Thursday, December 29, 2011

Jewish Ritual, Feminine Spirituality and Tefillin

Jewish women from a variety of streams within Judaism are showing ever greater interest in what have traditionally been considered male Jewish rituals. Their interest is often met with Jewish male disapproval, at times vehement, and rarely thoughtfully presented. It's fair to say that something of a generation-driven feminist-inspired push-back against what are perceived to be patriarchally-determined, arbitrary religious roles is involved. However, while on the surface this issue may resemble the righteous and long struggle for female equality in such areas as suffrage and the workplace, when it comes to Jewish religious practice, a more nuanced understanding is required.

I first addressed this subject around year ago, in Feminine Spirituality and the role of Ritual. There, I notably compared male Jewish ritual to a carpool for dialysis patients and, perhaps more substantively, considered the male-driven glorification, exotification and, indeed, fetishization of Jewish ritual, to the point where, somewhat absurdly, Jewish women feel unjustly deprived of it.

In this, my first blog post from a three month plus hiatus, I'd like to delve once more into this subject. This time around, we'll consider a particular ritual - the wrapping of tefillin. This discussion will be fairly useless if you either don't know what tefillin are, or don't care. So, either learn the basics, or have a nice day. Those with little to no understanding of Jewish faith or customs may find the following material challenging. However, by sticking with me, and using Wikipedia liberally, you may yet think today - always an exciting prospect ;) Plunging right in, then.

To begin, where is it forbidden for women to wear tefillin? There are conflicting rulings by the Rema (who discouraged it) and Gra (who forbade it) but the halacha merely says that women are exempt (Mishnah Berachot 3:3, Orach Chaim 38:3). On the other hand, it’s a time-bound mitzvah tailored (by the Creator) to bolster male connectivity with the divine. So, from a spiritual perspective, it’s something of a misappropriation from the designated intent of the act. It’s like a man wearing women’s underwear; I mean, he could (not really, under halacha, which forbids cross-dressing, but follow the analogy), but they weren’t designed with him in mind.

However, whereas some misappropriations of the tools G-d gave us are actually harmful, in a spiritual sense (like having sex out of wedlock), what’s really the downside to a woman wearing tefillin? The issue seems quite trivial and (the very few) Jewish men who blow this issue out of proportion have a high hill to climb to appear neither silly nor brutish. In my admittedly unscholarly opinion, the worst that can happen is that, by wearing tefillin, a woman is depriving herself of a far greater potential for spiritual action and fulfillment, desensitizing herself to the level of a man. That’s my best dramatic spin on the deal. Oh well, how tragic for her, but my life goes on and everyone else’s should too.

In this discussion, I am disregarding ritual tefillin-wearing from scholarly tefillin-wearing, if it can be called that. In other words, a fully-observant and knowledgeable Jewish woman learning about tefillin and wearing them for a time in that context is different from a Jewish woman assuming the mitzvah of tefillin as hers to perform. There might be no downside to her doing so, but in the same way, what exactly is the upside, from a spiritual perspective? More importantly, what is her spiritual opportunity cost to wearing tefillin?

There are some few exceptions. People bring up Rashi’s daughters wrapping tefillin (although there doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence for it). There have been other examples throughout history, both ancient and recent, for which there is evidence. At the same time, none of the women who we know, in fact, wore tefillin, were running around promoting female tefillin use; it was a private matter. Tefillin at their essence are a spiritual tool designed for men. If a gaon, tzadik or rebbe (in the traditional sense, not a graduate of Chicago University’s Jewish Studies program – no disrespect implied) ever privately advised a woman in a specific circumstance to use that tool, to affect a particular effect in her spiritual life, without broadcasting this to the world, it wouldn’t shock me. If a G-d fearing, learned woman (Jewish Studies majors are, again, excluded, from the “learned” adjective, not necessarily the “G-d fearing” – no disrespect implied) chooses to use this tool for some unusual reason, fully understanding the implications, who is anyone else to argue? But in the main this is a tool designed and deployed for the spiritual service of men.

Nevertheless, I recognize that there exist women who feel a strong need to wear tefillin. Some would call this outcome a lack of proper education, understanding or the result of a spiritual identity built on non-normative premises and foundations. Personally, and I mean personally, I think it reeks of the worst sort of misogyny that men, who are spiritually lower, have so inculcated in women a reverence for men, that women think doing as men do is the path to their spiritual aliyah. See my previous article on the subject for more development of that vein.

Going back to the notion of tefillin as a tool, consider the purpose of that tool, and equate it with something more tangible… say, crutches. G-d gave men spiritual crutches because they couldn’t walk on their own. Women are perfectly healthy; they don’t need crutches. However, because women see that G-d paid more attention to the men in this regard (the way a doctor pays more attention to the sick than the healthy), they equate crutches with greater connection to the divine. So, you’ve got perfectly healthy women demanding to walk around in crutches. Who knows, maybe someone who thinks their legs are broken really might need crutches as much as someone whose legs actually are broken. It’s a curious thing to watch, and some may call it insanity, that healthy people should walk around in crutches. As I said, my life goes on.

I accept that there are women who feel a strong need to wear tefillin. What’s more, and more importantly, I accept that many of these women feel their need to wear tefillin has real justification. This means that anything I or anyone else tells them to dissuade them from wearing tefillin will feed into a self-reinforcing narrative of resistance, and will probably have the opposite effect – i.e. “denying” them tefillin only increases the perceived holiness and necessity of tefillin, etc. Perhaps in the time of the Rema (who urged that women be discouraged from wearing tefillin), Rabbinical authority commanded sufficient weight as to be respected without question. Today, putting up walls in the path of determined people is taken as a challenge to be surmounted at all costs and is consequently more likely to start a brush-fire than put one out.

In summation, here is my suggestion for responsible action on the part of Jewish men faced with this issue. Whenever a Jewish woman wants to wear tefillin, the first thing an observant Jewish man should do is immediately give her a pair of tefillin, without a second’s delay, and show her how to use them. The more determined she is, the more quickly he should submit, because this isn't about denying women a precious instrument of divine service. And after she's done the deed, he should do what he can to engage her in that very necessary conversation about crutches, and how a supremely healthy and powerful spiritual being like her really doesn’t need them. (But whenever she feels she does, she can borrow his.)
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