Forget Tefillin — Orthodox Women Need Empowerment in Daily Lives

Everyday Issues Like Divorce and Community More Pressing

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By Avital Chizhik

Published February 04, 2014.
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(Haaretz) — 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.


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