Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

01/21/2010 (11:22 pm)

Tefillin-Sniffing Dogs

flight_diverted_pamr101A flight from New York to Kentucky was diverted to the Philadelphia airport to investigate what was considered a possible bomb threat this morning. It turned out that the “threat” was a Jewish teenager strapping on tefillin to pray.

I was raised Jewish, so I know about tefillin; I never used them, but I heard about them and have seen them. But lots of people have not ever encountered tefillin, or even heard that they exist (theologically literate Christians refer to them as “phylacteries.” Don’t ask me why.) So, when this teenage boy started strapping a small box to his arm and another to his forehead, it caused some consternation on the flight — enough to make the crew land the plane immediately and greet it on the ground with bomb-sniffing dogs and federal agents.

Apparently the flight left very early in the morning, and the boy, 17, had not had time to pray on the ground. Morning prayers are supposed to be said within a particular length of time after sunrise, so he was trying to get in his prayers on the plane. The boy and his sister cooperated with the feds, and soon everybody was on their way.

Tefillin are a bit of literal obedience to a passage in the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy, in the Torah:

Hear, O Israel! the Lord our God, the Lord is one! …these words which I command you this day shall be in your heart… and you shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead, and you shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and on your gates.

If you visit a Jewish home anytime soon, take a look at the door frame as you enter the house. Chances are there’s a little ornament tacked to the side of the frame; if you took it down, you would find the passage from Deuteronomy 6 written in Hebrew characters inside. This is how traditional Jews obey that particular commandment. And if they’re being serious about obeying the commandments (most modern Jews are not quite so serious,) when they pray they’ll tie little boxes to their forehead and their arm containing the prayer, in a ritualistic fashion.

It’s entirely consistent with the character of Judaism to treat this command literally in this fashion. As a Christian, I read the passage and translate, “Ok, God wants me to surround myself with his law, and study his precepts as though my life depended on them.” But no, the Jewish theologians said “You need to actually write the words on your doorposts. Which words? How large do they have to be? Where on the doorpost should they go?” and so forth. My Jewish readers should forgive me for saying so, but this is what happens when one holds onto the words of God long after losing contact with God Himself. It’s not about wrapping words on your wrist, it’s about paying attention to God.

It’s good that the flight crew was concerned about safety, and it’s good that everybody cooperated. It would have been better if everybody were aware of tefillin, but hey… you don’t see this every day. I’ve embedded a little instructional video about tefillin below. Spend the 100 seconds getting yourself a little education; maybe someday it will spare you a time-wasting flight diversion.

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