The issue of women and tefillin resurfaced this week in light of the Boiling Point article recently published at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles and circulated on Facebook. It has since become an international topic of discussion. I imagine that many of you have read the articles and have had many conversations on the issue. Over the course of December, I spoke with students and faculty but I did not communicate directly with the parent body on the topic. Given the international publicity of this week, I would like to share my thoughts directly with you.
Two girls who have put on tefillin since their bat mitzvah approached me months ago to ask permission to put on tefillin in school. Both students, in their respective ways, have shown real commitment to this mitzvah. Since their bat mitzvah, they have been taught, in accordance with their family practice, to daven each day with tefillin. For me, this was a question of whether I could allow a young woman to practice as she had been taught – to daven each and every day in a meaningful way wearing tefillin as an expression of her עבודת השם. I felt that my responsibility was to consider the person before me and the halakha, before considering the political fallout of the decision.
In my opinion, the practice of these families has support in halakha. It has basis in the Rishonim (רמב״ם, רשב״א וספר החינוך) – and R. Yosef Karo, the מחבר שולחן ערוך, seems to follow that opinion. I felt it appropriate to see this as a legitimate practice albeit different than our communal practice – but one that has halakhic justification. As such, I granted the two girls permission in the context – in a tefilah setting – of a group of girls who were supportive of their practice. I felt it appropriate to create space at SAR for them to daven meaningfully. I explained this to our students in this way: it is a halakhically legitimate position despite it not being our common communal practice. But since there is support for it, I would be willing to create such space in the school. I did not, in so doing, create new policy nor invite any female student who wanted to don tefillin to do so. These are girls who, I believe, have been מוסר נפש (for a teen to get up at 6:20 each morning is meaningful commitment) for this מצוה. At its core, women donning Tefillin is a discretionary act in Jewish law. While our community has adopted as normative the view that women refrain from this act, I see the range of rishonim who allow women to don tefillin as support to give space to that practice within our community. One can disagree with this decision on halakhic and public policy grounds. But the position is a coherent one and deserves careful consideration.
But why? What was so important about this? As the weeks passed and I heard the various reactions and responses, my feelings on the issue became increasingly clear to me. Perhaps this is best expressed by way of a story. I daven in R. Yosef Adler’s shul, Congregation Rinat Yisrael, in Teaneck. Many of you know Rabbi Adler as the principal of TABC. On that day back in December when I emailed the faculty, I met Rabbi Adler at a community event. He crossed the room and came over to me, took my hand in his two hands and said, “yasher koach, you made the right decision. In a world where there are so many things that distract our teens from focusing on mitzvot, we should support teenagers who seek to strengthen their connection to Hashem and to a life of mitzvot. If I taught girls in my school, I would make the same decision.” In fact, as he subsequently shared with me, he had made the same decision. A few years back, a woman from the community asked if she could daven at the morning minyan at Rinat – but, she said, I wear tallis and tefillin when I daven. Rabbi Adler permitted her to daven in shul. A number of men in the community came over to him and said that they refused to daven in such a minyan. That story crystallized it all for me. I told my students (and I went to each of our four grades for a community meeting to explain the decision – as well as giving two faculty shiurim for staff) that I am not committed to the idea of SAR girls putting on tefillin. I am not encouraging our girls to do so. But I am committed to having our boys and girls be able to daven in the same shul where a woman might be doing so. That when they see something different, even controversial, before deciding in which denomination it belongs, they must first take a serious look at the halakha and ask their Rabbi whether there is basis for such practice. I suspect that I would not differ much regarding normative halakha with most people in our community. But I would differ strongly with someone who thought this was cause for that person to be removed from the community – or that such practice could not be supported within the community shul. I permitted our two female students to daven with tefillin because I believe that we should not be afraid of different forms of עבודת השם when there is halakhic argument to support it. I permitted the young women to daven with tefillin because we should be proud, as a Modern Orthodox community, that we recognize the sanctity and dignity of each person and we find ways to support their spiritual growth in different ways.
I am proud to say that many students have taken this as an opportunity to learn about their classmates and to learn the sources more carefully. They have engaged each other seriously and respectfully. They have helped shape an atmosphere of support, of care, of אהבת ישראל.
And here is what we do not do: we do not loosely and without basis malign other Jews, call them names, disparage their motivations and their divine service in the name of…what? I am not sure. I have been reading social media (a new practice for me) and I have been appalled. I have read people maligning these two fine young women with insults and false characterizations based on…nothing. It is awful; it is abominable; it is unacceptable. Two girls who are שומרי שבת וכשרות, גומלי חסד,and בנות תורה. It has been awful to watch. It is מוציא שם רע at its worst (of kids, no less). We should be proud to be stringent in recognizing the dignity of others and valuing their divine service and stringent about how we talk about others, especially children.
I know that not everyone agrees with my decision. I expect that and I respect that. It is my hope that we can champion, together, ahavat yisrael, love for each Jew; that we can come together as a community even when we disagree; that we can deeply respect each other with pride as we create space for us to work together, as a community, to strengthen ourselves in our עבודת השם.
With respect and appreciation,
Rabbi Tully Harcsztark