Parshat V’etchanan: On Our Heads & In Our Heads

 
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Where does Judaism live? I realize the question is vague and the answer probably even more so. But where does it dwell? Does it live in the synagogue? Sleeping in the ark, curled in a ball on top of the Torah scrolls like a house cat. Or maybe in the depths of caves in the Peruvian desert? Is Judaism homeless, perhaps? Is it living on the streets and in alleyways? “No, rabbi. Judaism isn’t a vagrant! That’s offensive.” Yes, pardon me. Like any rational, progressive Jew, the correct answer would be that Judaism lives in the hearts, souls, and might of all those who seek its unfathomable wisdom — safely harbored in our love for our brothers and sisters and in our valiant efforts of tikkun olam (repairing the world). As we are taught in this week’s Torah portion, parshat V’etchanan:

“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day…Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol (ornaments) between your eyes.” [1]

וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶךָ. וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל־לְבָבֶךָ…וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל־יָדֶךָ וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ

Our sages explain, “The words between your eyes,’ are not to be taken literally but mean that they are to be placed on the forehead opposite the seat of the brain, seeing that it is the seat of our intelligence.” [2] Further, “[Our Jewish] principles must always be with us - upon the arm that symbolizes our capacity for action and is opposite the heart, the seat of emotion; and upon the head, the abode of the intellectual soul and the power of memory, which enable us to be conscious of our antecedents and obligations...” [3]

And while these are beautiful interpretations, our rabbis also prescribed that we should, in fact, “Bind [the commandments] as a sign upon your arm - literally. [4] Meaning, “The Torah commands that this passage [in Deuteronomy] be written and inserted into tefillin (phylacteries) that are to be placed on the upper arm and on the head, above the hairline, directly above the space between the eyes.” [5]

Essentially, Judaism has two homes: (1) We understand Judaism as both something tangible — a physical box to be tied and worn or our kippot that we place on our heads — literally donning the teachings of our religion. (2) We also recognize our text as a metaphor or a compendium of figurative expressions. We take into consideration that the words of God are like an emblem that’s understood on a deeper level. 

So why take both approaches? What’s the advantage of having both Judaism live in our heads and on our heads? Well…Judaism is like Batman. Yes, you read that correctly - Batman! As stated by Bruce Wayne himself:

People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy, and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol... I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.
— Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins (2005)

As understood by comic book theorists/fans much smarter than myself…

“The Batman was never an end in itself, but rather a means toward inspiring bravery and justice in others…The power struggles which envelop Gotham result from an intricate mixture of symbols and individuals; structures and institutions. Gotham needs Bruce Wayne, his resources and his legacy… The city also needs the inspiration that the caped crusader’s symbolism provides…And though the symbol of Batman remains one of hope, it has power only equal to those who choose to put their faith in it.” [8]

Like Batman, Judaism cannot exist in physical structures alone - our ornate temples, mezuzot, and prayer books. Rather, Judaism needs symbolism as the other half of the equation. We too need “an intricate mixture of symbols and individuals; structures and institutions” In this way, we allow Judaism to live in both physical and spiritual worlds - on our hands and in our hearts, souls, and might. In that sense, Judaism too becomes an ideal - a legend - that can be everlasting.

If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely… Legend, Mr. Wayne.
— Henri Ducard, Batman Begins (2005)

[1] Deuteronomy 6:5-8
[2] Rabbeinu Bahya, Devarim 6:8:2
[3] The Stone Edition Chumash, p.365
[4] Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 6:8:1
[5] The Stone Edition Chumash, p.975
[6] ibid., p.365
[7] “The Symbolism of Batman and Where We Put Our Faith,” by Ethan Gach

Aaron Sataloff