This past December, a Modern Orthodox Jewish high school in Riverdale, N.Y., started allowing two female students to put on tefillin, small black leather boxes containing verses from the Bible with leather straps meant for securing the box to the wearer’s head or arm. Putting on, or “laying,” tefillin is something the school’s male students are required to do during mandatory morning prayers, but letting the women don tefillin was something new. By most accounts, this is the first Modern Orthodox high school that has allowed women to do so during regular morning services—where men sit on one side of the room and women on another, often divided by a partition. This remained a local story until students at another Modern Orthodox high school, Shalhevet in Los Angeles, published an article on Jan. 16 about the Riverdale decision as it related to their own school, where the rabbi had recently told female students that if they wanted to wear tefillin and a tallit (a prayer shawl) for their morning prayers, they should pray at home. And now everyone in the Modern Orthodox world is talking about it.
This, in a nutshell, is the question that’s plaguing Modern Orthodox Judaism today: Where do passionate and committed women fit in a belief system that doesn’t treat them as equals? Or, from the reverse perspective, how does a religion maintain its tradition but not exclude half of its members from its basic rituals?
Tefillin is just one example of a mitzvah, or commandment, that not only is required of men, but is traditionally forbidden to women. There are myriad other examples of similar roadblocks that no amount of leaning in seems to fix. In a post for the Times of Israel, Rabbi Ethan Tucker deftly delves into the history of gender and tefillin and what exactly led to this moment. He quotes the verse from Exodus 13:9 that states that one should have a reminder upon their arm and between their eyes so that God’s teachings are in their mouth. For various reasons that Tucker expounds on, this commandment is therefore attached to the commandment to study God’s texts, and studying God’s texts is something women were traditionally not only exempt from doing, but not permitted to do. But I don’t want to debate whether Jewish law does or does not permit women to don these leather boxes. (Tucker does a wonderful job for those who are looking for a more in-depth analysis of this.) As an observant Jewish woman who does not want to wrap tefillin or wear a tallit, I believe unequivocally that women should be able to. And there are many other women like me. Which is why Jewish law, while of prime importance to those wishing to take this step forward and those hoping to prevent it, is not the most interesting part of this debate. It’s secondary to the question of whether Modern Orthodoxy has a future if it continues to alienate so many women.
If this story sounds vaguely familiar, you probably read my colleague Dahlia Lithwick’s article about the Women of the Wall, the group of women who attempt to pray with tefillin and tallitot (the plural of tallit) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem at the beginning of each month. But while the Women of the Wall are mostly Reform and Conservative women who are fighting from outside the system, these high school tefillin-wearers are trying to work within a system to carve out a niche for themselves. They are, essentially, law-abiding citizens in a country where laws can’t change, but loopholes are constantly, and some would say conveniently, discovered. They don’t want a revolution; they just want one loophole to work in their favor so that they can join the rest of their fellow citizens in their right to pray. Yet, despite this difference, the tefillin-wearers share a key struggle with the Women of the Wall, summed up nicely by a man Lithwick quotes in her piece as he yells over the prayer partition in Hebrew: “These women are our worst enemies; not the Arabs.” The sentiment that women who want to pray, who want to be a part of the tradition, are the enemies of the male gatekeepers is as prevalent in many Modern Orthodox institutions as it is at the Wall.
While I was a student at the Manhattan Modern Orthodox high school Ramaz in the early 2000s, there were two women who put on tefillin daily—they weren’t permitted to so during regular services, but the rabbi allowed them to pray with tefillin once a week, during a women-only service, and on the other days they prayed elsewhere. Reflecting back on the experience in light of the recent hoopla, one of those women, Eliana Fishman, wrote in Forward, “In many ways, the organized Jewish community—particularly the Orthodox community—still feels like an antagonistic body, because I know its power to ostracize, bully and exclude.” She writes:
The reactions we got from the student body and the faculty were mixed. Not surprisingly, some students and faculty — particularly rabbinic faculty — reacted with belligerence. It became normal to refer to the two women who lay tefillin as women who wanted to be men, or as lesbians.
Most students assumed that laying tefillin was a feminist statement, and feminism was certainly a bad word at Ramaz. No one entertained the possibility that tefillin was about making prayer, a hard experience in and of itself, easier. No one considered that laying tefillin was an attempt to remind ourselves of the yoke of heaven.
What’s too often missing from this conversation is the simple fact that these women don’t necessarily want to be activists and have no desire to antagonize anyone. They just want to pray. It’s easy for men to find their place in different Jewish denominations because their access, their entry point, is always the same. If a man decides to attend Orthodox services, Reform services, Reconstructionist services, he’s welcomed as an equal. It’s only for women that a change in denomination changes her identity to its core. How long will educated, committed women want to be a part of the community that doesn’t want them?
Update, Feb. 4, 2014: This post has been updated to clarify that Ramaz high school did not require the female students who wrapped tefillin to pray in a specific location when not in school.