Many of us have seen the recent press and politicking of Jewish feminists to encourage girls and women to wear tefillin when they pray, following the SAR and Ramaz announcement that they would allow girls to do so in their Orthodox schools.
Traditionally a religious commandment required daily for men, tefillin is a biblical commandment recited in the Shema prayer twice daily. My approach to this matter is quite different than most: I believe that encouraging women and girls to wear tefillin during prayers is against modern feminist ideals.
Many of the arguments about tefillin are based on continuity of tradition, which is a formidable and esteemed ideal in all religions. Not being a subject expert matter in Jewish law, I shall not discuss the religious, but rather an alternative Orthodox Jewish feminist point of view.
Judaism has a concept of religion that actually takes the traditional roles of women into consideration. Women are not obligated to perform most time-dependent commandments. They can, but they do not have to. Our ancient religion accommodates women with children. Twenty-first century Western society doesn’t even do that adequately.
Women are considered to be more spiritual than men, hence we do not need to wear kippot, tzitzit, and other religious garb. Being biologically in tune with time, we do not need external reminders of time-dependent things; it is inherent in our beings.
As Barnard College President Dr. Debra Spar said in an October 2013 interview, a primary unintended consequence of the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s “was to make women feel inadequate.” Women were left with many choices their forebears could not image, yet many in my generation were given a clear message: You must/should choose everything.
There is tremendous societal pressure, well documented in scholarly literature, for us to become “superwomen” and learn how to manage all of the choices we now have to make. With only 24 hours in a day, for God did not allot extra daily hours for superwomen, something had to give. Women in the 1970s and ’80s suppressed their femininity by wearing men’s suits and ties. (Think Annie Hall.) Studies about leadership in that era reflect that women felt they had to suppress their feminine attributes and become more “masculine” to succeed as leaders.
These messages, sent to us through models of so-called successful women and media, made many women feel inadequate and guilty. Guilty that we neglected our children, could not devote more overtime at work, neglecting our spouses, or did not climb the corporate ladder fast enough. And we went home and tried to scratch together dinner for the family, missed PTA meetings, allowed others to raise our children – because we simply could not do everything.
Our collective self-esteem as women was harmed as we chose how to spend our 24 hours each day, knowing that something had to give. Our choices have price tags attached to them.
Along comes tefillin.
Religious commandments are not vehicles for feminist statements. They are commitments for life, not to be chosen when the cameras are around and discarded when alone at home.
Women wearing tefillin in the presence of men may be deemed inappropriate and belligerent, as it is not considered traditional Orthodox practice and may distract their prayers. If a woman wants to take on an extra commandment intended for men, then let it be (like for men) a lifelong daily commitment and done without offending other co-religionists. After all, why is our culture and religion less worthy than others of some basic sensitivity?
The tefillin movement is adding to the already tapped out burden that modern Orthodox women have in their day-to-day lives. Besides juggling work and children, husbands and communities, we have Shabbat to organize, kosher homes, holidays to prepare for and manage, many of us pray daily, and we have other religious duties.
Instead of focusing on improving women’s self-esteem and alleviating the guilt of necessary decisions and sacrifices, the tefillin movement seeks to add to the pressures on women to prove their “equality” to men.
Why does women wearing tefillin not advance the cause of feminism? First of all, it isn’t in style. We know that we don’t have to dress or act like men to be considered powerful or equal. Why would we want to revert to the old-fashioned thinking that we need to wear tefillin in order to be considered spiritual equals to men?
Secondly, the task of educating the new generations of women is to teach them to advance women’s equality in pay, promote leadership skills in school, build self-esteem and pride, and role model such behaviors. Feminism shouldn’t lead us towards unrealistic goals that burden women to take on more responsibilities, instead of embracing Judaism’s traditional yet modern approach with an equal-but-different status of women. Because until men deliver babies, they will always be different than us.
Tefillin does not help women feel good about being women. It encourages women to chase shadows and feel inadequate in their non-maleness.
As an Orthodox feminist Jewish woman, I believe that I am whole and complete without adding another commandment to my repertoire.
I don’t want to be a man. I am equal and different – and very proud of it.