Tefillingate Unraveled: In Orthodoxy, Women Just Don’t Wear Tefillin

Apart from its halakhic ban, the troubling message sent out by a few young women publicly laying tefillin is that their tefillin-less female school peers are Jewishly deficient, or less holy.

Unlike some in the traditional Orthodox community, I empathize with the young women in two modern Orthodox high schools in New York who asked for and received permission to don tefillin during their school prayer services. They have, after all, reportedly seen their mothers wearing these ritual objects and simply wish to emulate their parents’ Jewish religious practice. Carrying on the traditions of parents is the essence of mesorah, the “handed-down” legacy of the Jewish past.

None of us has the right to assume that these girls aren’t motivated by a deeply Jewish desire to worship as they have seen their mothers worship. Even as to their mothers’ motivations, I can’t know whether their intention is pure or if it’s homage to the contemporary and un-Jewish idea that “men and women have interchangeable roles.” Most of our acts, wrote the powerful thinker Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, are mixtures of motivations. And so I don’t arrogate to judge either the mothers or their daughters.

The question, though, of whether halakha considers it proper for women to wear tefillin, despite the much smoke and many mirrors conjured in myriad quarters over recent weeks, is pretty clear, at least looked at objectively, without a predetermined “result” in mind. It does not.

The essence of halakha is that discussions and disagreements among different authorities distill over time into codified and universally accepted decisions. The ur-text of halakha in the modern era (using the term loosely) is Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch, along with its appendage “the Mapa,” in which Rabbi Moshe Isserles added glosses, sometimes but not always to reflect normative Ashkenazic law.

Rabbi Isserles states clearly that women should not wear tefillin. The Vilna Gaon prohibits it categorically. The “bottom line” commentaries on that part of the Shulchan Aruch, the Mishneh Berurah (written by the Chofetz Chaim) and the Aruch HaShulchan, both concur. And that is why Jewish women have forgone wearing tefillin until (for some) recent years.

That the daughter of King Saul famously wore tefillin is indeed a fact, but the exception only proves the rule: Other women in her time and thereafter (and there were great and righteous ones in every generation) did not wear tefillin. The same applies to the practice of the “Maiden of Ludmir,” an exceptional figure in the Hassidic world. There is no evidence whatsoever to support the assertion that Rashi’s daughters wore tefillin; it is a legend that appears only in modern times. And, despite all the conceptual contortions of late, no Orthodox halakhic authority of repute has ever permitted women to wear tefillin. “Retrofitting” halakha, going back to “earlier sources” to change established practices, was the hallmark of the early Conservative movement; it has no place in the Orthodox sphere.

More important, though, there is a Torah prohibition (lo titgodedu) against a part of a Jewish congregation adopting even a permitted Jewish practice if it is not the normative practice of the congregation. And a rabbinic prohibition (mechzi ki’yuhara) against adopting even acceptable practices if doing so will make the practitioners seem to be holding themselves “higher” than others.

That latter idea, it seems to me, speaks particularly loudly here, even aside from the technical halakhic concern. What message does the public tefillin-laying of some young women in the school send to the others? That they are somehow deficient or less holy, or less concerned with connecting with the Divine? What a terrible thing to imagine, what misguided pedagogy.

I once served as the principal of a high school where some students hailed from “modern Orthodox” or non-Orthodox backgrounds. I never interfered in the practices of those students and their families in their homes and synagogues, even when they may have diverged from normative halakha. But when it came to in-school affairs, normative halakha was the standard.

Were I the principal of a school for young women and some of them wished to don tefillin, I would not deride them for their desire, nor judge them in any way. But I would insist on normative halakhic standards in school, and ask the girls to don their tefillin at home. I am told that such was indeed the policy of the schools at issue until now. Why it was changed is not clear to me.

What I would wish for my students, and indeed wish now for the young women at the two schools at issue, is that they intensify their commitment to mesorah, and maintain their determination to be closer to G-d. And thereby come to gain sufficient knowledge and objectivity to examine many things, including their tefillin-donning.

And come to wonder why, even if their mothers adopted the practice, their grandmothers, and their grandmothers and their grandmothers – heartfelt, intelligent and deeply religious women – did not.

Rabbi Avi Shafran blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com. His most recent collection of essays is entitled “It’s All in the Angle” (Judaica Press, 2012).

Eliyahu Hershkowitz
Tali Meyer