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Two Different Tracks: Women and Tefillin vs. Women and Torah

One of the more interesting ways to frame the question of Orthodox Jewish women wearing tefillin is in the context of yesterday’s post. (See: Life is in its Struggles: Dealing With the Tough Questions)

Many of the statements made about women in the Talmud that sound offensive to us relate to women studying Torah. The objections to women learning Torah are mostly an issue of cognition or intellectual prowess. Regardless, the accepted unequivocal conclusion of the Talmud is that women should not study Torah.

The parameters of this prohibition are not as broad as the Talmud seems to imply. The most restrictive opinions in the achronim say they may only learn the laws that are relevant to their practice. The Rambam says they are only prohibited from studying the Oral Law but he seems to hinge it upon their overall academic abilities which are fluid and subjective. The Chida famously said that if a woman wants to learn she can learn whatever she wants.

The point is that the very harsh statements of the Talmud regarding teaching women Torah has been narrowly tailored even according to the least permissive opinion. No one reads the halachic part of this rabbinic ban on Torah study for women without some form liberal interpretation.

When we contrast this with the statements of the Talmud regarding women wearing tefillin we see the opposite process. The Mishna simply says that women are exempt from tefillin. The Talmud never says explicitly that women should not wear tefillin. The Sefer HaChinuch discusses whether women would make the blessing on tefillin without saying that it is prohibited. We don’t know if women actually did wear tefillin but from a Talmudic perspective, they would have been allowed to wear tefillin.

Instead, the Rama is the one who makes the liberal statement of the Talmud more restrictive than it’s simple reading. The Rama says that women are exempt from tefillin but they should be strongly discouraged from wearing them. As an aside, I think it is reasonable that the Rama’s citation that women should not touch Torah scrolls is relevant and might have influenced his tefillin position. Something to think about.

Fast forward to 2014 and it’s not just that they should be discouraged, it’s that it’s prohibited altogether. It’s even been said that women wearing tefillin today is a form of sectarianism. This is so far from the position stated in the Mishnah that it has to make us wonder how this happened.

I think it is worth noticing that these two trains are going in opposite directions on two different sets of tracks. I can’t explain or account for these very different story lines with any degree of certainty but I do have a guess. It could be that in the view of the poskim along the way, the leniencies regarding studying Torah are a “necessary evil” but are not ideal at all. It was just impossible to tell girls that they cannot study Torah in modern society. Plus there is the Chida. There is no such necessity for tefillin and there is no Chida (although there is the Chinuch and Michal bas Shaul).

That does not account for the increasingly stringent views on tefillin. That might just be the same as any other increasingly stringent halachic development. The combination of necessary and precedent might explain the reason for increasingly liberal positions on Torah study for women. It might also provide the blueprint for adjustments to our views on women wearing tefillin and other similar issues. Time will tell.

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About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.


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