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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There is a silent majority here which steers clear of the very vocal minority, steering clear of progressivism’s “sweet reasonableness” and of “blandness bordering upon frigidity”: These are Orthodox women who are not interested in this fight. The reasons for this are murky, and I suspect have little to do with halakha (traditional Jewish law) itself – but there is an awkwardness about this progressivism that frum (extremely pious) women here quietly laugh at. They find the movement unsophisticated, not suave enough, not fluent in frum, its clothing too colorful, its cadence too militant, its ideas too democratic to survive in religious politics – and not a place that’s immersive enough to raise believing children in.

Perhaps we are simply not interested in sharpening our swords, either. We are too calm, too pragmatic to fight. “To fight means to set one’s will against the will of another, with the aim of defeating the opponent, to bring him to his knees, possibly to kill him,” Milan Kundera writes.

“‘Life is a battle,’” he continues, “… our century of optimism and massacres has succeeded in making this terrible sentence sound like a joyous refrain. You will say that to fight against somebody may be terrible, but to fight for something is noble and beautiful. Yes, it is beautiful to strive for happiness … but if you are in the habit of designating your striving with the word ‘fight,’ it means that your noble striving conceals the longing to knock someone to the ground. The fight for is always connected with the fight against, and the preposition ‘for’ is always forgotten in the course of the fight in favor of the preposition ‘against.’”

I venture to say that the silent majority would much rather strive than fight, neither interested in shrieking battle refrains nor in bringing some great establishment to its knees.

Articulating our realities

Most of my friends and acquaintances, and the women whom they know – we are still learning, and struggling, to articulate our own realities: the fact that, shockingly, many of us still find sincere value in our roles, in the mehitzah (barrier between men and women in synagogues) and in modesty, too. Many of us would rather spend little time in the synagogue and would choose to go about the “woman’s way,” the way we have been taught: where every moment one turns to God, and daily life becomes an intimate conversation with him rather than a series of mandated public encounters with the Divine.

I have found my own phylacteries in the everyday, things before my eyes that constantly remind me of who I am and before whom I stand. This is inevitable, every time I dress modestly to leave the house, every time I utter a blessing over food and rush to pray by sunset, every time I turn a page in my notebook and write “with the help of God” in the top corner. Am I in need of further reminders? Yet another ritual that will risk losing meaning?

Want to know the burning problems that face Orthodox women? They lie less in halakha and more in social norms that have evolved from it, less in sets of phylacteries and more in simple-mindedness. Forgive me for the distasteful notion, but placing tefillin on my (female, light-headed) forehead will not offer redemption. It, and egalitarianism, seem like slapping a Band-Aid on an internal wound; it’s a solution equally preoccupied with the external, no different from the Haredi obsession with outside-ness and image.


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