Rabbi Dr. Joel Roth of Englewood, the Louis Finkelstein Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is one of the Conservative movement’s premier halachists.
It is Rabbi Roth who wrote the closely argued decision that allowed women into the seminary’s rabbinical school; his argument was that in order to be able to lead davening and earn ordination, a woman must agree to perform all the time-bound mitzvot, although otherwise she would not be obligated to do so.
Laying tefillin is among those mitzvot, he wrote in “On the Ordination of Women” in 1984.
But, he said in a phone call from Jerusalem this week, that does not mean that women who are not planning to be religious leaders should not lay tefillin unless they are willing to undertake the serious commitment to put them on every morning. In fact, he said, there is no reason for women not to wear them.
He is not the only Conservative movement scholar to believe that; he is not even alone in that belief in his position on the far right side of the movement’s self-proclaimed big tent. To make that point, Rabbi Roth tells a story:
In the mid 1970s, there was only one place to daven at JTS. The modern Orthodox and Conservative worlds still were far closer then than they are today, so that minyan not only was not egalitarian, it featured separate seating, with the part of the mehitzah being played by a small bookcase.
In order for the men to reach their seats, they had to walk through the women’s section.
One of those men was Rabbi Saul Lieberman, the renowned Talmudist.
A woman who worked at JTS had asked Rabbi Roth whether he thought it was acceptable for a woman to wear tefillin. Yes, it was, he told her. She wore them.
“Professor Lieberman asked me to tell her not to wear them,” Rabbi Roth said. “I said to him, ‘If you are telling me that in your name that it is forbidden for a women to wear tefillin, I will do it.’
“Lieberman was silent. So I asked him again. There was another pause.
“Then Lieberman said ‘No, tell her that it is not aesthetic.’ And I said to him, ‘Professor, I will always be your agent in a matter of law, but I will not be your agent in a matter of aesthetics.'”
Rabbi Roth did not tell the woman not to put on tefillin, “one or two people changed their seats, and to the best of my knowledge nobody stopped coming because she was there. Including Professor Lieberman.”
Women may wear tefillin, Rabbi Roth said, because although it is true that they are exempt from the need to do so, “it is clear in rabbinic literature that the most prevalent Ashkenazi view is that women may observe the mitzvot from which they are exempt, and may recite the attendant brachot that those mitzvot generally entail.”
One of the arguments against women’s wearing them is the biblical prohibition against women wearing men’s clothing; there is a biblical passage that calls tefillin men’s clothing. That is not a commonly held belief, however.
The more general argument against tefillin being considered men’s clothing “is that women didn’t wear them.” It’s circular – “if women started doing it, then it no longer would be considered men’s garb.
“The problem there is that women’s tefillin have to be exactly the same as men’s,” he continued. “There is not a legal option to make women’s tefillin round. Or pink.” Moses Isserles, a great 16th century Polish commentator, said that it would be arrogant for a woman to wear tefillin; that would have been true at a time when few women did so, but it is no longer true now, Rabbi Roth said. “It seems to me that there is almost no earthly reason to prohibit women from wearing tefillin, any more than we should prohibit them from any other mitzvot from which they are exempt.”
Although he believes that it is acceptable for women to wear tefillin, Rabbi Roth said, “I make no claim that women ought to or must wear tefillin. I am only saying that if women want to, I see no halachic objection.
“In my paper on ordination of women, I required them to accept as obligatory upon themselves all of the mitzvot from which they are exempt because I thought – and continue to think – that it is not a good idea to have as role models rabbis who do not observe certain mitzvot. It would convey the wrong message to the community.”
Conservative women have strong feelings about the mitzvah of laying tefillin.
Rabbi Shelley Kniaz of Teaneck is the director of congregational education at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake.
She began working toward a master’s degree at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1982, and entered rabbinical school two years later. She began to lay tefillin at the beginning of her time in the seminary, and has done so ever since.
“I had a classmate who really felt that from a feminist point of view we should have our own form of rabbinate,” Rabbi Kniaz said. “It was parallel to some of the theories of women’s style of management and business. It was a position that I respected – and still respect – but I felt connected to Joel Roth’s point of view, with the general principle that with privilege comes responsibility.”
Her desire to wear tefillin was not only theoretical, though. It was also both personal and communal.
“It’s a great metaphor,” she said. “When you are wrapped in a tallit you feel enveloped, and when you wrap tefillin you feel bound to the tradition.”
“And it’s also the community. You become part of a prayer community when you put on the uniform.
“And then of course there is the actuality that tefillin are prayers. They are tefillah. Each one is a tefillah, it has the tefillot in them. It’s really making concrete the pasuk” – the biblical verse – “that says you shall bind them upon your arm and that [they?] shall be a frontlet between your eyes. It means that you are supposed to keep them” – the tefillot, the prayers – “close.
“It’s like the mezuzah on the doorpost of your house,” she concluded. “You should be feeling them both when you are home and when you are out. It is a reminder; it keeps them close.”
Cantor Estelle Epstein of Teaneck, who is 55, toyed with the idea of wearing tefillin when she was growing up on Long Island, but she did not take it seriously until she went to a USY international convention, and then, a few years later, on a USY Pilgrimage trip to Israel.
Like many Conservative shuls at the time, hers was not egalitarian; her desire to learn trope and read haftarah was rebuffed. On Simchat Torah of her senior year in high school, though, she went to a friend’s synagogue in Philadelphia. There, women were counted in the minyan, “and I was a guest, and I am a bat kohen, so I was called up for the kohen aliyah.
“They asked me to wear a kippah, and when I got up to the bimah I was given a tallit. They thought I would use it just to touch the Torah, but instead I put it on, and it felt so right. So I decided on the way home that I would lay tefillin every morning.
“My mother gave me my grandfather’s tallit, and I went to the Lower East Side and bought tefillin. I told them I wanted it for a bat mitzvah boy.
“It was a perfect fit.”
Cantor Epstein – who also is Dr. Epstein as a result of the doctorate in physics she earned at MIT – still lays tefillin every day. “When I started, it was because women’s rights were so important to me that I really felt it was my obligation,” she said.
“I want to be able to be called up to the Torah. It’s very important for me to be able to do this. And that’s still how I feel.
“If we are going to be an egalitarian Jewish society, women have to take on the same obligations as men.”
Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson began wearing tefillin when she was 14, in 1976. “Joel Roth was the scholar in residence at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires,” she said. “I read his teshuva, and I approached him asking him what I had to do to formally take on all the obligations.”
In 1983, she began a PhD program at the Jewish Theological Seminary; when she went to the seminary’s synagogue, “in my naivetÃ© I showed up in my tallit and tefillin – and I was asked to leave,” she said.
“About nine months later, the vote to admit women as candidates for ordination took place. At which time, one of the rules was that women would have to take a vow that they would wear tallit and tefillin consistently, to be accepted to the program.
“In my youth, naivetÃ©, and chutzpah, I said no.”
“Actually, what I said was ‘Are you also asking the men to take a vow that they will do that?’ And they said no, they were not.
“This was based on Joel Roth’s teshuva. But I thought it was theologically ridiculous that nine months ago I was thrown out for wearing tefillin, and now I would effectively be barred for not wearing them.”
Despite her refusal to promise that she would wear tefillin, and somewhat to her surprise, she was accepted into rabbinical school.
“Halacha is not separate from sociology and morality,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “Both morally and sociologically, I did not like the process by which – or at least it seemed to me – a group of men got together and said what women should do.
“I felt that it was creating two classes of women. One of them came up to the level of men, and one of them did not.
“So although I had been wearing tefillin, I deliberately stopped. I felt it was the best way that I could make the statement that we need to have this practice develop a little bit more organically.
“There might be a way that women could show totafot bein ainaichem” – “the symbol above your eyes” – that wouldn’t look exactly the way men are showing it.
“This is a question on which reasonable minds can differ,” she continued. “I think there is an argument for saying that as long as men are the only ones who wear kippot and tefillin, of course those things will seem male. But if our daughters and sons grow up and see both women and men wearing those garments, then the symbols become simply Jewish for the next generation.
“The gift that feminism and egalitarianism give to Judaism is that they return us to core questions of meaning,” she said. “We can’t lose the question of how we do it, but the deepest question is what it means for any and every Jew to have tefillin.”
Her decision not to wear tefillin was a result of “the unique moment in history and the unique experiences I had at that time,” she said. “I thought at the time that the best way I could serve the development of Jewish practice for myself and for my community was to be an outlier in this regard, and to protest the process of the decision-making.”
But times have a way of changing.
“Now I have another consideration,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “When I am at morning minyan at my shul, when the cantor and the male leaders are wearing tefillin and I’m not, I feel more and more uncomfortable about the model I am giving to our kids.
“I would guess that I would have to give the famous Rosensweig answer about it. I am not yet wearing them.
“I can’t imagine that if we talk in about 10 years, or maybe another five, and you ask me about it, that I would give the same answer.
“I am about ready to make a change.”
Rabbi Orenstein ends with a story. It might be apocryphal, she said; she was not there, but she has heard it from a number of people – if it isn’t true it should be.
The story involves Rabbi Dr. Judith Hauptman, JTS’s E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture; she is a highly knowledgeable and well-respected scholar. “There was a Chabadmobile that would camp out near Columbia,” which is just down Broadway from JTS, Rabbi Orenstein said. “They invited men to lay tefillin, and women to light Shabbat candles.
“Dr. Hauptman was invited in – they can be very persistent – and she said I would like to light Shabbat candles, but these boxes” – the tefillin – “look very interesting. Can I try them?”
When she was told that she could not, she said, “I understand that Rashi’s daughters wore them. Isn’t it true that they were very pious women? And it’s it true that although women are not required by law to wear them, they are allowed to?
“The Chabadnik looked at her and said, very seriously, ‘Lady, times have changed.'”