In the fortunate cases it is the grandparents, often it is the parents, and sometimes even a sibling who stands before the congregation and presents a tallit. Early in the service, the child celebrating becoming bar or bat mitzvah the tradition is literally handed down generation to generation. As the child takes the sacred object from their elders and wraps about their shoulders, the message of the day is clear. Just as I have done, you too shall do too.
Continuity has a power of its own. It is wondrous to see grandsons and sons stand side by side with fathers and grandfathers that are similarly wrapped. But even today rare is the grandmother or even the mother who covers the top of the beautiful outfit with a tallit. Yet, the girls in my community, with only the exception of those who affiliate Orthodox, not only wear a tallit on the day they celebrate becoming bat mitzvah but make it part of their regular religious garb. They are breaking new ground.
The tallit has become a symbol of not only of continuity but also of change.
On the rare occasions when I attended synagogue as a child, my father’s tallit was both a refuge and a source of entertainment. But when it came time to celebrate my coming of age, the mere fact that I would chant Torah (with my father saying the blessing with me—lest the agency be mine entirely) was so radical that we had to travel far from home to find a rabbi willing to allow it. A girl wearing a tallit was literally unthinkable.
At the start of the Jewish feminist movement, women and girls battled and largely won the right to take their place at the Torah. But when it came to adopting the ritual wear that historically goes with the privileges and opportunities of Torah reading, the issues were significantly more complex. In part, I suspect that there was a desire to push forward but not too much. Even as Jewish women asserted their power they did not want to ‘be men,’ as they were often accused of being. In addition to the historic prohibitions on women reading Torah, there are prohibitions against women taking on ‘the dress of men.’ Furthermore, 30 years ago the Reform movement, which played a significant role pioneering change, did not encourage ritual garb regardless of gender.
Today in most communities—even Orthodox ones—the place of women next to the Torah is no longer a question. But change is happening when it comes to tallit.
I bought my first tallit in my early 20s. It was large, woolen and woven like my fathers but had colored stripes instead of the traditional blues and blacks. It was as wildly different as the very fact that I dared wear such a thing. Today, as I shop with my daughter ahead of her being called to the Torah, I am struck by the array of feminine materials, cuts, colors and designs that she has to choose from in addition to the more historic types. No one would confuse a lace pink flowery tallit with the ‘dress of men.’ The modern bat mitzvah can choose a tallit that both expresses who she is as a person as well as her pride in her tradition.
Each time I attend bat mitzvah service in different synagogues of my community, I am struck by the passing on of the tallit. More than with the boys, this moment with the girl and her family encapsulates my hope for the next generation of Jews—regardless of gender. Wrap yourself in our tradition but make it your own and don’t be afraid of making change.
Growing up most of the women I saw in synagogue did not wear kippot (head coverings traditionally worn by men in Judaism), tallit (prayer shawls) or tefflin (phylacteries, described more below). And when I saw the odd woman who did, I thought she was just that, odd.
So, you can imagine the discomfort I felt experimenting with wearing this ritual garb when I started thinking about becoming a rabbi. Wearing a tallit was fairly easy. I bought a beautiful multicolored tallit and loved the feel of enveloping myself in it. It felt a bit like God was reaching out and giving me a hug. Wearing a kippah was a bit harder. It was not physically uncomfortable, but I hated how it messed up my hair. Vain, I know, but true. I just did not like the way it looked. Wearing teffilin was harder still. I was given a gift of teffilin which were way too big for me. They had large black leather boxes and thick black lengths of leather that I needed to wrap around my arms. They were uncomfortable to wear.
Having written my undergraduate thesis on Jewish Feminism, I knew that women had fought for the right to wear these ritual objects. I wanted to embrace the practice of wearing them. But even after years of trying, I still feel ambivalent about wearing a kippah, and have stopped wearing teffilin entirely.
These ritual garments are important symbols with in Judaism. A religious Jew defines him or herself by how he or she dresses. In more liberal circles, a rabbi often stands out in the crowd by wearing a kippah or a tallit. The donning of these garments for prayer is a meaningful way to state ones intention to pray and forge a deeper connection to God. Some Jews believe that wearing these garments is a command form God that they must follow. There is great historical and emotional weight attached to the wearing of these garments.
I struggled for years to become comfortable with my own practice of wearing a kippah and tallit when I pray, but not wearing a kippah at other times as many of my colleagues do. In addition, since I found teffilin to interfere with my ability to pray rather than to enhance it, I no longer wear them.
I am now comfortable with my decisions. But what do I teach my daughter?
She attends a Conservative Jewish Day School. Boys are required to wear a kippah. Girls are not required to cover their heads at all. When they reach bar or bat mitzvah age, boys are required to wear tallit and teffilin. Girls have an option to do so. Most of the girls in the younger grades do not wear a kippah, and most of the girls in the older grades do not wear tallit of teffilin.
You might think this practice echoes my own, so I am happy with the school’s policies. But I am not. I am frustrated. I am caught in a bind. This policy which is echoed across the Conservative Movements synagogues, camps, and schools (both afternoon and day) does not sit well with me. By not requiring the same practice from the boys and girls we are sending them a message that God expects different things of them. We may even be sending the message that girls are less than boys because less is expected of them. To have fully egalitarian practices we must have the same standards for both boys and girls.
And yet, boys and girls are different. Like me, many girls may not want to wear a kippah. So let’s get creative. Why not make the requirement for some kind of head covering, which is after all what the Jewish law calls for, but not specify what kind of head covering. The shape of a kippah is not required. Why not let children choose between, a kippah, a hat, or a head band or scarf? This would let boys and girls adhere to the letter of the law while allowing for personal expression.
Why not require all to wear a tallit, and have them make or buy one of their own choosing as many already do?
Why not require teffilin for all and bring the children shopping to choose larger or smaller pairs. And why, oh why, can’t they decorate them in some way to make them more appealing. I have studied this. I know the letter of the law calls for them to be plain black leather. But if we want our children, both boys and girls to connect meaningfully to this traditional practice, then we need to figure out a way to make it more inviting for them to do so. Otherwise, make this practice optional for all.
I believe wearing ritual garb to be important and meaningful on many different levels. But I also believe in egalitarian practices, especially when they send messages to our children. The time has come for the Conservative Movement in particular, and other Jewish communities as well, to address this issue of ritual garb for boys and girls, men and women. One practice does not necessarily work for all. Let’s make a variety of different kinds of practices normative.
The original goal in wearing ritual garb is to deepen our own spirituality and connection to God, or whatever you call the force in the universe. Let’s return to that intent and see what new interpretations and practices grow out of that, and let us welcome them.
As a rabbi and an activist, I often get called upon to speak at interfaith events of various sorts. Over the years, I’ve been jealous of the fact that clergy from other faith groups are easily recognizable.
Run a list through your head: what does a priest or minister wear? A Buddhist monk? a nun? OK, then think rabbi. Often rabbis will wear a tallit. And that bugs me.
Initially, I just thought to myself, that it “looked funny.” But the more often I saw it, the more it bothered me. A tallit isn’t a rabbinic garment. It’s a Jewish garment. All Jewish adults should be wearing their tallit daily.
So, if we don’t wear a tallit, what should a rabbi wear to identify herself? Perhaps the answer is that we ought not to be trying to single out the rabbis. Although the Jewish tradition views the rabbi (or at least the tzadik, which is, as well know, not necessarily the same thing) as a kli kodesh, a holy vessel, a rabbi is not really supposed to be different from the rest of the Jewish population. She is someone who, yes, models behavior for the community, but her primary role is to be deeply immersed in the laws and traditions of Judaism, and to teach them. Rabbis are just people who have learned the intricacies of Jewish law and practice and the attitude should be “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!” But she is not apart from the community – anyone can be that person, if they are willing to put in the time and study, if they are willing to make their life a holy vessel.
At the same time, our tradition does recognize that the rabbi should be respected for the role they play. But it seems to me that perhaps the way to do it is not to repurpose a garment which during prayer serves the purpose of making the individuals wearing it almost anonymous – when one looks up after completing one’s prayer of Amidah and sees a sea of wool tallitot around one, there is a certain sense of being a single part of a larger organism. And perhaps this should instead of serving as an opportunity to demonstrate our importance- look, I’m a leader! – maybe we should reconsider, and as clergy, instead of pointing ourselves out, maybe we should take off the tallit, and when we represent the community to the world, be just another Jew, without a special costume, to represent that we could indeed be any Jew, that all of us should be working toward a more perfected world, and that anyone who wants to do so, can, just by stepping up.
And if that doesn’t work, well, when I proposed this on facebook, a friend told me he’d get me a mitre. But I have to say, I’d really prefer a tiara. Or maybe a cape.