Debate Magazine

Women, Tefillin, and the Orthodox Schism

Posted on the 24 January 2014 by Starofdavida

Women, Tefillin, and the Orthodox SchismIf you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably already heard that SAR and Ramaz, two New York schools that identify as Modern Orthodox, have announced that they will allow female students to lay tefillin (phylacteries) in school. This deviates from the standards of normative Orthodoxy, in which only boys lay tefillin. Since I have previously professed my own desire to lay tefillin and support for other women who do so, you probably assume I’m on SAR and Ramaz’s side. However, I’m not entirely sure what I think.
To be honest, I feel like I’m up a creek without a paddle. The Orthodox movement is undergoing a schism, and it’s mainly coming to a head around women’s status. As a feminist who allies herself with organizations like NOW and JOFA, I’m supposed to automatically champion whatever it is that seems to empower women more. However, as someone with a deep commitment to observing halakha (Jewish law) and adhering to the dictates of Orthodoxy, I cannot blindly support any issue that impacts Jewish life.
Having thought about the issue at hand, I am reluctant to support SAR and Ramaz in this venture. My hesitance at least partially stems from the fact that girls are simply not obligated in tefillin. It only makes sense for schools to encourage girls (and boys, for that matter) to first master mitzvot (commandments) they’re obligated in before taking on additional ones. For example, there’s no teacher who would tell a group of students that don’t keep kosher to keep halav yisrael, a stringency on dairy products. I’m not trying to cast aspersions on the halakhic observance of girls who lay tefillin, but as I’ve yet to meet a single person who truly follows every halakha, I highly doubt that these girls are. This is not to say that a person should never take on additional religious responsibilities; however, it seems unwise to advocate for it on a systematic level. It makes more sense for SAR and Ramaz to teach their students not to eat non-kosher dairy products than to lay tefillin.
Then again, does it hurt anyone if girls begin to lay tefillin? It is a mitzvah, and can only bring more kedusha (holiness) into the world. Nobody thinks twice about women shaking the lulav during Sukkot, although women are exempt from that mitzvahas well. Why should we question women who lay tefillin, but not those who shake lulav?
But I’m wasting my time debating the halakhic merits of women laying tefillin. This isn’t about tefillin or halakha. It’s about drawing lines in the sand. By making this decision and publicizing it, SAR and Ramaz are making statements about where they stand, religiously and denominationally. I’ve already seen people on the Internet accuse them of leaving the realm of Orthodoxy and venturing into the Conservative movement; others are holding that as Modern Orthodox schools, SAR and Ramaz are legitimizing girls laying tefillin as permissible by Orthodox standards. I would be a fool to claim that I know which side is correct. Only time can tell whether girls laying tefillinbecomes part of Modern Orthodoxy or not.
Regardless of what happens in the long-term, I live in the present, so I have to decide whether I want to identify as part of the left or right wings of Orthodoxy. I’ve been straddling the two sides for what feels like a lifetime, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to do. Should I participate in the right-wing backlash against SAR and Ramaz, or should I applaud the schools for their progressive outlook? Do I go Modern or right-wing? I have to choose, but I don’t know where to turn. No matter which side I opt to identify with, I have to accept a lot of stuff that I don’t agree with or want to live with. I know that there is a small middle ground that still exists, but it frustrates me that the left and right wings seem to be swelling in comparison.
At the end of the day, my attitude is live and let live. I won’t lay tefillin, but I will shake lulav, because that’s how I was raised and how I feel comfortable practicing Judaism and connecting to God. I truly hope that girls who lay tefillin are able to connect to tefillot (prayers) in a deeper, more meaningful way because of it. I just wish that a person’s support of girls wearing tefillin was not a denominational marker.

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