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For Orthodox Women, ‘Catch-22’ On Tefillin

Ritual a difficult taboo to break, even as other gender norms fall; Yeshivah of Flatbush now debating issue for its students.

Staff Writer
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A debate about whether female students should be allowed to pray wearing tefillin at school — one that straddles feminism and Jewish law — has been sweeping the Modern Orthodox world.

In December, the SAR Academy in Riverdale gave permission to a pair of girls to wear tefillin in their women’s prayer group, and in January, the head of Manhattan’s Ramaz School told The Jewish Week that, should anyone make the request, girls would be allowed to wear tefillin even during coed prayer.

This week, the executive director of Yeshivah of Flatbush, another prominent Modern Orthodox institution, told The Jewish Week that his school is currently debating the issue but has not reached a decision. Rabbi Seth Linfield said he would not comment further.

Debate over the issue centers around the question of why, when Orthodox women are breaking gender norms by studying Talmud, reading from the Torah and becoming maharats (in some ways the female equivalent of a rabbi), very few Orthodox women are demanding to wear tefillin or even tallit, prayer shawls.  

Even at Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale, where Modern Orthodox women study to become spiritual leaders, not a single one of the school’s current students or graduates wears tefillin, said Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the school’s dean.

For men it's mandatory to wear tefillin — two small black leather boxes on leather straps that hold the Shema prayer and other biblical excerpts that are attached to the forehead and arm. But, like all “time-bound” requirements, the morning ritual is optional for women, and rarely done in Orthodox circles.

In Conservative communities, women have increasingly adopted the practice — the two SAR students, in fact, come from Conservative homes.

Not so in Orthodox communities.

“I think everyone understands that it is halachically permissible, but many of the [Yeshivat Maharat] women are traditional … so there are not a lot of models,” Rabba Hurwitz told The Jewish Week in an interview after the SAR news broke.

But Orthodox women’s general disinterest in taking on this practice is caused by more than a respect for tradition and lack of role models: there are also a number of cultural beliefs that make wearing tefillin and tallit particularly difficult taboos to break.

“I think most of us believe that when we take on something that is seen by and large as unusual by the community, we really feel like you can’t do it,” said Bat Sheva Marcus, a founding member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

Marcus doesn’t wear tefillin, but about a dozen years ago she began wearing tallit.

“For years I wanted to buy a tallit, but I felt like I wasn’t worthy because I wasn’t davening [praying] every day,” she said. “For Orthodox women, you don’t think you have the right to take on something that the Orthodox community looks at askance unless you’re going to take it incredibly seriously.”

However, the requirement to be committed to daily prayer before wearing tefillin is something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum: many women say it’s the act of wearing tallit and tefillin that enables them to pray every day. 

“For me, having something tangible to put on every day somehow made the commitment more real,” said Marcus. “The concreteness of it made me take the obligation on more regularly, it was doing something every day.”

Liore Milgrom-Gartner, who wore tefillin at SAR’s middle school from 1994 to 1996, found that the act of performing the mitzvah, the ritual, deepened her prayer experience.

“It’s pretty beautiful in its intimacy and Jewish connection,” she said. “It was far more meaningful to be wrapped in tallit and tefillin. It’s really quite powerful, literally you’re wrapping yourself in tradition.”

Therein lies the first obstacle: women feeling they’re not spiritual enough to put on tefillin and tallit.

“It’s a bit of a Catch-22 we often find ourselves in because [for women] the standards are so much higher,” said Marcus.

According to observers, most Orthodox women say they have no desire to wear tefillin or tallit, either because they see it as a masculine domain, or because it’s so contrary to accepted tradition that it feels outright wrong, even horrifying. As one Orthodox Jew said, it’s like lighting all eight candles on the first night of Chanukah. It’s not forbidden, but you just don’t do it.

“The first time I saw a woman wearing a tallit, 27 years ago, I felt like throwing up,” said Marcus. “I was 25. I went to the first Jewish women’s conference, and literally I had to go to the bathroom because I was shaking. It was just so weird to me.”

Today, the sight of a Modern Orthodox woman wearing a prayer shawl is extremely rare, but usually not scandalous. For tefillin, however, things haven’t changed all that much since 1987.

“To many people, seeing a girl wearing tefillin is somewhat shocking,” said Miriam Lichtenberg, a SAR senior who helped create the daily women’s prayer group at the school where the two students now don tefillin. 

Lichtenberg said she’d like to try the ritual. But she’s not going to.

“I think these girls putting it on are more brave than I am. I am more concerned about the way it looks,” she said.

Even Marcus is concerned about how she will be perceived. Every time she goes to a new synagogue, she has to consider carefully whether or not to use her prayer shawl. “Just for a tallit I have to think three times before I pull it out,” she said. Bar mitzvahs are even worse: for those she worries people will think she’s trying to upstage the honoree, even when she's gotten the family’s ok in advance.

“It’s absurd,” she said.

Appearances were also a concern for Shifra Mincer, an Orthodox Jew who discovered while studying Jewish law as a student at Ramaz that she wanted to try wearing tefillin. She approached the school’s principal and a compromise was reached: she could skip school services and instead pray with tefillin at a nearby shul. 

“Honestly, it was kind of relieving to not have to put on the tefillin in front of everyone,” she said. “So many of my rabbis thought I was trying to make a statement, but I really wasn’t.”

Like Marcus, Mincer found that the act of performing the mitzvah deepened her commitment to daily prayer.

“At Ramaz on the women’s side of the mechitza [partition], it was not spiritual at all,” she said. Praying at the synagogue instead was a turning point. “It totally changed my experience because I wasn’t in Ramaz. I took a lot more personal ownership of my davening. I davened on Sundays, all the time. I was definitely a lot more committed in general.”

But Orthodox women like Marcus and Mincer are the exception.

For the vast majority, it appears that wearing tefillin or tallit is either not appealing or not worth the trouble. 

“Any religious expression involves commitment and work, and there has to be a payoff of some kind,” said Marcus. “Not only is it a huge undertaking, but there is so much cultural animosity towards it, why would you do it?”


Last Update:

02/17/2014 - 07:14
JOFA, Ramaz, SAR Academy, tefillin
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"wearing a prayer shawl is extremely rare, but usually not scandalous" Wrong! It is scandalous and an avera because it is prohibited by the Torah Sages of this generation.

The Rama and the vast majority of decisors did not prohibit tefillin outright...
See my chapter on women and tefillin in the book Jewish Legal Writings by Women, Urim Publications, 1998
-signed Aliza Berger-Cooper, Yeshivah of Flatbush High School Class of 1983

I am saddened that the discussion about women wearing Tefilin has become to highly charged. The Rama, in the Shulchan Aruch, makes it perfectly clear that despite the fact that women are technically allowed to wear Tefilin, we must prevent them from doing so. In my humble opinion this must be the starting point in any serious discussion.
However, more interesting to me is that when it does come to women wearing Tefilin it us a situation of the blind leading the blind. In the photo that accompanies this article, both the man and the young girl are not wearing the Tefilin according to the Halacha. Neither the Shel Yad nor the Shel Rosh are positioned properly in the man. Consequently, he does not ensure that the young girl is putting them on correctly - which she isn't.
To be ignorant of the deep halachic debate and reasoning behind the halacha of women wearing Tefilin is one thing. However, thousands of people wear Tefilin every day - correctly - but this simple, basic information about how to properly fulfill a very important Mitzvah seems to have eluded our non-Orthodox brethren.
By the way, in the numerous photos of the Women of the Wall wearing Tefilin, they too are wearing the Tefilin improperly.
If you are going to do a Mitzvah, at least observe it correctly!!

Most of the Women of the Wall who wear tefillin, do wear them properly, above the hairline etc. Unfortunately a few pictures of women wearing tefillin when the 'shel rosh' has slipped down are still being used and reused by the media. In any case, I once saw a picture of a group of men praying at the Kotel and some had their tefillin a bit too low - but of course no one comments on this.
I believe that as Women of the Wall lead the way and teach more women about this mitzva, women wearing tefillin will no longer be a news item, but part of every day ritual.
And by the way, tens of thousands of Jews fulfill the very important mitzva of 'love your neighbour as yourself', but the basic Jewish principle of 'dan l'kaf z'chut' - 'judging favourably' seems to have eluded our Orthodox brethren especially when it comes to photographs of women in Jewish ritual.

Far worse than looking like an idiot with his tefilin dangling on his forehead, this ignorant am ha'aretz, who does not appear to be the innocent youngster's father or brother, does not observe n'giah laws and likewise subjects her to the n'giah violation. What a role model!

Dear Ms. Dim -
If you can look at the picture of what very much looks like a father helping his daughters put on tefillin and see in it a n'giah violation, you have a very sick mind, indeed. The one who comes across as being an idiot and/or an am ha'aretz, is not the man pictured in this story....

The story from the Rav bears repeating. A woman requested his permission to wear a Talis when davening. He told her to wear one without the Tzizis on it for a month and come back to see him. When she returned she described how overwhelming, meaningful and wonderful her prayers had become while wearing the Talis. The Rav explained to her that wearing a Talis without Tzitzis attached to it was in fact an Aveira, and that therefore the Talis could not possibly have had any connection with her own increased devotion during prayers. He prohibited her from wearing a Talis with Tzitzes while praying. In our Mesorah there are many roles and religious practices that are delegated to either the man or the women. Women don't put on Tefilin and under most circumstances, men don't light Shabbos Candles. Men undergo a bris - women do not. With all of the serious problems Jews face in this world it is shameful that some can't stop nibbling away like parasites at our Mesorah in the name of some "ism". The only "ism" is Judaism and the rest is folly.

The photo shows both the man and woman wearing tefillin incorrectly--the head tefillin must be worn above one's (original) hairline.

there is no way Yeshiva of Flatbush will allow this......

I wonder if these girls are 100% careful of the required laws; Tznius, shomer negiah etc......

I wonder why you wonder such things. I wonder if all the men who layn tefilin are 100% careful about shomer negiah, lashon harah, looking for ulterior, sinister motives when another Jew (Jewess) seeks to perform a mitzvah....

Simple. when you are obligated to do a mitzvah -do it, even if you are unfortunately deficient in other aspects of observance. But when you are NOT obligated, make sure you do what YOU ARE OBLIGATED FIRST!!!

Women: G-d who created you knows what your souls need to connect to Him. First learn and do what G-d says you SHOULD do. What do you think happens if you eat your ice cream desert and forget the main! It's really not too healthy|!!

As a woman who is proud to be an Orthodox jew, I find it strange that "feministic" women have the desire to wear tefillin. I consider myself a feminist - I believe that every woman has an equal (if not greater) connection to G-d, equal role in society, and equal role in the home. I am an educated Doctor and am strictly orthodox. There is so many commandments in the Torah with roles for both males and females. There are many commandments just for women, as well as just for men. Every day is filled with efforts to keep the Torah's mitzvoth, and to follow in G-d's ways. So why is it that wearing a tallit or tefillin is considered "feministic" or "progressive"?

I am not sure that these young women are wearing tefillin in order to make a feminist statement. From the article, it seems that they simply want to observe a mitzvah which has historically been performed only by men but for which there is no direct prohibition for women to also perform. Why exactly does this cause a problem for you? Also, in what way are you a self proclaimed feminist? Is it because you feel a greater connection to Hashem than you think men do? I'd love to read your response.

"no direct prohibition". Rema explicitly forbids it

YOF will not SAR because as most people who live in Brooklyn know - YOF is not an Ashkenazi school. YOF is now the domain of the Sephardic / Syrian community and that community is much more conservative than most. The women don't want to break out of their gender norms because they are too comfortable. Most enjoy their daily routines of going to the gym at the "center", getting their nails done, then lunch at Crawfords, and then some form of hesed. Their much older husbands ( at least 8-10 years - no shiduch crisis here ), shower them with cleaning ladies, maids, vacations, and the newest BMW's or MB. I have no fear that Yeshiva of Flatbush girls will put on tefilin.

You seem to know so much about (denigrating) Yeshivah of Flatbush students, then you should at least know how to spell "Yeshivah" correctly in the name of the school. See the above comments on "loshon hara".

The substance of the facts are still the same. YOF is not a Ashkenazi school and the SY community is not going down the "open road"

The Modern Orthodox (M.O.) community stands at a crossroads. There will undoubtedly be a split, in which today's "brave souls" will be a part of tomorrows new traditional Conservative movement. Their daughters will not struggle with the "halachah" conflict as they do. They will view "feminism" as their first priority.
The vast majority of the M.O. people will be forced to reject these changes and choose to remain "Orthodox" and adherents of the Halacha of our sages.

When I celebrated my cousin's Bat Mitzvah I was still in college and could hardly wrap my mind around it in the Reform Temple in Duluth, MN where I grew up. Girls were already B'not Mitzvah in Minneapolis (and probably elsewhere) but I didn't learn that until later. Some 25 years afterward, my oldest daughter decided she would seek smicha at HUC/JIR. I had to get used to that. Then she and her partner (that's another story) came to visit and would don tefilin in the mornings and go out on the deck to daven. More to get used to.

Eventually I wondered what it would be like to wear a tallit. I was called to the Torah at a synagogue I frequently visit (not my own) and was asked to wear a tallit because it was the custom of the synagogue. I got used to it, even taught myself the blessing. Then I got my own tallit on a visit to Jerusalem. So, the older I've gotten the more new things I've learned. I am more comfortable today wearing a tallit at the appropriate times than not wearing one. But I don't think I'll do tefilin. It doesn't feel like a comfortable idea but then I'm 77 now. I do find a tallit a very comforting garment, no matter where I daven.

Times and customs change, and Judaism would not have experienced the tremendous flowering I have observed in America in the past 60-some years if some of us were not open to expressing ourselves in new ways. Think of it: There are havurot and yeshivot popping up all over the place, many creating their own, very American style siddurim as well as creating some very serious learning opportunities. I see it as more and more people more connected to their Jewish heritage in one way or another, a situation far superior to dropping out, forgetting it exists or ignoring it.

Kol hakavod to the Orthodox young ladies who are making tefilin part of their ritual life. The flowering continues!

Point of fact. These girls are from conservative families and attend a school that is on the extreme fringe of the orthodox community

Tallis and tefillin are signs of a young man's newly found adulthood, and so are an important part of Jewish male bonding. How will young men continue to utilize these mitzvos for male bonding and growth, once they taken on by women?

I had no idea that the reason for putting on tallit and tefilin is to promote male bonding. I thought that was the purpose of Kiddush clubs. Thanks for pointing it out! Maybe we should just go to the next step and keep women out of shuls altogether and have the shuls become real men's clubs where you can bond and grow.

We were going to send our daughter to SAR next year but we changed our minds. We simply want a good education for her.We don't need strange drama.

Excellent decision!

Dear Concerned Parent

If you and your daughter had your sights set on SAR High school and you've changed your mind based on this incident, please reconsider. We have two children at SAR High School (both boys) and, the headlines in the Jewish Week notwithstanding, this is very much of a nonissue within the student body. The school does not promote girls wearing tefilin, they simply want to create an atmosphere where, should a young woman so desire, she MAY wear tefilin. Should you reconsider, your daughter will get not a good, but excellent secular and limudei kodesh education with no drama (unless she chooses to join the drama club).

Perhaps Concerned Parent doesn't want her children influenced by those who seek to break with tradition and by an administration that turns a blind eye.

It does little to advance the rational discussion of this topic when one's cursor moves over the photo for this article on the front page of the website and you find that the photo is entitled "weirdness" (weirdness.jpg).

Hi Sharon, Thanks for pointing out the photo name--we didn't realize. We're changing it now.  Best, Amy

Sorry Rabba, but everyone does not agree its permissible for women to wear tefillin except for a few outlier rabbis.

Rav Soloveitchik prohibited it.

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