Laying tefillin: An anti-feminist movement

Judaism has a concept of religion which actually takes the traditional roles of women into consideration.

Women on the Wall 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women on the Wall 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Much hoopla has occurred recently about the movement by Jewish feminists to encourage girls and women to wear (alternative taxonomies include “lay” or “place”) tefillin when they pray, traditionally a religious commandment required for men. This was reinforced when SAR (Salanter Akiba Riverdale academy high school) and Ramaz (a Modern Orthodox high school in Manhattan) announced that they would allow girls to wear tefillin during school prayers.
Many rabbinical figures voiced a wide variety of opinions about Jewish law, Jewish tradition, reasons why the schools opted thus, lively debates ensued, both pro and con. The arguments about tefillin are based on continuity of tradition, which is a formidable, respectable and revered ideal in all practiced organized religions.
This article does not deal with halacha or religious legal perspective, as I am not a qualified authority on such matters. I approach this sensitive subject from the angle of an Orthodox Jewish feminist, which is a necessary perspective in this matter. After all, these schools are considered Orthodox, the new rules affect girls and women, and it is considered by many to be a feminist issue.
My approach to this matter is quite different than most: I believe that encouraging women and girls to wear tefillin during prayer is an anti-feminist statement. I shall glance at the religious perspective of this commandment, and then explore the errors of modern feminism and how they apply today to this particular issue.
Other than Rav Moshe Isserles (the RAMAH), most rabbinical sources do not dispute that technically, women can wear tefillin – there is nothing wrong with doing so. Most of the arguments revolve around the appropriateness of changing tradition, moving toward a modern interpretation of egalitarianism in an ancient religion, and incorporating new trends in Orthodox practice.
Furthermore, women wearing tefillin in the presence of men may be deemed inappropriate and offensive, as it is counter to traditional Orthodox practice and may distract their prayers.
Judaism has a concept of religion which actually takes the traditional roles of women into consideration. Women are not obligated to perform most time-dependent commandments. They can, but they do not have to. There are also relaxed requirements for prayer when a woman has a child.
Judaism considers women to be at a higher spiritual level than men, which is one reason why women do not need to wear kippa, tzitzit and other religious garb. Our very natures are cloaked in a deeper understanding of the spirit of the law. We are biologically in tune with time, we have schedules – and therefore do not need external reminders of time-dependent things; it is inherent in our beings.
THE FEMINIST movement of the 1960s and 1970s left a clear message to the next generation of women: Now you have choices. And you must/should choose everything. That is correct: Women are no longer “permitted” by the feminist culture and tradition to be satisfied with raising a family; we must also excel at work, and be involved in community/ political causes.
In modern society, it is no longer socially acceptable for a woman to choose one or the other. There is tremendous societal pressure, well documented in scholarly literature, to become “superwomen” and to learn how to manage the various aspects of modern life. Women in the 1970s and 1980s suppressed their femininity by wearing men’s suits and ties, climbing the corporate ladder, having families later in life or not at all.
Studies about leadership in that era reflect that women felt they had to suppress their feminine attributes and become more “masculine” to succeed as leaders. These messages, sent to us through models of so-called successful women and media, made many in my generation of women feel entirely inadequate.
With only 24 hours in a day, for God did not allot extra daily hours for superwomen, something had to give. Meanwhile, we just felt guilty: Guilty that we neglected our children, guilty that we could not devote more overtime at work; guilty that we were not being properly/ equally compensated; guilty for neglecting our spouses; guilty that we weren’t climbing the corporate ladder fast enough.
And we went home and tried to scratch together dinner for the family, missed PTA meetings, allowed others to raise our children, missed corporate weekends – because we simply could not do everything.
Our self-esteem was harmed collectively as we were in fact, forced to choose how to spend our 24 hours each day.
A poignant PBS interview with Barnard College president Debora L. Spar in October 2013 discussing her new book: Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Dr. Spar discusses that indeed a primary unintended consequence of the feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s “was to make women feel inadequate.”
Our choices have price tags attached to them: We could choose to be corporate leaders, but then we would not have the time to be perfect mothers and wives. We could choose to raise our children and work part-time, but then we would not be able to advance at work. And women juggled, felt guilty about the have-nots, and we were disappointed in ourselves.
Modern feminism includes embracing that we could do many things; enter many fields that our mothers and grandmothers never dreamed of. But we could also choose not to do so. Having choices requires feminism to respect those choices – whatever they may be – without guilt. Research shows that women have better leadership skills than men in many ways, and we no longer have to suppress our femininity to become leaders.
I AM a very proud mother, with a very supportive husband, a high-motivation careerist, and a very proud Jew. I am proud to belong to a religion that “gets it” about how women are equal-but-different.
I have zero interest in taking on more than I need to – I juggle well but not that well.
Along comes tefillin. A number of years ago, an acquaintance once commented that now that she was a mother, she felt guilty that she no longer put on tefillin every day. Accepting upon oneself a new commandment is not an incidental or sporadic event. Men who wear tefillin wake up every morning, sick or well, rain or shine, summer or winter, in the hospital and in an airplane – to lay their tefillin.
I have seen my husband put his on when he had the flu, thanking God that I didn’t have to do that.
Religious commandments are not vehicles for feminist statements – they are commandments. Commitment to laying tefillin is not an intermittent compulsion when the cameras are present – it is a daily commitment for life.
Why a lifelong commitment? Because commandments, like ancient traditions, are not fads. They must be carried out with the correct spiritual intent, reflected in the pedagogical words from the Torah to “vigilantly” obey commandments “with your entire heart... and soul.” If women truly want to take this unnecessary additional commandment upon themselves – that is great – but only if it is done with a reflective, authentic spirit of enhancing one’s spirituality, and only if it is done as a daily, lifelong commitment, as it is for men.
More so, if a woman meets these criteria, laying tefillin should be done only in a location which does not offend or affect others who are praying, which may be deemed culturally and religiously insensitive (insensitivity is not a “feminine” attribute). I have seen Jewish women cover their heads and take off their shoes when visiting mosques and Buddhist temples, but wear shorts and go sleeveless in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
Why is our culture and religion less worthy than others of some basic sensitivity? But I digress.
Just as modern feminism set us up to fail in the impossible task of having it all – the tefillin movement is adding to the already tapped-out burden that modern women have in their day-to-day lives.
Add a good dose of Judaism into the mix – and we simply cannot ask women and girls to take on another obligation. It isn’t fair and it isn’t moral – and it does not advance the cause of modern feminism.
It isn’t fair because as it is, practicing modern Jewish women have plenty to do. Besides the juggling of work and children, husbands and communities – we have Shabbat to organize, we keep a kosher home, we have holidays to prepare for and manage, many of us pray daily, and we have to maintain our spiritual selves with the occasional religious lecture. Most religious Orthodox women work and can relate to this laundry list.
Why isn’t it moral? Studies have shown that women worry and think about their families throughout the work day, and the overall guilt working mothers have in any culture is significant. Perhaps this is more so in traditional/Orthodox Jewish women who have more on their collective plates than most. Imparting guilt upon women, who simply cannot meet the unrealistic expectation of a further daily commitment, is immoral.
We know from research that this guilt exists even with the current feminist ideal or expectations placed on women.
Modern perspectives are focusing on improving women’s self-esteem and alleviating the guilt of necessary decisions and sacrifices.
Finally, why does women wearing tefillin not advance the cause of feminism? First of all, it isn’t in fashion. In other words – women have passed the stages of trying to be like men in order to be considered powerful or equal.
We don’t have to wear the men’s suits and ties (think Annie Hall), we don’t have to displace our more “feminine” communication and collaboration skills with those “masculine” skills of assertiveness and risk-taking. At least in that way, the battle has been won. Why would we want to revert back to the old-fashioned thinking that we need to behave like men in order to be considered spiritual equals? Secondly, the task of educating the new generations of women is to teach them to advance women’s equality in pay, promote leadership skills in school, build self-esteem and pride, and role model such behaviors. It does not behoove us as women to ask religious girls and women to do more than they already will be doing their whole lives: having families, working, succeeding, making educated choices about their lives, creating a spiritual religious home, and developing as a devout Jew.
Life has given us great tasks, burdens and rewards. Feminism might have given us tremendous opportunities and choices.
But now we must take a step back and reflect on the warped message my generation has learned by eliminating the psychological burden of societal guilt.
Instead of inflicting more harm on the feminine psyche, we must aim to repair and fortify it. I hope to instill these values in my teenage daughters, and above all as religious women, I want them to have a wonderful, confident sense of self, and to respect their educated decisions and choices.
Tefillin is a beautiful commandment written in the Torah and recited in the Shema prayer twice a day. As an Orthodox feminist Jewish woman, I believe that I am whole and complete without adding on another commandment to my repertoire. I don’t want to be like men. I am a powerful, religious woman without proving anything to anyone. I am equal and different – and very proud of it.
I also hate to visualize the guilt that truly committed young Jewish women will have, as my acquaintance did, when and if she can no longer fulfill this commandment.
If she is able to continue, like all other choices women must make – something else will have to give. Maybe making a bottle for a crying baby, maybe getting to work on time, maybe kissing your kids goodbye when they leave for school, maybe the extra bit of sleep you lost when you nursed a sick child at night.
If laying tefillin is expendable when these life challenges arise – then it isn’t something that should be started. It isn’t a hobby. It isn’t a media ploy. It is a significant, spiritual lifestyle commitment.
And in my opinion, we don’t need to, and therefore shouldn’t, do it.
The author is a nurse practitioner, a doctoral student at Yale University, and a health policy and leadership expert.