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Why Women Can — And Must — Lay Tefillin

A woman prays wearing tefillin in Jerusalem/Getty Images

Must, should, or can observant Jewish women wrap tefillin, or not? This well-worn question was recently revived thanks to the two Modern Orthodox high schools in New York — SAR and Ramaz — that have tepidly embraced female students who wish to wrap tefillin publicly in their schools’ prayer services.

In an email circulated to parents, students and board members, Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, Ramaz’s Talmud chair, offers an internally contradictory five-point bulletin that makes his distaste for the practice clear. On the one hand, women are not obligated to wear tefillin (point 1) but nevertheless receive the benefit of having performed a mitzvah, or commandment (point 2). But in the very next breath he argues they should not be encouraged to do so and perhaps even discouraged from doing so (based on his “proof-text” in point 3), and “taught that they do not need to wear tefillin to lead Jewishly-religiously meaningful lives” (point 5). The schizophrenia of the letter is demonstrated by the head of school’s hopeful sign-off to “see more people observing more mitzvot.”

Which is it? Is women’s observance of this mitzvah a religiously suspicious act destined to shame Torah and undermine halakhic (Jewish legal) commitment? Is it merely religiously tolerable, the isolated province of a few outliers on the religious bell curve? Or is it the natural, proper response to the times in which we live, possibly even mandated by our changed social circumstances?

Let’s first step back and ask what donning tefillin is supposed to accomplish in our religious lives. The biblical verses that serve as the textual precedent for tefillin speak of “tying [words of Torah] as a sign upon the arm” — to constantly direct one’s daily actions towards G-d and mitzvot, and to refrain from poor behavior. While halakhah directs the arm-tefilah to be covered, turning it into a private reminder, tefillin are also “to be ‘frontlets’ upon the forehead,” which halakhah demands be exposed at all times, publicly serving as the ever-visible “glory” of Israel and G-d.

Self-control and proclaiming G-d’s glory are ongoing tasks, and originally we were meant to wear tefillin constantly while engaged in our worldly affairs. This was a tall order, and both Talmuds tell us that this mitzvah was widely neglected. In a later attempt to salvage the mitzvah, tefillin were relegated to the context of prayer, where a Jew could proudly dress in the royal garments of our people without shame.

Understanding that one of the purposes of tefillin was to publically proclaim G-d’s glory helps us make sense of women’s exemption. In a broader culture in which women’s lower social status was assumed, it would have made a mockery of tefillin and their purpose to impose it on the socially inferior. A mere enlisted soldier who dons an officer’s uniform and insignia sullies it.

There certainly were higher-class women, whom the Talmud calls nashim hashuvot — “important women.” This category becomes the basis for women to recline while eating at the Passover seder, joining in one of the ritualized markers of freedom from human tyranny to serve G-d. As women’s status rose in certain societies, all women became categorized as nashim hashuvot. Our contemporary social situation, in which women and men are, at least aspirationally, equally valued and honored members of society, has led prominent Israeli Orthodox Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun to write that “women nowadays are not simply all [in the legal category of] ‘important’… but are [in the legal category of] ‘liberated’… we are simply no longer speaking of the same [legal] category of women.”

Halakhah has not changed. There was, and in many societies remains, a real social category of “women” who are neither liberated nor enslaved, and those women are indeed not obligated in tefillin. But our society is structured differently, and nowadays men and women are social equals. The implications of Rav Bin-Nun’s observation are clear: socially liberated women have the same obligations formerly reserved for men. Modern Jewish women are as obligated in tefillin as their male counterparts. Both jointly share the responsibility of proclaiming G-d’s glory to the world.

So it’s a red herring to claim that our issue is one of personal spiritual satisfaction; plenty of Modern Orthodox men find no such satisfaction in wrapping tefillin, and the community still demands it of them, recognizing that the power of ritual mitzvot derives at least in part from broad communal observance. To not demand the same from women unmoors halakhah from reality, destroying its ability to shape our lives and turning its wisdom into foolishness. Let us not discourage and equivocate, but praise and give thanks to these few, proud women who are showing us the way to humbly fulfill what G-d truly desires of us.

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