Aberdeen Israel Fund
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Women Rabbis Question Suggestive Tefillin Photo
Staff Writer
Photo Galleria: 

Was the winter issue of Kolot, the magazine of the Conservative movement, “stooping to sensationalism” or raising questions about women wearing tefillin?

Those were the questions asked in a letter to the editor by Conservative women rabbis in response to the magazine’s cover picture of two women holding hands while wearing tefillin. The letter called the photograph “disturbing and beneath the magazine that represents the unified voice of our movement.”

“As Conservative rabbis we seek to normalize both the wearing of tefillin and the reality of women rabbis,” the letter said. “Disembodying the women on the cover and sexualizing the wearing of tefillin feeds into the fears and anxieties that many in our movement have about observant women and women rabbis.”

Rabbi Francine Roston of South Orange, N.J., said she wrote the letter and that 60 colleagues signed it before she sent it to the magazine last Friday. 

“Many of my congregants looked at the photo and assumed it was a picture for a story on homosexuality and Conservative Judaism,” she wrote. “Imagine our surprise when inside we found stories about
tefillin and a story about women rabbis in the movement and the challenges they face.”

One of those who signed the letter, Rabbi Susan Grossman of Columbia, Md., said she too had assumed the photo was to illustrate “an article about our movement’s welcoming of gays. … What makes the women rabbis uncomfortable is that it sexualizes the wearing of tefillin.”

She pointed out that in the 1960s through ‘90s, literature in the Orthodox world that spoke of women asking for the right to wear tefillin labeled them “as women who are licentious.”

“That is what made me concerned — that here we are tapping into this kind of cultural discomfort about women taking on what had been historically seen as a male-only ritual,” she said. “Therefore, it muddied the conversation about women in the rabbinate.”

Rabbi Howard Buechler of Dix Hills, L.I., said the photo and the way it was edited 
“creates a negative stereotype of women rabbis and demeans them.”

But Rabbi Faith Cantor of Baltimore disagreed, saying she was not offended by the photo.

“We’re a movement that celebrates exclusivity and we’re flipping out on this?” she asked. “I don’t see that picture as sexual.”

Joanne Palmer, editor of Kolot, said she and fellow editor Rhonda Jacobs Kahn were surprised by all the fuss because they believed the photo “we picked was a compelling and attractive image of friendship.”

“It was a picture of two women who wanted to show friendship and we wanted a good picture,” she added. “We saw nothing sexual about it. We liked the fact they were wearing tefillin, and believed it was a compelling image that would lead people to pick up the magazine — which is what editors want.”


Last Update:

02/03/2012 - 05:02
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What made the picture an awful choice is that one does not usually hold hands with someone else when wearing tefillin in the first place! It's a strange image to anyone who attends the usually quiet time that is daily morning minyan. So while there might be dancing or some other reason to hold hands while wearing tefillin, it's just very rare-- if it happens at all. Without faces, the picture gives little context, leaving people confused when they first see the image. It was a poor choice for a cover, and served neither the discussion on Women Rabbis or homosexuality in the movement. And there were far better images within the article that would have made great covers.

I was instantly repulsed by that photo - not because they are women holding hands - but because they are wearing tefillin and NOT davening. Frankly, it comes across looking like some sick fetish thing.

Tephilin evolved as an expression of Jewish piety at a time when women were not expected to devote as much time to religious practice as men; as such, it was codified as part of the male religious experience. Changing morays and blurring of lines of authority and experience in society should cause all Jews to rethink the obligation of tephilin and apply them to both men and women.

If the symbol of a woman rabbi is one who is committed to praying every morning, then there are far worse images. The inference of sexuality in the picture is a bit less than convincing; women engaged in minimal physical contact has a sexual connotation only to those who see such message in their breakfast cereal or a car muffler.

My only comments are really just that I saw this as an image of homosexuality amongst observant people, whether women or men but that in fact because it was women was trying to become even more "scandalous"
Also, that the magazine kolot in anyway speaks for a unified movement is a joke as one conservative synagogue is as different from another as catholics are different then Jews. Case in point Rabbi Buechlers which is a fully egalitarian synagogue while 7 miles down the road another is not egalitarian except for seating.

When I went on line to see the original, I noted that there was an article about Australia joining the world wide wrap. THAT'S what I thought the cover referred to.

Can you publish the link to the Rabbis' letter?

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