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Ties That Bind

A Jewish feminist takes on the Torah - literally


Published February 28, 2001 at 3:00 p.m.

Every morning, as soon as I have the house to myself, I go back into my bedroom and engage in an activity that’s usually reserved for men. First I clip a small, suede cap to my hair and drape a wool prayer shawl over my shoulders. Then I roll up my left sleeve and position a little black box against my biceps. Inside the box is a bit of parchment with four passages from the Torah — the first five books of the Jewish Bible — commanding me to bind the words they contain to my arm. Whispering a blessing, I take the strap that holds the box and spiral it down my arm seven times.

A second box goes on the front of my head, each prescribed gesture accompanied by its own prescribed blessing. Then I wrap the strap from my hand three times around my middle finger, reciting with each turn a line from the prophet Hosea: “I betroth you to Me forever; I betroth you to Me in righteousness, justice, kindness and compassion; I betroth you to Me in faithfulness; and you shall know God.” When all this has been done, I’m ready to begin my morning prayers.

“Laying tefillin” — or “phylacteries,” as they’re called in English in the New Testament — gives prayer a tangible dimension that helps the worshiper focus. Symbolically, binding God’s commandments to the arm and the head serves as a reminder that human actions and thoughts should be directed toward the good. For over a thousand years, laying tefillin has been a standard part of the Jewish male’s daily observance, a crown of adulthood for the bar mitzvah boy. A booklet on tefillin for Orthodox teenagers calls phylacteries a sign of the “bond of love” between God and man. The “man” part is no accident.

Like many Jewish practices, up until the last few decades, tefillin have been strictly a guy thing. Though early rabbinical writings include a few notable examples of women who wore them, these instances are so unusual that to many Jews it must seem unnatural. The booklet, in a chapter headed, “For Girls Only,” cheerfully asserts, “The home is a woman’s tefillin.” Because females, unlike our poor deprived male counterparts, can have babies, the tract offers, we partake of “God’s attributes more intimately than any man,” and therefore don’t need any extra emblems of holiness.

Other opponents of females in phylacteries frame their arguments in less kindly terms. Tefillin contain portions of the Torah, some authorities point out, and our messy female fluids make us too unclean to come in physical contact with this sacred book. A more common contention is that because tefillin must be wrapped at a particular time of day — first thing in the morning — they might interfere with our household chores. This now-or-never feature not only exempts us from the rule, the reasoning goes; it actually excludes us.

Another, rather circular, argument posits that because tefillin have traditionally been worn by men, they’re men’s clothing, and therefore off-limits to women under the ban on cross-dressing set down in Leviticus. These arguments may sound absurd, but they can have serious ramifications. Just last year, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas Party pushed for legislation that would have punished any woman caught wearing tefillin at the Western Wall with seven years in prison.

Though many Jews still subscribe to ultra-sexist attitudes, in the last half-century, the mainstream of the religion has made huge strides towards egalitarianism. Outside of the Orthodox, women who wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah — and even serve as rabbis — no longer raise many eyebrows.

But tefillin are another matter. Because most straps are wrapped in private, it’s hard to say how many women participate. Among the people I know, many of whom are much more observant than I am, I only know of one other woman who does. And though I’ve been doing it almost daily for over a year, the fact that I do continues to surprise me each time I feel the soft bite of the cool, leather strap on my skin.

My decision to take on tefillin was a natural next step in a process that had started a year earlier, when my mother died. For years, I’d maintained the same casual, twice-a-year relationship with religion as I’d grown up with, dropping my kids off at Hebrew School, but rarely setting foot inside a synagogue myself. But my mother had always warned that if someone died, God forbid, I’d want to talk to a rabbi. And I did.

At my first bereavement counseling session, we talked about the Jewish law that requires an orphan to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer every day for 11 months in the company of a minyan — a quorum of 10 Jewish adults. The rabbi gently cautioned me not to commit to an obligation I couldn’t fulfill. But what I began from a sense of duty soon became the highlight of my days.

To the outsider, the 7 p.m. minyan must seem numbingly mundane. The service itself — always the same set of Hebrew prayers, mostly mumbled, and with just minor variations depending on the season — lasts about 15 minutes. But for the mourner, gathering with a group of people who simply come to stand beside you can be enormously consoling. And to the person who’s feeling as if the roof has been ripped away from overhead, the very routineness of minyan gives a comforting structure to days that may feel frighteningly chaotic.

In those first few weeks after my mother’s funeral, minyan offered a quarter hour when I could let down my guard, give in to my grief, and, as time passed, notice and feel glad that my pain was abating.

February came and went — my first month as an orphan — and still, every night, just as my husband sat down to his second helping of dinner, I’d push back my chair, throw on my coat, and drive off to minyan. Saturday mornings, I hurried to synagogue, desperate not to miss a minute of the two-and-a-half-hour Sabbath service. Week by week, as the sting of my grief waned, my official mourner’s status was becoming a convenient pretext for what really was drawing me back.

Somehow — between the soothing nostalgia of sounds from my childhood, the solace of repeated ritual, the relief of briefly stepping out of my life, and my vast well of vulnerability — I’d stopped being a spectator and was actually praying. To what or whom, I couldn’t quite say. Certainly not the angry man with the flowing white beard sitting on his heavenly throne. Words like love and unity are easier to swallow than the G-word.

More than specific messages beamed up to some supernatural being, my prayers feel like a form of internal reaching towards an intensely peaceful sense of connectedness. Once I found this feeling through prayer, I started noticing it all over the place: while walking by the lake, while making love, while helping my kids with their homework, even while calling my cranky grandmother on the phone. Once I started getting it, I couldn’t get enough of it. And the best way, for me, to get more was to practice more Judaism.

By April, I was no longer sitting on the sidelines at minyan, but stepping to the front and leading the prayers. Six months later, the cantor was teaching me to chant in Hebrew from the Torah, and I was studying the texts with the rabbi and delivering occasional sermons. People started asking me if I’d considered attending rabbinical school. For Chanu-kah, my husband treated me to my own prayer shawl — an acknowledgment that, although my 11 months of mourning would soon end, my new involvement with Judaism was far from over.

But without a mourner’s obligation to say Kaddish, what form would my observance take? Left to my own devices, I would have happily kept up the daily routine. I probably also would have been glad to give up eating pork and other foods prohibited by Jewish dietary laws, and would have extended my observance of the Sabbath. I wasn’t living in a vacuum, however, and although my family had accepted, and even supported, my new life as an active Jew, they didn’t share it. It didn’t seem fair to continue to disappear on them every night, or ask them to say goodbye to bacon with their eggs.

I began my second year of orphanhood on a reduced synagogue schedule: Saturday mornings and just one or two evening services a week. But I made up for the minyans I was missing by praying the morning service on my own at home. And I upped my spiritual ante by taking on tefillin.

Of all the unexpected rituals I’ve found myself observing, none has felt stranger than this one. The very idea of encasing words in a little black box and attaching the box to your body for half an hour each morning seems akin to slipping a textbook under your pillow the night before an exam. The smell of the leather and the pleasure I feel when it tightens against my skin seem to come curiously close to kinky.

But the hardest hurdle has been the alienation. Unlike the melodies of Torah and the taste of Manischewitz, I have no early memories of tefillin. Before I put them on myself, I’d only seen anyone wrapped in them on the rare occasions when I’d wandered into a weekday morning service and found a handful of men with one sleeve rolled up. The dark bands spiraling their arms and the bizarre black boxes balanced on their heads took me aback, as if I’d stumbled on some secret ceremony I wasn’t meant to witness. But I’d moved so far inside the religion by now, to feel estranged from such a basic ritual was unacceptable. I took my internal recoiling as a challenge to try tefillin myself.

It helped that I already happened to have some of my own. They’d belonged to my great-grandfather. My grandmother handed them down to me when my son was born. For 12 years, they’d been buried in my closet, along with a small, silk prayer shawl, a yellowed undershirt with sacramental fringes and a Jewish pocket calendar from 1947. When I brought the tefillin to the rabbi, he explained that they weren’t really a set — one for the arm and one for the head — but a mismatched pair of frontlets, both made for wearing on the head.

Unperturbed, he pulled out a pile of stray tefillin — the legacy of men who’d once gathered for morning prayers, perhaps as far back as the 1880s. Among them, he found an arm piece that matched one of my great-grandfather’s head tefillin.

What would my great-grandfather and the nameless Burlingtonian think if they could see their beloved tefillin being worn by a woman — and one whose marriage to a non-Jew most Jewish authorities don’t even officially recognize? By the same token, how can I — an educated person, a progressive thinker, a feminist — be wrapping myself in a tradition that defies rational thinking, and for millennia denied the full humanity of women?

From either angle, this picture looks wrong. And yet, being held in the wrap of the straps feels absolutely right. Feminism, at its core, is about personal liberation. Each morning, as part of Judaism’s prescribed dawn blessings, I acknowledge the divine source of my freedom. The words I wear are generations old. But their bond to me is brand-new. By my very act of participating in the tradition, I turn it into an agent of my own emancipation. I close the prayer book, kiss its corner and carefully set it down. I remove my tefillin, exactly reversing the order in which I put them on. I roll down my sleeve and boot up my computer. The leather straps have etched faint lines into my skin. As I start my day’s work, I can feel them subtly tingling.