It’s 2003, and I am in a Judaica shop in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood with my best friend in Israel. The shopkeeper has arrayed a number of sets of tefillin on the counter. My friend — I’ll call him Lev — holds his cell phone to his ear while with the other hand he hefts the tefillin one by one. “No?” he says into the phone. He puts down the tefillin and picks up another set. “How about these?” The shopkeeper is starting to look annoyed.
I was in Israel for a conference of what is now known as the Jewish Federations of North America. My oldest son would become a bar mitzva the following May, and I decided to buy him his first set of tefillin in the holy city. Although I am a regular at synagogue, I am at heart a rationalist and suspect that a set of leather boxes and slips of paper with Hebrew text are basically the same whether they are sold on Mea She’arim St. in Jerusalem or Cedar Lane in Teaneck. But I was in Israel, and I am always happy to do my part to help Israel’s economy.
Lev, however, attached deeper meaning to my purchase. Although we have been friends for decades, we couldn’t be farther apart in our approach to mysticism. Essentially, he approaches it — I run away as if from a bad smell. He is deeply spiritual and believes there are forces at work in the universe that we can’t perceive with our five senses. I have strong doubts about higher powers, and essentially hold with the great theologian Lisa Simpson: “Look, you can either accept science and face reality or you can believe in angels and live in a childish dream world.” Like the old joke, Lev goes to synagogue to talk to God — I go to synagogue to talk to Lev.
Yet Lev is not about to give up on me. He wanted to make sure that my son’s first tefillin were not only kosher, but had the blessing of his spiritual adviser. Yes, Lev has a spiritual adviser — known in Hebrew as a mekubal — whom he consults on life decisions large and small.
I asked if the mekubal would meet us at the shop; Lev said that wouldn’t be necessary. Instead, we chatted up the shopkeeper, who explained the different types of tefillin — some tooled from the finest grade leather, others (these he called “cheapskin”) made with lesser hides and cheap glues. I narrowed it down to my price range — not the cheapskins, but still several hundred dollars — and the shopkeeper set out samples on the counter.
That’s when Lev dialed his mekubal. Apparently, the mystic could read the tefillin’s vibes over the phone. “Not good?” Lev would ask, and reach for another.
The shopkeeper, sensing a challenge to his integrity, started to boil. Lev explained that he meant no disrespect, but that the mekubal had special insights. The shopkeeper, who wore the large velvet kipa and dangling tzitzit of a fervently Orthodox Jew, only softened when my friend mentioned his unusual last name. “X’s cousin?” the shopkeeper asked. Tension broken; Jewish geography wins again.
But then the shopkeeper shared some Torah. “Do you remember what Yitro told Moshe Rabbeinu?” In Exodus 18, Yitro (Jethro) sees that his son-in-law Moses is overworked, and advises him to appoint a team of assistants to judge disputes among his people. “You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain,” says Yitro.
“So Moshe does what his father-in-law suggested — but with a difference,” said the shopkeeper. “A few verses later, we learn that ‘Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said: Moses chose capable men out of all Israel.’ What happened to ‘men who fear God’? Not there. So what do we learn from this? That you can tell if someone is capable and trustworthy, but no one — not even Moshe — can see into the hearts of men.
“So if someone tells you he has special powers, can see things others don’t, remind them of the story of Yitro and Moshe. And remember Ramban: ‘And from His prophets alone should we inquire and never from the charlatans.’
“Now, which one are you buying?”
Eventually, the mekubal did okay one of the sets, and I handed over my credit card. Back on the street, crowded with haredi Jews in black coats and tourists in mufti, I felt whiplashed between my friend’s intense kabalism and the shopkeeper’s Torah-based rationalism. At the same time, I couldn’t ignore that all three of us pray wearing the magic black boxes I now carried in my hand.
I think about the shopkeeper’s lesson whenever someone says religion is fundamentally at odds with a rational, scientific worldview. I also remember that day when someone claims to know another person’s heart or to speak directly for God — like the odious Fred Phelps, the hate-filled pastor who died earlier this week.
I also remember how eager Lev was to share his mekubal’s gift with a friend who didn’t even believe in it. I may not share my friend’s mystical bent, but I know he’s on the side of the angels.