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Why Is It So Hard to Get Used to a Woman Wearing a Tallit?

When I was a kid, we had a famous riddle that I heard/told dozens of times. It involved a man and his son who were in a car accident. The man dies instantly, and the son is rushed to the hospital. The surgeon is about to operate on the boy, and suddenly exclaims, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.”

There was a delicious fun in watching as the brows of those listening to this riddle would slowly furrow, heads tilting. I’d be giggling inside, full up with the knowledge that they would surely kick themselves when they heard the solution. Because, amazingly, they almost never came up with it on their own.

And you’re thinking, how could they not get it? But in the 80’s, most people, women and men alike, just couldn’t come up with the obvious answer. Sure, we all knew women could be doctors. We all knew women who were doctors. But start discussing a generic doctor, ask someone to quickly picture a doctor – and the image that would pop into our heads was a man. Every time.

I’ve been thinking about this old riddle a lot, lately. In part, because I’m wondering how profound an effect on our image of ‘President’ a President Hillary Clinton would have. Quite a bit, I imagine. But also, for mainly selfish reasons, I’m thinking about this in a Jewish context.

I’ve prayed with a Jewish prayer shawl, or tallit, for so long that it should be entirely second nature for me, a soft old bathrobe that embraces me and feels like home. And sometimes that’s exactly the sensation I get. But other days, maybe it’s a glance shot my way, maybe it’s something more. Most likely it’s the image floating in my head of what a ‘religious’ Jew looks like. Those days my decidedly feminist self feels masculinized when wrapped in a prayer shawl.

This extends even more to phylacteries, or tefillin. I believe, unequivocally, that the obligation for tefillin rests on women as much as on men, and always has. That it is an obligation that was hidden from us for so many years, covered up by the thick heavy tarps of societies pervaded by sexism and misogyny. Hence my decision at age thirteen to start wrapping myself in tefillin every day at school. And I told myself that the only reason I stopped when I went to high school was that I was tired of the nasty looks, the comments, the tasteless jokes.

But there was more to it than that. As a child I had exactly no models of women in tefillin. I believed in it strongly in theory, but I had never seen it done in practice. I was the first woman I knew to put on tefillin every day. But in my head, the image of a Jew wearing tefillin was always that of a man. It felt so deeply male that I experienced a distancing that was profound. And I have not returned to my tefillin in all the years since.

But around me, things have changed. I now know many women who don tefillin on a daily basis, (or at least when they manage to fit in a morning’s davening). It feels much less foreign to me. And my own 12-year-old daughter is brimming with excitement about purchasing her own set in anticipation of her bat mitzvah.

So, I’ve been seriously considering returning to the mitzvah that I have been observing these many years only in the breach. I don’t expect I will feel comfortable right away. But, I now realize, comfort is not my main goal. The image carries so much power. The more girls, and women, and men, and boys, who see women confidently putting on their tefillin, the better.

I have come to accept that maybe my role in this moment in history is to push myself bodily into those awkward situations. Because maybe it helps to take the long view of history. In 30 years, or 60 years – a blip on the timeline of Jewish history – things could look very different. Ask a child then to picture a Jew praying with tallit and tefillin, and they may just as easily find that the picture of a woman pops up in their head. Bigger changes than these have happened, and the Jewish people survive nonetheless.

When I told my kids that riddle, the one about the surgeon, they, too, got that same perplexed look. Tilted heads, furrowed brows. I waited, a little bit of that childhood excitement doing flips in my stomach. “Ima, what do you mean?” my son asked, using the Hebrew word for mother. “The doctor is his mother.” The other kids all nodded in agreement, and walked away from their own mother’s dumb joke.

Usually it stings when they tell me something I’ve said is stupid. but this time it felt pretty great.

Leah Bieler is a writer with an M.A. in Talmud. She lives in Massachusetts.

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