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.
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Inspired by the ubiquitous Venmo ads on the NYC Subway, comedian and former yeshiva student Eitan Levine came up with these:
Lucas’s take on Genesis:
Lucas loves Jewish feminist literature, too!
Don’t know the Feminist Ryan Gosling? Give yourself some cultural education and a few good laughs.
And of course, we couldn’t help ourselves:
I am a person who puts on, or “lays,” tefillin (phylacteries). I happen to be female. While my gender, to my mind, does not affect the nature of my performance of this mitzvah, it inevitably adds a layer of complexity to others’ perception of it. I constantly smack up against the tremendous double standard that is applied to women who perform mitzvot that are seen as “male,” both in my day-to-day life and in the communal discourse.
I was recently interviewed for a piece in the Times of Israel about high school girls who lay tefillin. The piece was, on the whole, interesting and balanced. In this article, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach articulates the two most flawed and problematic ideas surrounding the concept of women and tefillin and most other “men’s” mitzvot. He questions the “seriousness” and motivation of the women who take on these mitzvot.
“For those people who are troubled by women putting on tefillin,” Rabbi Boteach says, “the message needs to be, ‘Fair enough, put on tefillin, but accompanied with a serious embracing of Talmud.’” In all my years as a halakhically observant Jew, it is only when it comes to women wearing tefillin and tzitzit (fringes) that “seriousness” is made a qualification for the performance of a mitzvah. Is a person who does not often make the blessings on food told not to bother praying mincha, the afternoon service? Is a person interrogated about how much Talmud they learn each day before they are encouraged to give to tzedakah (charity)? Since when does one have to meet a certain standard of observance, or “seriousness,” before one is given “permission” to perform mitzvot?
This issue of “seriousness” takes another form as well. I have often heard and read that it’s all well and good for “serious” women to lay tefillin, provided they do so every day. As a person who considers herself to have a binding halakhic obligation to lay tefillin, I can testify that I sometimes mess up. As a teenager who likes to sleep in, this is a difficult mitzvah for me to do, as I know it is for many of my peers. Despite my commitment to halakha and mitzvot, there have been Sundays when I have slept through my alarm and rushed out to teach Hebrew school without laying tefillin. I make mistakes; then I make a commitment to do better next time. But my “right” to lay tefillin is not contingent on my consistency. Do Chabad shluchim (ambassadors) only offer tefillin to men who don them daily? No. Mitzvot are mitzvot, and I do not need to prove my right to lay tefillin any more than my equally sleepy male friends do.
The second women-and-tefillin trope Rabbi Boteach employs is to question women’s motivation. “Judaism is not in a state where we can play games with it…If it’s to demonstrate [women] can do everything men can do, it’s not a spiritual motivation, rather politics, and that’s not favorable to Judaism. Assimilation is catastrophic. Let’s never forget the bigger picture.” Setting aside Rabbi Boteach’s ludicrous slippery-slope fallacy (women performing more mitzvot will lead to assimilation?), I will simply say to this: enough. I, and all other women, do not need to prove our motivation to you. We are seeking equality because it will bring us closer to God.
The dichotomy between religious and political motivations is a false one. Our demand to perform mitzvot to which we have been denied access is inherently political in a community where certain mitzvot, like tefillin, are indicators of power and masculinity. However, that does not make the mitzvah any less about God. Women’s performance of these mitzvot will enhance the Jewish community as a whole. By democratizing access to ritual practice, we can redefine “men’s mitzvot” simply as “mitzvot,” and thus change their function from an indicator of who’s a member of the “club” to an expression of commitment to God and Torah. By laying tefillin, I make a political statement about the moral and halakhic correctness of feminist innovation, evolution, and influence. This statement is a reflection of deep religious and moral convictions, and I am proud to make it.
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