Tefillingate: Orthodoxy Must Not Reject Its Most Committed Women

The crude, sexist responses within Orthodoxy to girls wearing tefillin reflect men’s fears and prejudices - and ignorance about the passion of religious feminism.

elana sztokman
Elana Sztokman
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elana sztokman
Elana Sztokman

The current firestorm about girls wearing tefillin has shed light on sexism in the Orthodox world. As opposed to a viewpoint informed by sexism, which sees the women and girls donning tefillin out of choice as radical provocateurs threatening an imaginary status quo, we should see them rather as inspiring examples of Jews embracing God and Torah.

There are those who try to make their objections seem rooted in halakha. Rabbi Ethan Tucker has done an exceptional job unraveling the halakhic myths and facts about women and tefillin, so there is no reason to rehash that here. Suffice it to say that the idea that women are prohibited from wearing tefillin is more a function of perception than reality.

Yet, despite the flimsiness of the halakhic argument against women wearing tefillin, some men continue to insist on the absoluteness of women’s exclusion – such as arguing that the body must be clean (as if to say, women are dirtier than men, a powerful misogynistic image that crosses cultures and generations), or that this would be considered cross-dressing (a circular argument that would be comical if it weren’t used with such seriousness: You forbid women from wearing tefillin and then argue that it is therefore a man’s garment!) This obstinate reliance on fallacious halakhic arguments merely highlights how deeply rooted misogynistic perceptions are in Orthodox life. It’s not about halakha. It’s about how some men think about women’s bodies and their roles in society.

Indeed when halakhic arguments fail, there are those who target women’s so-called “motivations”. It is an unfortunate fact of Jewish history that the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein gave credibility to the painful idea that even though women are not prohibited from the commandments of tallit and tefillin, women should nevertheless only be permitted to take on the commandments if our motives are deemed “pure." This rationale has given men and rabbis permission to be the self-appointed judge and jury for women’s religious expression, peering uninvited into women’s hearts and minds, making judgmental determinations about our relationship with our Creator, and passing sentence on what is permitted or not permitted based on their vicarious role as all-powerful judge over women.

No Jewish man has ever been subjected to this kind of examination and ownership. No man has ever been told that he is not “sincere” enough to put on tefillin – to wit, Chabad rabbis all around the world chase Jewish men begging them to wear tefillin, even if only for ten seconds, with nary a passing thought about whether they will ever do it again. Comparing the treatment of men’s “motives” and women’s “motives” around this commandment highlights an awful violation of women’s inner sanctity. It’s high time for the religious community to eliminate this language of women’s motives from its public discourse once and for all.

And then there are those who, lacking all other basis for objection, simply label women who wear tefillin as “not-Orthodox," a catch-phrase for “You’re not part of my club." In fact, in the comment section in one of the particularly obnoxious anti-women posts this week on this subject, talkbackers debated whether modern Orthodox day schools would be able to exclude feminist families and students - but regretted they would be stymied by the fact that these parents pay tuition. This whole discussion has really brought out the worst in Orthodoxy. Public debates are often less about substance and spirituality and more about who is in and who is out of the “camp."

Mostly, this entire series of events has served as a reminder that many people in the Orthodox community have no idea what feminism is about, or what religious feminists are yearning for. Religious feminism is not about women who want to be men, women who need attention, or women who are angry or provocative. All of these obnoxious labels that are so easily thrown about have no basis in the real lives of religious feminists. These images are reflections of men’s fears and prejudices, not religious feminism.

Women wearing tefillin represent the incredible beauty of religious feminism: it’s about wanting to be closer to God. Religious feminism is not about breaking down religion but rather about embracing and empowering it. Religious feminists are not the ones abandoning religion or trying to change it but rather they are the ones banging on the doors of Orthodoxy to be let in precisely because they want to be fully part of communal spiritual life.

Put differently, religious feminists are the ones who, perhaps more than any other members of the Orthodox community, are desperately searching for more Torah in their lives. We could not imagine rabbis rejecting men and boys who were this passionate about keeping the mitzvah of tefillin. It’s time for the Orthodox community to understand that Orthodox feminists simply want to be let in to the place where religious connection is happening.

The Orthodox community should really be in awe of these young women who are wearing tefillin. In fact, we should be looking at Orthodox feminists with gratitude and admiration. If only the rest of Am Yisrael would be as passionate and invigorated about embracing Torah with such sincerity and commitment.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman's most recent book (with Dr Chaya Gorsetman) is "Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools" (Brandeis University Press 2013) which won the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Award in education and identity. Her next book, "The War on Women in Israel: How religious radicalism is stifling the voice of a nation" (Sourcebooks) is due out later this year.

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

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