By Andres B. Mosquera
While liberal Jews have historically considered wearing the prayer shawl and phylacteries – tallit and tefillin – something optional, particularly tefillin, our tradition bears witness to much rabbinical discussion about the practice, some of it related unexpectedly to women. One of the study sessions at IJC’s recent late-night Tikkun Le’il Shavuot was about whether women should or should not wear tallit and/or tefillin. Justifications for refusing women the right to perform many Jewish rituals, or put differently ‘exempting’ them from doing so, are always intriguing. Today, we can make no sense of such prohibitions, regardless of the disagreements they still engender in various less-progressive Jewish quarters. Nevertheless, we are often told that it has been normative since time immemorial that women do not wear tallit or tefillin. But what does our tradition actually say? Did all the sages and their respective communities agree to women’s absence from such a widespread Jewish practice? Let us start a dialogue with our tradition. Or better said, let us have our tradition start a dialogue with us on the matter.
As a general principle, it is the Talmud and not the Torah that exempts women from the fulfilment of positive commandments (mitzvot l'aseh) related to time, such as attending daily prayer or blowing the shofar or dwelling in a sukkah (Kiddushin 29). The Talmud interprets the commandment to wear tefillin, for example, as ‘time-related’ because they are not worn on Shabbat or festival days (Shabbat 33b). Others argue that women have an inherent spiritual bina or wisdom superior to their male counterparts and thus do not require time-related religious imperatives (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch on Leviticus 23, 43). However, the Talmud points out that there are many exceptions to this rule and that women are still obligated to fulfil many time-related commandments, such as the rituals of Shabbat and Pesach. The ‘traditional’ interpretation then, would seem to have its exceptions.
Others argue that women should not wear tallit or tefillin because they constitute men's clothing, which raises issues of cross-dressing (Targum Yonatan Deuteronomy 22, 5). Others still reject this concern, arguing that the prohibition against cross-dressing only applies to clothing worn for style or appearance and not to fulfil a commandment (Maharam Schick Orech Chaim 173). The requirement that a person maintain a ‘clean body’ in order to wear tefillin (Piskei Riaz RH 4, 3) is considered by some to be impossible for women whose menstrual ‘uncleanliness’ is seen as a continuous obstacle (Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg). Finally, the Rema, Rabbi Moses Isserles (Orech Chaim 17, 2), posited that since women do not regularly wear such ‘garments’, wearing tefillin and tallit would be yuhara, an act of religious arrogance. This position became widely accepted within Orthodox circles in the 20th century (Aruch Hashulchan, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein).
Our sages recorded an opinion that women should wear tzitzit/tallit, even if normative law
deems it a time-related commandment (because one is not required to wear tzitzit at night – Menahot 43a). Similarly, the Talmud records that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, wore tefillin without rabbinic reproach (Ritva Eruvin 96a). Similarly, 13th century Rabbi Moses of Coucy and other rabbis list wearing tefillin among the optional commandments women can perform (Hagahot Maimoniyot Tzitzit 3, 9). There is also a famous legend about the pious and learned daughters of the renowned rabbi and biblical commentator Shlomo Yitzchaki or Rashi, which claims that his daughters wore tefillin. It should thus be clear that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
In depth study of our sources – mekorot – clearly exposes interpretations that favour women’s inclusion in the practices surrounding tallit, tefillin, and tzitzit. When things are not clear, when the arguments that the sources deploy are contradictory, or when something was permitted in the past that treated all human beings as equal but no longer seems to do so, we must ask ourselves why. Studying the mekorot invites us to fill the gaps and make sense in accordance with what our community needs, with our moral compass oriented towards the creation of tolerant (first) and worthy (second) Jewish lives. Without ongoing study, whatever we do becomes empty of meaning, it becomes automatic, and we become ‘religious robots’. Freedom of interpretation, however, is not a liberty anyone can drink from, it is not a free-coffee stand, it must take place only among those who have also imbibed knowledge and serious study, using rigorous interpretative tools. But these tools are now available and accessible to all. Hence, part of the mission of contemporary rabbis is to democratize Torah study. Moreover, the Jewish way is a collective way. We do so with the validating authority of our own ‘Beth Din’, our own community sages, who confirm that the community has chosen a particular way, a particular minhag or local custom. The community itself contains the sages’ authority and that authority represents the legitimacy ‘to do or not to do’, including the way we respond to questions related to gender equality.
Hillel of Babylon was once asked the following questions by the sons of Beteira who were sages in the land of Israel: “Our teacher, if person forgets and does not bring a knife on the eve of Shabbat and cannot slaughter the Paschal lamb, what is the halakhah […] what should he do in this situation?” Hillel told them he had forgotten the halakhah, but nevertheless he said: “Leave it to the Jewish people; if they are not prophets to whom God has revealed God’s secrets, they are the children of prophets, and will certainly do the right thing on their own.”