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?