Thursday, January 8, 2015

Strings Attached- Why I continue to wear my tzitzis out

The other day, as I looked in the mirror, I took note of my tzitzis, which were hanging out. I started thinking (is there anything that doesn’t make me think?) about a post that I had written about why I stopped wearing a black hat. What, I wondered, was the difference between wearing the hat and wearing my tzitzis out? Were they not both expressions of “frumkeit”, an approach to Torah observance that no longer appeals to me?

When I wrote the article about the hat, I was rather surprised to see it go viral, well at least by my modest standards. A friend informed me that my article had been shared in a Jewish women’s group, where it was discussed in the context of women who are struggling with the issue of hair covering. Although I was pleased that something I had written had found an audience, I was a little uncomfortable with the context. After all, wearing a hat is not a halachic requirement, whereas covering hair is. In the end I recognized that once something is written and given over to the public, it no longer fully belongs to its author.

Which brings me to tzitzis. Although Jewish men are supposed to wear tzitzis, there is no obligation to wear them with the strings exposed. In the Mishna Berura, the Chofetz Chaim, writes that a “ba’al nefesh”, one who is exceedingly pious, should wear the strings hanging out. As a friend likes to point out, Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l said that in his generation everyone realized that the term “ba’al nefesh” did not not apply to them, while today, too many people thinks it does. While I once might have been impressed with my religious level of observance, I no longer have that level of hubris.

So now that I know that I am not a ba’al nefesh and am less of a ba’al gaivah, why do I continue to wear my tzitzis exposed? The truth is, that I did not start wearing them that way after learning the Mishna Berura. I began doing so 25 years ago in Israel, after something occurred that gave me reason to think that I had reason to do something external to better remind myself of who I aspired to be. I figured that any place where I could not go with my tzitzis exposed was not a place I belonged.

It seems to me that, for me at least, stopping doing anything that smacks of an earlier stage of “frumkeit”, just to show I’ve changed, is as mistaken as taking something on that is not real to who I am. Although forever is a very long time, I will not go back to wearing a hat, but, ba’al nefesh or not, the tzitzis are here to stay. They are part of my being real with my Judaism.


  1. The idea that wearing tzitzis out is yuhara (hubris? bravado? showing off? playing holier-than-thou?) went out decades ago. Yuhara by definition is only when one goes beyond the norm. There is inherently a relative and societal aspect to the definition. No one would read gaavah into wearing tzitzis out in a neighborhood like ours where many do.

    Now I don't know how many wear murex-dyed tzitzis out, but that's my problem...

    We live in a society that lauds autonomy. Why can't it be used constructively in our avodas Hashem (worship? doing Hashem's work?)? To me, the ideal Orthodox community is one that is diverse in belief and pratice, and united by the common knowledge that we're each seeking the path "la'alos leHar Hashem" (to ascend G-d's mountain) based on which side of the mountain we are on now, and where our strengths at mountain climbing are.

    This is actually a strong part of the legacy of Lithuanian yeshivos of actual Lithuania that isn't carried forward by the people who aspire to carry its banner today. This is why the Rav didn't expect his students to all decide halakhah in his image -- or perhaps: that to be in his image on a meta-level means following his conception of free will and creativity, not following his rulings. This is why students in R Aharon Kotler's shiur in the early days of Lakewood were encouraged to not just ask questions, but argue back. The description I get from alumni was the kind of heated exchange a chavrusah could reach. Deferral and respect were important parts of a relationship with a rebbe -- only outside "milchamta shel Torah" (the 'war' of Torah).

    In the ideal, a person should have two kinds of rabbi. They could be distinct people or not, the jobs could be subdivided, but two roles:

    The moreh hora'ah, one's poseiq, provides halachic rulings. But it should be someone who knows you personally. Halakhah isn't clean-room theory, it's mapping that theory to the situation and (more centrally for my point) the people doing the asking. Halakhah shows us the footholds and piton points for the climb; and where one takes the next step depends on the length of their legs, the strength of their arms, their endurance and their grip. The right pesaq depends on the skills and resources of the person asking.

    The second is the moreh derekh. Again, someone who knows the sho'el. This is I think where the concept of da'as Torah evolved from, because it at least involves consulting with a rabbi outside the context of getting halachic rulings. This is the rabbi you use for talking out what to work on next. Whose perspective on the world informs yours. It is great if you have similar perspectives; but (eg) a rabbi who can compensate for your having a more rationalistic bent than he does could also work quite well.

    But we need someone to check against, lest we turn our Judaism into what we want it to be.

    1. I think that is how Rabbeinu Yonah understood the two different Asei lecha Ravs in Avos.

    2. I drifted a little from my original intended message.

      If we did live in such a community where diversity is accommodated because everyone would recognize that we all need our own toolsets, then a lot fewer things would be yuhara. Thus, the western world's emphasis nowadays on autonomy could be of benefit; it makes it more likely that such a community could exist in reality.

      But would likely be located in a place whose first name is "Moshav", and less likely in NJ.