie them for a sign upon your hand and for a remembrance between your eyes and write them upon the doorposts of your houses and your gates.’ (Deuteronomy 6:8-9).