A nearly 2,000-year-old source of latent discomfort has surfaced yet again in our greater community with the recent decision by two modern Orthodox yeshivot – the SAR Academy High School and the Ramaz Upper School – to permit female students to wear tefillin. Opinions have run the gamut, ranging from supporting different forms of worshiping God when there is halachic argument to support it to seeing it as little more than cherry-picking the sources.
This debate cuts to the heart of the way we deliberate about our ritual practices and how those practices can evolve over time while remaining rooted in halachah.
In this week’s parasha, we read in Exodus 25:8-9, “V’asu li mikdash vishachanti bitocham. Kichol asher ani mareh otcha eit tavnit hamishkan v’eit tavnit kol keilav, vichein ta’asu.” (“They shall make a sanctuary for me, and then I will dwell among them. According to all that I am showing you – the form of the sanctuary and the form of all its vessels – and so should you make [it].” Rashi explains that the addition of the letter vav in the penultimate word in the verse implies that future generations will build their sanctuaries and its vessels according to the tavnit (form) of the sanctuary, or Mishkan. According to Biblical scholars, the Hebrew word tavnit refers to a reproduction of a material entity that exists in reality or as an archetype or model.
Today’s important tavnit, the important and critical debate of the issue of women and tefillin, finds its origins in the Mishnah (35-220 c.e.). Mishnah Berachot 3:3 says that women are exempt from the mitzvah of tefillin. A baraita – a teaching that existed at the same time as the Mishnah but was left outside it – on Kiddushin 33b lists tefillin as one of five examples of positive time-bound mitzvot from which women are exempt. The rabbis of the Gemara then use the laying of tefillin to establish a general rule that women are exempt from all positive time-bound mitzvot (Talmud Kiddushin 34a). The question then immediately turns to how we know that women are exempt from tefillin. The answer given is that by the rule of juxtaposing biblical verses, women’s exemption from the mitzvah of tefillin (a positive time-bound mitzvah) can be learned from women’s exemption from the mitzvah of Torah study (a positive non-time-bound mitzvah from which women, as an exception from the general rule, are exempt). Finally, the Talmud teaches us that women were exempt from the mitzvah of Talmud Torah because the phrase found in Deuteronomy 11:19, “you shall teach [the words of Torah] to your banim,” intends banim to be read not as “children” but instead as “sons.”
The ramifications of these teachings are significant once we connect them to a mishnah in Masekhet Eruvin about how many pairs of tefillin can be brought in from outside the eruv on Shabbat. We learn that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah agree that tefillin must be a positive commandment without a fixed time, and that women are obligated to perform all such commandments (Eruvin 96B, Tosefta Eruvin 8:15). Additionally, another baraita recounts that Michal bat Shaul wore tefillin and the rabbis did not object. The ramifications of this argument would be significant, for if we were to conclude that the mitzvah of tefillin is not time bound or Michal bat Shaul’s precedent of wearing tefillin was halachically binding, the Gemara’s later conclusion that women would possibly not be exempt from any time-bound mitzvot would no longer be binding (see reference above to Talmud Kiddushin 34a). Fast-forward 1,800 years and the arguments for the sake of heaven today are exactly the same as they were then.
The Jewish community can be proud that it is raising knowledgeable young men and women in educational environments in which the next generation of Jewish leaders think critically about taking on the obligations and responsibilities of mitzvot. In the spirit that today’s sanctuaries serve as archetypes of the ancient Mishkan, so too should our halachic understanding reflect the tavnit, archetypes, of the past; that is, with respect to women and tefillin, we should frame our discussions as an important way of continuing our long tradition of thoughtful debate surrounding differing ideas and practices. At the same time, we should praise those who grapple honestly with existing, clear tensions within halachah – those who seriously commit themselves to mitzvot and do so with respect for God and the tradition, and who are devoted to their prayer and school communities.