Tefilin: The Route to Empowerment?

It seems that the issue of the day is women wearing tefilin. For those of you living under a rock–or, you know, outside the tristate area–SAR school in Riverdale recently made a statement that it would allow women to put on tefilin during school prayer services, if they desired to do so. The Ramaz School quickly followed suit, sending home a letter to parents clarifying that their policy would also be to allow women to put on tefilin.

The blogosphere blew up with articles, both in support of these women and against them. And let me tell you, there was A LOT of opposition. Avital Chizik wrote that we don’t need tefilin because there are other, more serious issues facing the female community. Eliana M. Aaron wrote that a woman taking upon herself the obligation to wear tefilin is actually anti-feminist because it takes women away from their roles as mothers and wives. (I can’t even).

I’d like to respond specifically to Avital Chizik’s article, because I saw it spread like wildfire around facebook, with friends from all walks of life in support of her position.

Well, I’m not.

For full disclosure, I don’t regularly put on tefilin. I did once, when I was teaching at a Coservative hebrew school, and I had to teach my students how to put it on. I found the experience incredibly moving. I was using an old pair of tefilin, someone’s grandfather’s that had been kept in tip-top condition, and as soon as I wrapped myself in the leather straps, I felt like I had this metaphysical connection with generations of Jews who came before me.

But I digress. I don’t regularly put on tefilin, mostly because the issue never came up and a little bit because I was afraid of being a trailblazer. But I have nothing but support for the women that do.

Avital says in her article that she finds it hard to put in to words what she has been feeling during this debate, but that she’s going to try. I, too, have been having trouble articulating exactly what my thoughts are, but since she tried, I’ll try.

She starts off with:

The average Orthodox woman today is not preoccupied with fighting for ownership over her father’s and husband’s rituals. To imagine otherwise is at best sensationalist and at worst delusional.

She is right. But that shouldn’t be a reason not to discuss the issue.

Then she says:

Ask the average Orthodox woman what threatens her stake in this community – and she will tell you that it is certainly not tefillin, … Ask her what she is worried about – and you will hear a very different kol isha (woman’s voice), if you only listen. Women here are worried about living in a world where family status is essential, definitive and fragile: where the unmarried, the childless and the divorced occupy a lower caste. Women who are denied divorces continue to waste away for years, waiting for freedom to remarry. Abuse in our community’s schools is taking painfully long to be investigated.

It’s true! Those ARE important, pressing issues in our community. But, listen very closely, THEY ARE NOT THE ONLY ISSUES. Why must we enter an argument over “my subjugation is worse than yours”?  Why can’t I fight for agunot AND ritual inclusion?

And that brings me to my final point. Avital laments how women in her community, a flourishing modern orthodox community, are still afraid to let their voices be heard. They’re afraid to talk too much at the shabbat table, for fear of being considered “male”. They choose to talk about trivialities, not because that interests them, but because if they talk about serious topics people will look at them funny. They go to shul and stand in the back and chat about their kids, because, well, that’s what women do.

She’s right. These are major problems in our community. But then there’s the kicker. She ends off her article with

So – tefillin? Adjusted prayer services? Female rabbis? Lowered mehitzahs? I’m not convinced… Because I don’t care to own the bimah. I simply want to own my mind.

She fails to make a major point of connection here. These rituals, which she dismisses as unimportant and not part of her world, could be exactly what is holding her back from empowerment. It’s natural that when men attend a friday night prayer service that is made up of approximately 50 men and maybe one or two token women (who mind you are hidden on the other side of the mechitza), led by a male rabbi, and then walk home with all the men chatting about the [male] rabbi’s sermon, only to come home to their wives who have spent the last hour setting the table and making sure the chicken soup stays warm, that everybody present at that meal will see a clear yet unspoken gender divide, in which women are good at cooking and cleaning and shopping, and men are good at thinking.

Avital fails to make the connection that the ritual observance in judaism is not simply about the rituals themselves, but about the meaning behind them. I believe the answer can be found in Tanach.

“Why have we fasted, and You did not see; we have afflicted our soul and You do not know?” Behold, on the day of your fast you pursue business, and [from] all your debtors you exact [payment]. ג. לָמָּה צַּמְנוּ וְלֹא רָאִיתָ עִנִּינוּ נַפְשֵׁנוּ וְלֹא תֵדָע הֵן בְּיוֹם צֹמְכֶם תִּמְצְאוּ חֵפֶץ וְכָל עַצְּבֵיכֶם תִּנְגֹּשׂוּ:

Isaiah 58:3

There are rituals, like fasting and putting on tefilin, but the rituals have underlying messages. Fasting is intended to make humans focus not on their day to day activities, but on God. Therefore, when the Jewish people fasted but did not internalize the message–spending their fast days transacting business instead of in prayer–God chastises them.

Similarly, the ritual of tefilin is intended to make torah learning an inherent part of a person. That’s why the boxes contain excerpts from the shema. When Avital complains that she’s not treated as an equal in regards to her mind or her learning, perhaps part of the solution would specifically be to adopt more rituals. To say that you didn’t fast on Yom Kippur, and yet you are upset that you didn’t feel a connection to God would be, in the Orthodox world of rituals, absurd. To say that you don’t want to attend minyan every day yet you feel excluded from the “good ole’ boys club” is also absurd.

I think that one way to effectuate change in female empowerment is to be part of the establishment, to be present, to lean in and to say, “I want to be here, so listen to me”. When you hang out in the background and then cry that your voice isn’t heard, well, then, part of the fault is on you.

2 comments on “Tefilin: The Route to Empowerment?

  1. Eliana says:

    You characterized my article incorrectly, so I would like to clarify a few things. 1. Tefillin has nothing to do with having and raising babies. 2. In a culture in which women have so much on their collective plates that most feel somewhat guilty about their inadequacies in some area of their lives, pressuring them to take on more is not good for the feminine psyche. 3. Modern feminism focuses not on trying to do what men do, but celebrating who we are as separate beings, and being treated equitably and fairly. 4. Everything we take upon ourselves has a price. We cannot do everything. The time it takes to do something “extra” may take us away from doing something required. 5. Everyone’s life has different needs and requirements. For some women, it may be choosing their family first; for others it may be a fast-track career. Whatever the choice – as women, we need to respect each others’ choices. 6. My article also clearly stated that women who take Tefillin upon themselves for the correct reasons – not as a political movement, not as a media ploy, not to antagonize men – can do so. Commandments are not to be used for anything except the purest purposes. 7. Some so-called feminists are encouraging women/girls to start wearing Tefillin as their “right” as women. Telling women that they should be wearing men’s garb in order to be equal is bringing us back to the 1970s and 1980s – when women felt they had to “be like men” to be treated equally and get ahead.

    don’t we know better than this in our day and age?

    • What you are referring to is known as “difference feminism”, and it is generally considered to be an outdated form of feminism, giving way to third wave and post-modern theories of feminism. In difference feminism, women and men are considered to have different but equal psyches, where as modern views of feminism understand gender to be a social construct. Women don’t HAVE to wear men’s suits to be taken seriously, however, women who choose to wear men’s clothing shouldn’t be ridiculed, either.

      To respond to your individual points:

      1. Absolutely. But throughout your article you talked about women feeling overburdened with childcare and household responsibilities, and then concluded with:
      “If she is able to continue, like all other choices women must make – something else will have to give. Maybe making a bottle for a crying baby, maybe getting to work on time, maybe kissing your kids goodbye when they leave for school, maybe the extra bit of sleep you lost when you nursed a sick child at night. If laying tefillin is expendable when these life challenges arise – then it isn’t something that should be started.” You seem to imply that taking on extra points of observance will lead women to forsake the abovementioned duties.

      2. So you also feel that we shouldn’t pressure women to go to shul, even on shabbos, or to make time for that weekly shiur, or attend a tehillim group, or pray, even at home? Because these are things that women are not obligated to do according to halacha, but many women feel that they actually improve their lives. Tefilin can be the same, to some women.

      Also, this is very important: No one is pressuring any woman to do anything. So far, the discussion has been related to optional tefilin wearing, when a woman has a desire to do so. I’m not convinced that allowing women to put on tefilin will lead to all women feeling obligated to do so, since women don’t feel obligated to do any of the abovementioned “optional” rituals.

      3-5. Being treated equitably and fairly=If I want to work, I can, but I don’t have to. Similarly, If I want to wear tefilin, I can, but I don’t have to. Yes, women [and men] have to make choices, but those choices should be able to include tefilin, if one so desires.

      6. Yes, and I commend you for acknowledging that your understanding of the halacha is that women may wear tefilin. However, you then went on to advise against it, because later in life she might feel burdened with that choice. Tefilin, like learning and praying, should not be discouraged just because a woman might later not have time for it.

      7. Why all this discussion of motives, really? If a man decided that he wants to learn daf yomi because all his business acquaintances attend the same shiur and it might prove to be a valuable networking opportunity, would you advise against it? In Judaism we have a concept “mitok sh’lo lishma, ba lishma” literally meaning that that which starts out not for the purpose of God will come to be for the purpose of God. This is understood to mean that we should not stop ourselves for partaking in rituals and stricter levels of observance simply because we don’t have the requisite mindset, because the mindset will come later. The same can be applied to women participating in optional ritual observance for political reasons.

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