The first time I put on tefillin, I was probably in a post bat mitzvah class. One of the madrichim from my Israel trip brought his set to class. I don’t recall what the lesson was about, beyond showing us the workings of the tefillin and how to wrap them, but this being a Reform synagogue, where no one donned phylacteries, ever, he didn’t bat an eye when I asked to also be showed how to wrap.
I haven’t thought much about that episode until this past week when the words “tefillin” and “trending” aligned as no one could ever imagine on social media. But when the Riverdale high school, SAR, agreed to let two of its female students lay tefillin at morning prayers, I saw my high school self wrapping the shiny leather bands of my counselor’s tefillin around my left arm once more.
In the intervening years, which are many, I became more observant and I took on wearing a tallit for prayer. I leyn Torah and haftarah and know many of the other tropes necessary to read from the different meggilot throughout the year. I study, but I’m pretty much an eclectic autodidact and you can tell that I have not had the benefit of either a day school or yeshiva education.
At one point, several years ago, Rabbi Dana Saroken, then the assistant rabbi at New City Jewish Center, gave me a set of tefillin. I didn’t use them, not until my father died. There was no question when that happened, that I would attend daily minyan; and it followed that as someone who had taken on tallit, I should also wear tefillin when praying in the morning.
Getting them on under the stress of saying your first mourner’s kaddish is not that easy. I felt terribly self-conscious that I would mess something up. It would have been better had I been doing this all along and thus simply been part of my ritual. But soon enough, it became a part of my routine. I liked the literalness of the mitzvah — bind it as a sign upon your hand and they shall be frontlets between your eyes — the actual words from the Torah wrapped and held in the very places where they are commanded to be.
After awhile, I forgot that this is so different. I don’t often get to minyan these days. But when I go, I put on tefillin. I realize as a Jewish woman, who davens at a Conservative shul in the early part of the 21st century, I can accept this almost with a shrug. Yes, I know the challenges that went into getting to this point, and I know that my sisters in the Orthodox movement don’t necessarily have the same nonchalance wrapped up in tefillin that those of us in the more liberal streams may.
So it was significant when SAR, an Orthodox high school in Riverdale, allowed two female students to wear their tefillin during morning prayers at school. I read the school’s letter to the community and much of the subsequent reporting. The school granted the measure to these specific girls because they had been laying tefillin since they had become bat mitzvah. To me, the letter seemed both filled with distaste for the actuality that girls would want to wear tefillin, but recognized that these particular young women were devout and that this was part of their custom since they had come of age and that to deny their commitment was foolish.
Ramaz, an Orthodox high school on the Upper East Side, said if approached by young women seeking to don tefillin, it would consider the request, but currently had no takers.
I applaud SAR for taking this step. I’m sure it was not easy and I do not meant to take lightly what went into the decision. But I’m really exhausted from this idea that men have to deem me/women duly serious enough to take on a mitzvah that I am/we are willing to perform. My husband puts on his tefillin one day a year when he says kaddish for his father and no one tells him he isn’t “serious” enough to do so, so please don’t bother.
The whole set up reminds me of the joke in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, when the character Alvy Singer says that he was thrown out of NYU for cheating on his metaphysics exam. “I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me,” is the punch line. Funny. Because of course who among us is really capable of such a feat?
In this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, b’nei yisrael receive the many rules by which they will live subsequently as a self-identified people. After they have received the specifics, they respond, na’aseh v’nishmah, which is usually interpreted as “we will do, and we will understand,” or “we will do and we will hear.” The important part of this construction is that the doing precedes the understanding of these acts. The Israelites are now ready, after hundreds of years of slavery to accept the rules of God, and out of doing them, they will learn, and grow and become a people. The Torah values action above understanding; getting your feet wet is the important part if you’re going to eventually learn to swim.
For a religion that asks its participants to engage so much in physical acts — smelling havdalah spices, reveling in Shabbat candlelight, tasting honey to sweeten the New Year, wrapping the Torah physically to your arm and head — it is hard to understand why in the case of women and tefillin, we are asked to understand first and maybe, if we are deemed serious enough, do later. How am I ever supposed to simply be curious enough to try it if it if I’m supposed to understand the act in all its complexity first? Doing it again and again and again will get me there, but I have to be able to take those funny little boxes out of the velvet bag, unwrap them and wind them around me. I must feel their slight pinch and the weight of the box on my forehead if I’m ever going to get there. It simply cannot be that if I haven’t been doing this since my bat mitzvah, I’m simply out of luck, that the train left the station and I can never catch it again.
The Torah understood that doing led to comprehension. I know from my own experience that laying tefillin increases my awareness of what I’m saying and doing in those predawn minutes, when I put my faith in ancient words and reach for an understanding I’m forever reaching to attain.