Tradition Today: Women and mitzvot

I cannot help but wonder what the problem is with the desire of some women to wear tallitot, tefillin and read from the Torah at the Western Wall.

Women of the wall tefillin 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Women of the wall tefillin 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When I see the fuss that is made about the desire of some women to wear tallitot and tefillin and read from the Torah at the Western Wall, I cannot help but wonder what the problem is. I am further amazed at the extreme statements made by the rabbi in charge of the site and by other leaders of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community calling on their followers to come out and protest, as well as by the silence of moderate Orthodox authorities on this issue. I cannot believe that they really think that what these women are doing is in violation of Jewish law.
Surely they know as well as anyone else that all of this is permitted.
Women may not be required to do these things within traditional Halacha, but nowhere are they prohibited from doing them, any more than they are prohibited from sitting in a succa! In the instance of the tallit, furthermore, it is even stronger than that. In Sifre Numbers 115 and several other places it is stated that men and women are both obligated to wear tzitzit, while only one rabbi, Rabbi Simon, states that women are exempt – not prohibited but exempt – from doing so.
My only conclusion is that this “much ado about nothing” is really an expression of fear that women in their own communities may begin to question why they are given a back seat in Jewish practice and are relegated to the back of the bus, literally and figuratively. It has nothing to do with Jewish law and nothing to do with the sanctity of the Wall and nothing to do with offending others, and everything to do with protecting an insular way of life.
These groups have every right to want to live that way and to want their women to live that way – so long as the women agree. But they have absolutely no right to force their practices upon others and to make the totally false claim that what they say represents the official position of traditional Judaism. It simply does not.
What is Judaism’s position concerning women and mitzvot? First of all it is important to realize that the Torah is a book filled with mitzvot (the traditional number is 613), but that these mitzvot are not all directed to everyone or even to every Jew. Some are for all humanity, some are for specific groups such as Kohanim or Levites. Some are directed to the king or to judges. Some are gender specific, such as circumcision or nidda.
Aside from those, the general mitzvot in the Torah, both positive and negative, are directed at all Israelites, men and women alike. This includes tallit, tefillin etc.
It was only during the rabbinic period that the Sages decided that women should be exempted from the observance of certain mitzvot.
They created the general category of “positive mitzvot that are timebound” for these mitzvot (Kiddushin 1:7), although there were certainly many exceptions to the rule, lighting Hanukka lights being one example. They did not – and I stress did not – at any time state that women were forbidden to do these things, but rather that they were exempt – the ostensible reason being that women had other obligations as wives and mothers that would make it difficult for them to perform these acts at the prescribed times.
In truth, they were probably simply reflecting the realities and social mores of the time, realities, incidentally, which have changed.
Be that as it may, even assuming that the rabbinic exemption is to be followed today, there is no excuse for prohibiting women who want to from performing these acts and from taking these obligations upon themselves.
While there are obviously gender-determined mitzvot that women do not perform, the general mitzvot of the Torah are commanded to women and men alike.
The Sages in the second century CE exempted them from certain mitzvot, but did not prohibit them from performing them. There is no excuse for us, nearly 2,000 years later, forbidding what neither the Torah nor the Sages forbade. Let us put an end to all this fuss and support the right of women to perform these mitzvot within the framework of traditional Judaism.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).