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?