We have much to lift our spirits and much to concern us in the attention paid to young women laying tefillin at outstanding high schools in the New York area. Our spirits rejoice because so many people, both men and women, are passionately engaged in the service of God. Everyone from school principals to principled women wants to do what is best for klal Israel (the Jewish people). In this age of so many competing demands, we are neither ritually lazy nor spiritually complacent, and that is good.
The tefillin conversation is a single piece of a larger conversation about the place of women in the public ritual life of the Orthodox community. Several options exist for women who want to lay tefillin. They can do so privately with devoted consistency and halakhic authorization or they can choose to pray in non-Orthodox spaces. Personal prayer is not the issue. We are also not talking about whether women should be synagogue presidents, day school principals, halakhic (legal) authorities, or students of Talmud sitting side by side with men in a study hall. Conflating every possible form of a woman’s participation in public life puts too great a burden on tefillin.
I am not the only Orthodox woman to have heard the following sort of comments from Jews and non-Jews alike: “You’re Orthodox? I don’t see how a woman nowadays can stand it. You are a second-class citizen, right? Aren’t you stuck behind a wall in the synagogue? You don’t get to DO anything! It’s all about the men.” And the questions that from our daughters are especially tough: “Why are we segregated, with no tallit and no tefillin? Isn’t my prayer as important as my brother’s? I leyn just as well, if not better. Why do we go to a women’s tefillah group when there is no such thing as ‘separate but equal?’ What about these equal rights you keep going on and on about?”
Not only are we physically separated in prayer spaces, but are we also textually excluded from meaningful prayer? What do we do with the verses in the Shema that refer to tzitzit and tefillin and the stage directions in the siddur (prayer book) which instruct a man to kiss his tzitzit? Are gender differences so essential to public prayer? Isn’t it about time we made ourselves seen and heard everywhere? Shouldn’t we be able to expand our possibilities for experience? Don’t we rationalize a deep-seated problem by declaring that men and women espouse different roles and that a textual heritage dominated by men belongs to all of us?
Well no, we don’t.
All Jewish experience belongs to all of us as does all Jewish text. We are obligated to inhabit our tradition with respect even as we question it. It takes courage, intelligence, and infinite love to commit ourselves to the complicated relations of men and women and of women and God, relations which become stronger and more profound through the embrace of the multiplicity of our obligations. To be made in God’s image is to confront the One and the Infinitely Many. By adopting uniformity of practice and homogenous responsibilities, we risk eliminating the wonder of difference. Look at family photographs of a brit (circumcision) or a wedding: everyone engaged in a mitzvah in a variety of ways, all precious and all necessary. Isn’t that what women who want to lay tefillin in public are saying: that they have a right to participate in a mitzvah in a deeply personal way? But what effect does that have on the unity of the community? No one proposes to force women to wear tefillin, but isn’t that being naive about the nature of community? Isn’t there an implicit message that “real women wear tefillin?” How does it affect the nature of public, communal prayer to have tefillin not be optional for men but always optional for women? And no – those are not rhetorical apologies for the status quo. They are questions.
Judaism is a religion not of rights, but of obligations. Born into the covenant or choosing it as an adult, a Jew lives a life of obligation to God and man. As a citizen of the United States, I claim my right to religious freedom, but in Judaism I have the obligation to follow halakhah, not the right to self-defined religious expression. We misinterpret and constrict our religious life when we reduce it to a civil rights movement in pursuit of individual liberties. “Separate but equal” is a cruel absurdity for a citizen, but not for a believer. We have no intrinsic right to pray as we please, just as we have no right to eat, honor Shabbat, or conduct business as we please. That is not to say that the definition and fulfillment of our obligations does not undergo continuous renewal. And of course spiritual life is meaningless without individual devotion. Remarkable women chose to lay tefillin throughout Jewish history. One of our questions must be whether they are models for communal behavior or whether their unique circumstances serve a different purpose.
Wrapped in the tallit of solitude on the women’s side of synagogue at 5 am on Shavuot or raised aloft by my congregation’s collective intensity during Neilah, wrestling alone with God about the pain built into His creation or dancing with His words on Simchat Torah, my community around me – I constantly question what it means to pound on the gates of heaven as a Jew and a woman.
Accept for a moment the obligation to pray without tefillin. That is one rocky path, eased by no tangible assistance – only the overwhelming magnitude of word, intellect and heart in the presence of the Kadosh Baruch Hu.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.