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.

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