Women and tefillin

Women and tefillin


The recent discussion of women and tefillin has convinced me that the time has come for me publicly to confess that my first set of tefillin was “stolen.”

It happened on a beautiful July day in Jerusalem, just over a month before my son David was to reach his real Jewish majority on Rosh Hodesh Elul. Like many of his peers he wanted to be comfortable davening daily in tefillin by the time he became bar mitzvah, so he was to start a month before. My husband, Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner, and I set out with him and his younger sister, Rahel, for a foray to B. Cohen’s store on Meah She’arim Street. My daughter and I felt that the amount of clothing we had to wear was incompatible with the heat, but the trade-off was that we were able to make the trip without being cursed.

On the way I was internally struggling with my own position vis-à-vis tefillin. A tallit had been part of my liturgical experience for about a decade, but both logic and halakhah really indicate that tefillin are more important than a tallit. Emotionally, it was so hard for me to take that step. Still, my son had been a Jew for just shy of 13 years; I, for decades longer. How could I avoid this responsibility? Further, as a member of the Jewish Theological Seminary faculty, I had played a significant role in orchestrating our decision to admit women to rabbinical school the previous fall. Tallit and tefillin would be required of them – the decision of a committee of which I was a member. What about me?

Before we reached the store I told my husband that I also wanted to buy a set for myself. Unconvinced that we could pull this off, he said, “We’ll see. Just let’s get David’s first.” When that purchase had been concluded, I reminded my husband that he had promised to buy tefillin for “George,” a nonexistent congregant who once had found them meaningful and now, after a long lapse, wanted to use them again. The men negotiated but when Mr. Cohen asked how big to make the head opening for George, I said that he had a small head, about the size of mine. Both sets of tefillin, correctly adjusted, were delivered to our hotel the next day.

Why was it so hard for me to take that step? Tefillin always have been part of my life, although for most of it, as a spectator ritual. Every weekday morning without fail my father, Joseph Lapidus, would wake up early enough to daven in the living room in tallit and tefillin before setting out for work as a guidance counselor at Boston English High School. There was the vacation when, after suggesting that my mother was overpacking, he packed for himself for an August week in New Hampshire: tallit, tefillin, siddur, pajamas, toothbrush, underwear, sweater. His davening seemed as dependable as sunrise.

When my younger brother, Robert, joined him upon becoming a bar mitzvah, it seemed quite natural. Growing up, I never considered my own absence from this ritual as anything other than equally natural. After all, much of life in the 1950s and 1960s was gender-divided. Of course, there was that fleeting mention in the Talmud of Saul’s daughter, Michal, in tefillin, but that clearly was the stuff of legend.

Fast forward to the early 1970s. In some ways, nothing had changed; in others, everything was changing. Ezrat Nashim, founded in September 1971, challenged the traditional gender role division within Judaism, bringing to the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly Conference in March 1972 a “Call for Change” including, as its last point and without any examples: “women be considered as bound to fulfill all mitzvot equally with men.” As a rabbinic spouse, I was present at the meeting where Ezrat Nashim discussed its demands with the wives of the rabbis. Tefillin may have been part of what they intended, but they were not mentioned. In the early 1970s there was a meeting of a part of the JTS faculty, which I had joined in 1969, to discuss the problem created at some Camps Ramah by young women who wanted to pray in tefillin. Prof. Moshe Zucker, a senior and respected member of the faculty, suggested that we should require tefillin for girls and not for boys. The result, he predicted, would be that boys would fight to have the mitzvah of tefillin restored to them and girls would balk at the requirement, returning the situation to what it should be. The summer 1973 issue of Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review: The Jewish Woman: An Anthology, edited by Liz Koltun and Martha Ackelsberg, included a picture of a woman in tefillin. It was nothing with which I could identify.

But as things began to change, I had to think about a range of challenges I had not really considered carefully. My husband, then the rabbi at Town and Village Synagogue in Manhattan, addressed the issue of equalizing women’s participation in the synagogue service – aliyot for women and counting them in the minyan -in 1973, in the wake of the Rabbinical Assembly’s decision to allow counting women in the minyan. Responsibilities, including tefillin, were mentioned along with privileges, but not stressed. His claim that I was the person hardest to convince is, I must confess, true. Following close to two years of study and discussion, change was instituted.

At the same time, my friend and JTS colleague Rabbi Joel Roth was researching and writing his teshuvah (rabbinic responsum) on the question of the ordination of women as rabbis at JTS. At one point after he had concluded that women could take on the hiyyuv (obligation) of tefillin, I asked him what the status of a woman who undertook the obligation and did not fulfill it would be. His response, that it would be the same as that of a man – whose obligation traditionally was considered divinely ordained – who did not fulfill his obligation. I pondered that for a while and realized that as an egalitarian feminist, I had to see myself as obligated – and I just would have to bear the onus of not fulfilling this obligation. For me, tefillin were too male, too much the responsibility of my father, brother, and husband, to be mine.

So that 1984 July day made me the possessor of “George’s” tefillin, but truth be told, not their regular user. It was hard. Hard to get up early to daven, hard to use these objects that still seemed so male to me, hard to fulfill that obligation that I believed that I had. Over the next few years, I would daven in the morning only occasionally, trying to make them mine, trying to see them as connected to all Jews, not only to men.

But then, just after Purim 1988, my father died. My brother, sister, and I, having been equally blessed with our father’s love, caring, and intelligence, did not hesitate for a moment. Each of us would say kaddish three times a day. And so I stopped over-thinking and started davening in a minyan every morning in tallit and tefillin. By the time the mandatory kaddish recitation was over, I had had many experiences, overwhelmingly but not exclusively positive, joining, along with my sister, also in tefillin, the minyan on an El Al flight to Israel, davening in the Brookline Young Israel, in an Orthodox shul in Teaneck, at the then nonegalitarian Conservative shul in Fort Lee.

There was no way in which I would relinquish what had become an absolute requirement for starting my day. Tefillin no longer were gendered. When my daughter became bat mitzvah she did not have to go through the process I had undergone; she never hesitated to take on this responsibility as her mandate. For her, tefillin never were gendered. And my granddaughter, who became bat mitzvah a few months ago, also started davening daily in tefillin. The first time we were at a weekday minyan together, grandmother and granddaughter in tefillin, was an amazing experience.

Over time, my understanding of the texts changed. For me this is no longer an obligation that I have assumed, but a sacred obligation, clearly written in the Torah. The mitzvah of tefillin is found in the verses from Deuteronomy 6, which we read as the first section of the Shma. The Shma addresses the Israelites as a nation, in the masculine singular. Thus, the commandment to love God is ve’ahavta, and “you (masculine singular) shall love the Lord your God…” (Deut 6:5). But it is understood that men and women both are obligated to love God. Similarly, when the injunction is to “bind them” – these instructions or words – “as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead,” the “you” is in the masculine singular, but this commandment, like the one to love God, clearly is meant for both men and women.

As my daughter said years ago, it makes no sense to separate these commandments. In the past, when life was more gender-segregated, people could not understand the text this way. In our time we are, for the first time, empowered to see this text clearly.

Every morning I feel the power of this incredible symbolic act, binding these texts to my head and arm, carefully placing one on my arm and wrapping the straps down to and around my hand, placing the other just so on my forehead, feeling the tie to God in a way that I never did before. Sure, not every day brings a transcendent religious experience, not every word of the liturgy speaks to me every day, but tefillin are there to keep me anchored.

I feel so blessed to be alive at a time when I can experience this.

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