Orthodox Jewish Women Don't Need Tefillin; We Need Real Empowerment

Egalitarian prayer services? Female rabbis? Lowered mehitzahs? That's not what Orthodox women need. We need a mentality shift that encourages girls to open their minds, voice their opinions and fulfill their ambitions.

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It never ceases to amaze us, the Orthodox plebeians, how quickly hordes of bloggers can skew matters out of proportion. Skim the blogs and you will discover the din of rumbling male voices expounding on Orthodox gender roles.

Perhaps the voices are predominantly male because men are usually better versed than us women in our holy texts, or perhaps simply because (one wonders secretly, rolling one’s eyes) it is typical of men to be impulsively outspoken. Men have insisted that we faint-hearted ladies are happier in the quiet of the home, more content in our modesty and soft-voiced femininity. Others insist we are oppressed by texts that have been misinterpreted, victims of an inescapable patriarchal tradition.

And this conversation has followed Talmudic style exactly: Again, the traditional-minded Orthodox woman, that elusive creature of "otherness," continues to exist as an object of the male gaze, at the center of a male conversation on which she is merely eavesdropping. Because there has been a careful silence from such women, who actually have strong opinions that more accurately reflect popular sentiment in the Orthodox world.

Perhaps there is silence because (one wonders yet again, quietly) our traditional sisters are not encouraged to articulate their thoughts and defend their faith. Instead, the only female voices that have emerged have been those of the "regulars": the faces of the Orthodox feminist movement, seething alongside their male supporters and secular sympathizers, impassioned, heady with publicity and armed with texts.

But step into a conversation in Flatbush, in Monsey, in Teaneck and the Five Towns and the rest of our Pale of Settlement – and people will blink at you: Women and tefillin (phylacteries)? Ah, yes; I saw some posts about that on Facebook. Weird, really.

This whole issue has now come to the fore after young women in two modern Orthodox high schools in New York last month asked for and received permission to don tefillin while at school.

So I suppose I am compelled to interject here, humbly, with some cultural observations and with a view to cold reality: The average Orthodox woman today is not preoccupied with fighting for ownership over her father’s and husband’s rituals. To imagine otherwise is at best sensationalist and at worst delusional.

It is certainly unfashionable to write this, and certainly in these pages – but I will attempt to offer a realistic portrait here of a community as I perceive it: a spectacle which in general amuses those in “mainstream” Orthodoxy.

Silent majority

The story which is sorely lacking here is that of the silent majority, of the average Orthodox woman. This must be said for the sake of accuracy, lest readers imagine that all of us enlightened Orthodox specimens live in Riverdale, and that hordes of women in the community are now barricading rabbinical courthouses and demanding tefillin and prayer shawls.

Ask the average American Orthodox woman if she would lay tefillin, if it were acceptable, and she will likely give you a blank look and laugh.

Ask the average Orthodox woman what threatens her stake in this community – and she will tell you that it is certainly not tefillin, and that the outcry of this past week has been an all-too-easy excuse to make accusations against her own.

Ask her what she is worried about – and you will hear a very different kol isha (woman's voice), if you only listen. Women here are worried about living in a world where family status is essential, definitive and fragile: where the unmarried, the childless and the divorced occupy a lower caste. Women who are denied divorces continue to waste away for years, waiting for freedom to remarry. Abuse in our community's schools is taking painfully long to be investigated.

Life outside is demonized, out of fear of tainting our impressionable minds. Secular literature is effectively discouraged, even intensive Torah study is not popular. Ask a bookseller for help with a little sister’s birthday gift, and you’ll be directed to the cookbook section. Our children’s teachers and idols, even in the more modern-thinking schools, are bright-eyed seminary graduates high on religious fervor, overseen by rabbis who take a certain pleasure in granting disapproving smirks. Everything goyishe is therefore impure, everything modern smacks of galus – exile.

And that zumba: Girls, beware the dangers of the Latin dance, lest you realize you’re a woman and stop shuffling your feet and learn to walk with poise. Even those of us with more modern sensibilities are still ruled by this sort of guilt culture and its attendant ideals.

We are less worried about the formal motions of ritual, and more about the small things that make up our everyday, our minds. We are worried about sociocultural norms and pressures that define our present, and which we fear will define our children’s futures.

Here, one finds a disgruntled generation, too clever to be cheated any longer by poor reasoning, by superstition and obscurantism instead of actual faith. Our sole alternative? Ah, progressivism and its egalitarianism – “sweet reasonableness,” as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein describes it (in "Judaism's Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?" edited by Jacob J. Schacter):

“Culture – largely identified by one of its best known apostles with ‘sweet reasonableness’ – often reduces spiritual intensity generally ... Seven and one-half minutes (I’ve clocked it) spent at minhah [the afternoon prayer service] with a minyan [quorum] of academicians at a university library provide a more effective argument against Wissenschaft-centered Judaism than reams of Yated Ne’eman [a weekly ultra-Orthodox paper]. If, as some would have it, the so-called Haredi world is marred by excessive passion, the modern Orthodox community is often afflicted by endemic lassitude; and it can ill afford the diminution of spiritual enthusiasm.”

There is a silent majority here which steers clear of the very vocal minority, steering clear of progressivism’s "sweet reasonableness" and of "blandness bordering upon frigidity": These are Orthodox women who are not interested in this fight. The reasons for this are murky, and I suspect have little to do with halakha (traditional Jewish law) itself – but there is an awkwardness about this progressivism that frum (extremely pious) women here quietly laugh at. They find the movement unsophisticated, not suave enough, not fluent in frum, its clothing too colorful, its cadence too militant, its ideas too democratic to survive in religious politics – and not a place that's immersive enough to raise believing children in.

Perhaps we are simply not interested in sharpening our swords, either. We are too calm, too pragmatic to fight. “To fight means to set one’s will against the will of another, with the aim of defeating the opponent, to bring him to his knees, possibly to kill him,” Milan Kundera writes.

“‘Life is a battle,’" he continues, "... our century of optimism and massacres has succeeded in making this terrible sentence sound like a joyous refrain. You will say that to fight against somebody may be terrible, but to fight for something is noble and beautiful. Yes, it is beautiful to strive for happiness ... but if you are in the habit of designating your striving with the word ‘fight,’ it means that your noble striving conceals the longing to knock someone to the ground. The fight for is always connected with the fight against, and the preposition ‘for’ is always forgotten in the course of the fight in favor of the preposition ‘against.’”

I venture to say that the silent majority would much rather strive than fight, neither interested in shrieking battle refrains nor in bringing some great establishment to its knees.

Articulating our realities

Most of my friends and acquaintances, and the women whom they know – we are still learning, and struggling, to articulate our own realities: the fact that, shockingly, many of us still find sincere value in our roles, in the mehitzah (barrier between men and women in synagogues) and in modesty, too. Many of us would rather spend little time in the synagogue and would choose to go about the "woman’s way," the way we have been taught: where every moment one turns to God, and daily life becomes an intimate conversation with him rather than a series of mandated public encounters with the Divine.

I have found my own phylacteries in the everyday, things before my eyes that constantly remind me of who I am and before whom I stand. This is inevitable, every time I dress modestly to leave the house, every time I utter a blessing over food and rush to pray by sunset, every time I turn a page in my notebook and write "with the help of God" in the top corner. Am I in need of further reminders? Yet another ritual that will risk losing meaning?

Want to know the burning problems that face Orthodox women? They lie less in halakha and more in social norms that have evolved from it, less in sets of phylacteries and more in simple-mindedness. Forgive me for the distasteful notion, but placing tefillin on my (female, light-headed) forehead will not offer redemption. It, and egalitarianism, seem like slapping a Band-Aid on an internal wound; it’s a solution equally preoccupied with the external, no different from the Haredi obsession with outside-ness and image.

The change that is needed in our religious community is much deeper than this, and much more difficult. It is not a question of higher or lower mehitzah in the synagogue, but rather a barrier in mentality, and I am deeply cynical that ritual equality would ever solve this.

I’d much rather put effort into ensuring actual empowerment. We are raising daughters who are encouraged to be simple-minded here – and no unique educator, dean or principal can combat that, when an entire society silently smirks at young girls with minds and opinions and ambitions.

There are rules here which determine the women’s world. To be accepted, one learns to surrender to pressure, to spend evenings in high school trying out baking recipes, and by the age of 19 – obsessively shopping, eyeing wigs and rings, and learning to fast on Thursdays when the evening promises a date. Religious studies focus primarily on moral discipline.

Furthermore, one simply does not jump into a male conversation at a Shabbat table. One does not question, one does not interject, unless accompanied with an apologetic smile, or better yet – a nervous laugh.

I have never ceased to be shocked by the insecurities of young women in my classes – individuals with a brilliant mind, who know how to switch it off on demand. And these phenomena are in no way specific to traditional Orthodox communities: Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter face them, too, in America’s corporate offices and lecture halls. Step into a modern Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan, and you’ll see gaggles of young girls pushed into nose jobs and starvation diets with the same determination as they're being prodded into universities – for the sake of finding wealthy husbands rather than broadened minds. Each comes with its own groupthink, each with its own set of social dicta.

The daunting amount of young women who confide in me from all sides of the Orthodox spectrum, in letters and in person, about efforts to sedate their personalities and their minds so that "they don’t think I’m too smart," "they’ll think I’m crazy" – this is what disturbs me.

I pray for the day that young women are educated for the sake of education and not simply vocation. I want to see intelligent women taught to hold themselves with dignity and confidence, encouraged to speak and build and succeed, entrusted with the best of secular knowledge, history, literature, sciences, politics. Religious women who speak proper English and Hebrew, who identify as citizens of a greater society, who know how to seamlessly interact and work with those outside their community, whether secular or non-Jewish. I want to see women who are tolerant and unafraid of the outside, who turn to the world with an unwavering confidence in their own faith and strength.

So – tefillin? Adjusted prayer services? Female rabbis? Lowered mehitzahs? I’m not convinced. Those women who feel disadvantaged by ritual differences are welcome to do as they please in communities that are receptive to it, without being dismissed by others. But to demand for a community to reform tightly held traditions is insensitive, and those who use it is as a political means are only doing harm to the Orthodox women who have (dare I say?) deeper and more critical questions to face.

Because I don’t care to own the bimah. I simply want to own my mind.

A woman wearing tefillin (phylacteries) and a prayer shawl at the Western Wall.Credit: Michal Fattal

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