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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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.”

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