As I sit here in Terminal 5 of the JFK Airport, I am watching a young man put on tefillin.
He faces the open window, back toward me, empty runways beyond him. His focus is absolute.
For those of you who don’t know, wrapping tefillin around one’s arms, hands and head is part of a daily morning ritual for Orthodox Jewish men, and some others, accompanied by prayer. It is not a subtle practice. That is, some of the people around this man look askance at him as I write this.
Watching him, I feel…envious would be the wrong word, but I feel a great deal of admiration for his courage and commitment. For I believe that the simple act of engaging publicly in any kind of spiritual practice requires a great deal of both.
I also feel somewhat overwhelmed by the beauty of the scene. The incongruence of the grey metal gates, the concrete with the familiar blue and white tallis wrapped around his shoulders. The intensity of his focus. The sanctity of the space he manages to hold around him.
Now, I do not practice a Judaism that requires daily rituals, but I have at times taken my yoga practice very seriously, carrying a mat strapped to my backpack when I travel so as not to miss a day.
Just yesterday, I unrolled my mat on the rooftop of my hostel in Hong Kong to stretch and center before the long journey back to the U.S.
At some point, several other guests appeared and sat down on some couches a few feet away. I continued, but—as has always been the case for me—a small part of my mind became preoccupied with their presence, and I could not achieve the same level of concentration that I do when I am truly alone.
I find it incredibly difficult to ignore that element of performance that seems inherently tied to making a private practice—like yoga, like wrapping tefillin—public. That is why I find that ability in others so impressive, so admirable, and yes, so enviable.
To entirely abandon oneself to spirit when surrounded by something as mundane as an airport, with all the lethargy, discontentment and physicality it contains, is a declaration of faith.
To be spiritual in a society that tends towards atheism and looks upon religiosity, and particularly orthodoxy, with suspicion could be considered an act of defiance.
To daven (to pray) outside of one’s community without self-consciousness or embarrassment, as this man has done, takes confidence.
So I want to say thank you. To this man, and all others like him who wear their religion or spirituality openly, thank you. To those who defy the censure of others and act out of faith, thank you. To those of you who force the world to be a little more tolerant, simply by being yourselves, thank you.
I think it comes down to tolerance. We fear that others will not tolerate us if we express ourselves in this way, so openly—that they will judge us. I can’t speak for others, but if you are like me, when you do express something as personal as spirituality, it is not in ignorance of that judgment, but in spite of it.
Spiritual or religious practice, faith, devotion—these concern the soul, and nothing is more sensitive than that. So if these fears prevent you from putting your soul on display, I understand.
But I also think there is value in openly displaying our religion, faith or spirituality. Because it teaches tolerance. It expands the worldview of others. It brings us to another level of comfort in our practice.
How, then, do we overcome the fear that “the public” will not tolerate our displays?
In my experience, the answer lies in the act itself. The more I practiced yoga and meditated on rooftops and beaches, in dormitories and fields, the more comfortable I became with the possibility of judgment. After all, no one bothered me. And though they sometimes looked askance, my eyes were closed, so what did it matter?
Similarly, the more frequently I volunteered the information that I was Jewish, the more proud I felt of that identity.
Often, we mistake ignorance for intolerance when it comes to sensitive topics, and I have found many times that those looks I perceived as judgment were in fact nothing more than curiosity.
We can find inspiration in people like the man I saw today at the airport. People with so much confidence, pride and faith that what they are doing is right that fear does not even enter the equation. People who teach the world to be a little more tolerant, simply by being themselves.
They certainly inspire me.
~ Toby Israel
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Editor: Emily Bartran
Image: Jimmy Baikovicius/Flickr