Latest update: January 23rd, 2014
A couple nights ago, my friend Larry Yudelson posted a link to a Jewish school paper in LA reporting on a Jewish school in the Bronx, where, back in December, the principal permitted two girls to put on tefillin during the girls-only morning prayer. We ran it as a news brief (with the appropriate hat tip to Larry) and didn’t think much more about it. But then the competition, Forward and Times of Israel, avid Jewish Press readers that they are, picked up our lead (no hat tips, though) and regurgitated the student paper’s original report and then some.
So, first of all a big Yishar Koach to the writers and editors of the Boiling Point, the online student newspaper of Shalhevet High School in LA. First, for catching and reporting the story, and second for not going crazy about it, such as depicting these two girls’ teffilin thing as a victory for womankind over male rabbinic repression, which is what the grownup papers inevitably did. To date, they’ve called the story Orthodox girls fight for the right to don tefillin (TOI), and the somewhat less combative Modern Orthodox High School in New York Allows Girls to Wear Tefillin (Forwrd), that the Forward quickly followed with the heroic war poem My Fight To Lay Tefillin At an Orthodox School by strapped combatant Eliana Fishman.
JewishPress.com will be covering more of this story in the next few days, God willing. But meanwhile, I believe we should extract the entire issue from the area of controversy, where it just doesn’t belong.
Women have been a challenge to rabbinic Judaism since Rivka called her kid Yaakov over to pull a fast one on her husband, Yitzhak. And feminine rage has been with us for about the same length of time.
The Talmudic sage Ulla (latter part of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th centuries) once stayed at the house of R. Nahman in Babylon. They had a meal and Ulla said grace, and handed the cup of benediction to R. Nahman. R. Nahman said to him: Please send the cup of benediction to Yaltha (his wife).
So Ulla said to him: Thus said R. Johanan: The fruit of a woman’s body is blessed only from the fruit of a man’s body, since it says, “He will also bless the fruit of your body” (Deut. 7:13). It does not say the fruit of her body, but the fruit of your body.
From this we understand that Ms. Yalta, who normally received the kiddush cup from her husband, on this particular occasion did not. And so she got up in a rage and went to the wine cellar and broke four hundred jars of wine.
At which point R. Nahman said to Ulla: Let the Master send her another cup. He sent it to her with a humorous message: All that wine that you spilled can be counted as a benediction. She returned an answer: Gossip comes from peddlers and vermin comes from rags. Which means she was in no mood for humorous remarks from traveling rabbis. (TB Brachot 51b).
In my opinion, after a little over 100 years of suffragists and feminists, it’s high time rabbinic Judaism came to terms with its women, before we lose any more wine barrels. And, indeed, we’ve done a lot in that direction, especially in shuls associated with the National Religious movement in Israel and the Modern Orthodox shuls in the rest of the world.
The problem is that it’s impossible to unload two millennia of rabbinic scholarship and halachic decisions in 100 years. No matter how hard we try, there are always going to be competing and adversarial streams that undermine the ideally smooth process of integrating our women into the Orthodox milieu.
It would have been much easier if religious women all decided to become deeply versed with Jewish law, and started pushing for a more equal, or at least a more prestigious role in the life of their religious communities. Then we would have seen a similar, ever increasing process of women’s integration as we’ve seen in the professions since about WW2.
But many women aren’t interested. For one thing, just as halacha presages, they have other, more pressing things on their minds. Most religious women aren’t looking to become man-like, but rather to find their place in the shuls as women who are also first class citizens. And since we’ve never had that in our common history before, these things need to be made up as we go along, and it takes time, and occasionally this or that rabbi gets into a hissy fit over something or other and we all start debating stupid.
Because, in the end, rabbinic men and women are not looking to compete with one another as gender classes, but rather to complement each other and live as content communities seeking out God’s blessings.
Against this background, which is different from the more abrasive—and extremely real— gender conflicts out in the secular world, where women’s unequal pay, maternity leave, sexual threats, and poverty, are still bloody battlefields, both in the U.S. and in Israel.
The biggest issue that drives rabbinic anxiety over women’s equal status and the free interaction between men and women is the knowledge that these often end up in sexual sin. And so, over the years, we’ve erected many fences to guard against that. We’ve done away with immodest dressing, mixed seating, mixed dancing, and mixed study, to name but a few.
I’m very unhappy with some of these, and quite comfortable with others. I doubt very much, for instance, that my wife’s uncovered hair would get other men all riled up and breathless over it—any more than another man’s wife’s sexy, blond wig would. I also avoid weddings where I don’t get to sit next to my wife. We either don’t go or just come for the chupa and leave before the dinner.
All of us pick and choose what works for us and what would actually have the opposite effect, should we obey it.
Women putting on talit and tefillin fall into that category of rabbinic anxiety. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with women putting on tefillin. Even if we accept the doctrine that women are absolved from time-depended commandments — the time-depended thing is grounded in a reality: if a woman is pregnant, or has to take care of her children, we won’t demand of her to keep time-related mitzvot like prayer, and prayer-related mitzvot like talit and tefillin.
But high school students? For one thing, they are expected to pray on time, because prayer is part of the school schedule. And, by and large, they tend not to be pregnant or caring for their small children, at least not on school grounds.
As to the modesty thing: these school girls are praying in a girls’ minyan, away from men’s view. There’s absolutely no problem there, either.
In fact, that’s precisely what the principal at SAR was probably thinking when he approved their request. It doesn’t mean the other Jewish school principals are wrong by deciding against it, but the choice to approve it is rooted in the tradition and the logic of Jewish halacha.
It wasn’t a feminist fight, people. There were no barricades. It was just a wise educator making a wise choice.
But none of what I’ve written here would make a difference, because the political enemies of religious Judaism need their liberation doctrine and narrative, and don’t confuse them with legal facts.
But now, you might say, if you, Mr. Yanover, are so pro-women and so permissive, why did you write so strongly against the Women of the Wall doing essentially what those two girls have been doing in SAR?
For the simple reason that the SAR students operated within the halacha, and the WOW are attacking halacha. Because the students at SAR recognize the idea of a halachic authority one should consult on difficult issues, and the WOW have been openly and shamelessly defying the halachic authority of the sacred place where they do their politics that only masquerades as religion.
Inside their shuls, the WOW are welcome to don four pairs of tefillin and ten talaisim each. But when they visit once a month an area which is governed by a halachic authority, they should obey him (or her, I’ve stopped caring about that one).
Here’s the most important point about this diatribe, which, if you only remember it and nothing else I would be delighted:
The entire idea of the mitzvot-commandments is to permit us to get closer to God. By obeying Divine law and keeping the mitzvah, we are actively removing a little part of our ego and replace it with a little bit of God. Doing a mitzvah brings us closer to God, sinning takes us farther from God.
By definition, we can’t get closer to God through catering to our egos.
How much more exciting it would have been, if the Women of the Wall were to tell the local rabbi at the Kotel: we disagree with your ruling, but out of respect we’ll obey.
They could have brought Moshiach with that one.Yori Yanover
About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.
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