Monday, August 22, 2011

Wearing tefillin while female

When I was growing up in Israel, my father went to the local (Orthodox - there was nothing else at the time) synagogue on a regular basis. My mother, sister and I only went on the High Holy Days because we were not welcome at other times - the women's balcony was uncomfortable, the sight lines were terrible and the acoustics were worse. We were certainly not expected to participate in the service in any way. I was allowed into the business part of the synagogue until I turned twelve, and that was that. Not feeling that the synagogue in any way facilitated my relationship with G-d, I drifted away.

Fast forward to Winnipeg, mid-nineties. My husband and I joined a local Conservative synagogue which had recently become egalitarian, after a bitter battle. The new rabbi was a strong believer in women's right to be counted and participate in the service in every way. One of the ways in which he encouraged such participation was by teaching women how to lead services. I was already fluent in Hebrew, so I only needed to learn the tunes, which I quickly mastered. I enjoyed helping with the Shabbat services, and my father, who had abandoned the Orthodox synagogue with much relief once a Reform congregation appeared in his town, bought me a tallit. All was lovely and fulfilling. Feeling connected with G-d through my religious community, I increased my observance and now keep Shabbat, a kosher home, and as many more of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot as I can.

Then I was asked to help with the daily minyan. Since we had recently begun counting women, suddenly the other half of humanity was available to make up the required ten adults (over the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah) for a prayer quorum. I began going one morning a week, and noticed that many of the men wore tefillin. So did two women whom I greatly admired. So the rabbi taught me how to lay tefillin, and I have been wearing them for morning prayers ever since.

I have been leading the Sunday morning minyan for quite a few years now, and have worked hard to encourage other members of the congregation to learn how to chant the prayers. Many are very intimidated by the Hebrew words and the tunes, but after they have mastered those, they are even more intimidated by the idea of wearing tefillin. One of my regulars, a woman of great courage, has learned to lead the first part of the prayers, and now she has done me the honour of asking me to help her learn to lay tefillin. So, being the geek that I am, I went to find an instructional video for her to use at her leisure, and found this Wrap Rap.

It's not a very good rap, I know. But it shows the wrapping very clearly (although there is some dispute about the placement of the head boxes), and so I sent it to her. I did not pay much attention to the comments, which contained some of the usual rabid (and badly spelled) response to women taking on religious behaviours that were previously exclusively reserved for men (although there are no valid reasons for the exclusion - Rashi's daughters are said to have laid tefillin). In particular, a reference was made to the superstition that women should not touch the Torah (the boxes contain words of Torah written on the same kind of parchment with the same kind of script) because they may become impure (i.e., they might start menstruating) and supposedly make the Torah impure. My friend was very upset by these suggestions. The Talmud is quite clear on this being complete nonsense:

"'Is not My word like fire? says the Lord' (Jer. 23:29) — Just as fire does not become impure, so too, words of Torah cannot become impure." (Berachot 22a)

Wearing tefillin is a scary act for any Jew who was not brought up in an observant fashion, and wearing tefillin while female is doubly so. I am fortunate to wear mine in an environment where my devotion is not only accepted but encouraged and admired. My hat is off to all the pioneers whose struggle led to my comfort, and to all who dare take this step in their own search to become closer to G-d.

Do you do scary things in your search for meaning? If not, what is holding you back? The Lizard Brain?


  1. When we just came back to Israel, in 1968, I, who had been a pillar of junior congregation in New Jersey, decided to go to schul. Mommy was not enthusiastic, but she didn't stop me. I put on a dress, and walked over to the schul in Kfar Vitkin. The little old men who were there were very surprised and not happy to see me. They asked me how old I was (I was already 13), and then muttered and complained and unlocked the upstairs for me. I was alone there. They were praying downstairs, and I was alone on the second floor-- where you couldnt really see anything. I got the message and went home, never to return.
    I am happy for you that you enjoy these rituals, but for me they have been tainted by patriarchal arrogance. I will never do what they do -- I will invent my own versions. I also do not want to be 'part' of it -- Orthodox Judaism made it very clear that they dont want me == and they have dibs on the talit and tefillin...they can choke on them...(can you tell it still pisses me off?)

  2. It used to piss me off too until I found out how pissed off they get when you do it and they can't do anything about making you stop. :) Seriously, there is a strong spiritual connection between the physical act and the prayers and the binding you can't get from other stuff.

  3. Well, sister of mine, you have awesome powers anyway (didn't you cause the October War by eating a guava on Yom Kippur?). Your direct line to G-d doesn't need any rituals to facilitate it. Me, I'm more the ADHD type, and it helps me focus.

    fulltimetumbleweed, your postings are very intriguing and I hope at some point you will feel comfortable (privately?) letting me know who you are. I have a feeling we have a lot in common ;-).


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