Tempest in a Tefillin-Bag?

Of the slew of recent articles celebrating the idea of girls wearing tefillin two were particularly notable.  One, because of how revealing it is of its author’s attitude toward halacha; the second, because it holds the seeds of a worthy lesson.

In Haaretz, feminist Elana Sztokman (upcoming book: “The War on Women in Israel”) asserted that “the crude, sexist responses within Orthodoxy to girls wearing tefillin” only “reflect men’s fears and prejudices.”  And that her brand of “religious feminism is not about… women who are angry or provocative.”

She dismisses those who have noted that the Shulchan Aruch (technically, the Rama) criticizes women’s wearing of tefillin as just “try[ing] to make their objections rooted in halakha,” and she cites in her favor the halachic authority of the founder of a school described elsewhere as representing the “co-ed, egalitarian ethos of liberal Conservative Judaism.”  That authority, Ms. Sztokman announces, has “unravel[led] the halakhic myths… about women and tefillin.”

What’s more, she continues, fealty to the halachic sources about the issue only shows how “some men think about women’s bodies and their roles in society” and “how deeply rooted misogynistic perceptions are in Orthodox life.”

And to think that some people call feminists strident.

The second article of note was by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (where he has permitted a woman to wear tallis and tefillin at services). Admirably and responsibly, he cites the halachic sources that oppose the practice, concedes that it isn’t “normative practice in Halachik Judaism” for women to wear tefillin, and even states that he doesn’t “want to encourage women” to do so.

He tries, though, to parse one of them, the Aruch Hashulchan, in order to make a case that the prohibition should no longer apply “in our day, when the expectations for women in general are basically the same as the expectations of men.”

I don’t think that Rabbi Lookstein, although he is greatly respected by many as a communal leader and educator, considers himself a recognized decisor of Jewish law.  And so, I imagine that he would not criticize those of us who look to such decisors for rulings, and certainly would not rail against us for being “sexist” or “misogynistic.” His discomfort, moreover, with encouraging women to adopt the practice of wearing tefillin may even reflect a suspicion that, while the immediate motivations of individuals may be entirely sublime, some who are vocally pushing the practice may be more interested in prostrating themselves before an “egalitarian ethos” than in serving G-d.

En passant, though, Rabbi Lookstein raises a point that every observant Orthodox Jew would do well to consider.

The Aruch Hashulchan, he notes, writes that it is clear that only men are commanded to wear tefillin.  Thus, men have no choice but to make the effort to achieve the state of physical and mental purity tefillin require – at least for a short while each day, during morning prayers.  It is a risk, but the commandment makes it a necessary one. Women, however, who are not commanded to wear tefillin, do not have to undertake the choice; so why should they put themselves in the position of possibly, even inadvertently, disrespecting tefillin?

Seizing on that argument, Rabbi Lookstein asserts that since today “nobody really does it the right way… why are women any different from men in this respect?  Just look at all the men who are consulting their… phones, or reading, during parts of the davening, while wearing tefillin…”

The validity of Rabbi Lookstein’s halachic suggestion regarding women wearing tefillin is, of course, highly arguable.  That some people don’t properly execute a difficult but assigned personal responsibility cannot be an argument for others to unnecessarily undertake the responsibility and its challenges themselves.

But Rabbi Lookstein’s observation nevertheless holds great worth for all of us who hew to halacha, who disapprove of women laying tefillin and oppose acceptance of the same by Jewish schools.

Because we must wonder why this issue has suddenly been thrust upon us, begetting rants like Ms. Sztokman’s.  We can’t just dismiss the controversy as a mere tempest in a  tefillinzekel.  It has unleashed anger and hatred against halacha-committed Jews.  We are taught by the Torah to examine unfortunate events for some message, some fodder for self-improvement.  What might we have done to merit the introduction of yet another tool for divisiveness among Jews?

Rabbi Lookstein may have unintentionally supplied us with the answer.

There are certainly shuls where tefillin are entirely respected, where men don’t joke around or discuss business or politics or check their phones or daydream during services.

But then, sad to say, there are all too many… others too.  Might what goes on in them be what is nourishing the new ill will?

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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