Sisterhood Blog

How Tefillin Empowers Me

By Avigayil Halpern

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Editor’s Note: This article is a response to Avital Chizhik’s article which called for Orthodox feminism to seek to open the minds of women, not just to emulate the ritual practice of men.

(Ha’aretz) — Dear Ms. Chizhik,

I - a high-school student - write to you from a community in which your proposals for “real empowerment” have already been implemented.

In the Modern Orthodox day schools I have attended all my life, I have been “educated for the sake of education and not simply vocation.” I have been “taught to hold [myself] with dignity and confidence, encouraged to speak and build and succeed, entrusted with the best of secular knowledge, history, literature, sciences, politics.” I am a religious woman who “speaks proper English and Hebrew, and identifie[s] as [a] citizen of a greater society.” I have, because of my education, become “tolerant and unafraid of the outside,” and I “turn to the world with an unwavering confidence in [my] own faith and strength.”

I also lay tefillin.

The “deeper and more critical” questions you raise are indeed vital to the future of the halachically observant Jewish community. However, the issue of women’s education and involvement in the wider world is not contradictory or antithetical to the discussion of women’s increased ritual observance. I would argue that the issues are part of the same discourse and process.

You critique the way “hordes of bloggers” have skewed the women-and-tefillin (phylacteries) story out of proportion. I think that this issue has gained such prominence because it is an indicator of the direction in which Modern Orthodoxy is moving. I began laying tefillin because of the excellent education I received, an education which you would no doubt endorse: I have been fortunate enough to have access to the skills with which to engage both Jewish ideas and the secular world. The more I learned - in classes with male and female peers – the more I saw a disconnect between the access I was given to religious texts in the classroom and the rituals I was permitted to engage in at synagogue.

I engaged with the world and with Judaism - as you recommended - but once I had attained that “real empowerment,” what came next? I and my female friends, thanks to the women before us, have the privilege of serious, high-level education. But to what end is this education? Our male peers gain knowledge of Torah and grow up to be community and lay leaders, hazanim (cantors) and gabba’im (beadle). They will teach their sons the notes by which to sing the melody of the Torah in shul, how to wrap the leather straps of tefillin and kiss the white stings of tzitzit. Are we women, however advanced our knowledge, to be forever deterred from the performance of these mitzvot? Will women who teach Torah be forever denied the honor of an aliyah in their communities?

The women’s learning revolution has permanently and positively changed the way women and girls are treated in Modern Orthodox communities. We have been empowered in this way, thanks to the noble fight (yes, fight; the women who first demanded equal education faced tremendous opposition, and to deny that their “striving” was a fight is to devalue their work) of women before us.

But education cannot exist in a vacuum. Our education has made us full equals in the sphere of Jewish and secular ideas; now, we seek to employ that education in the ritual arena. My desire to lay tefillin and wear tzitzit is a direct outgrowth of the ownership I have been given by my study and education. Mitzvot and Torah, after all, are part of the same system, and any community that gives women one should be prepared for us to soon request the other.

The combination of high levels of competence with Torah study and a view of the opportunities I would have in the secular sphere meant that, for me, ritual equality was the natural next step. I had access to Torah; now, I needed access to mitzvot.

I am a woman who wears tzitzit and lays tefillin precisely because of the education you advocate for so articulately. As one who experiences equality in the wider world, I demand it of the Jewish community, too. At the moment, because of my egalitarianism (I believe women can and should count in a minyan, for example) I do not identify as Orthodox, despite the fact that in all other ways (my observance of Shabbat and kashrut, for example) my practice would place me within that community. I look forward to the day when Modern Orthodoxy (and hopefully one day your Orthodox community) follows its highly successful focus on equal-opportunity education with a focus on equal-opportunity mitzvot.

This is the next step.

Avigayil Halpern is a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England.

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