My perspective on the recent announcements that several female students have requested and been given permission to wear tefillin at Shacharit at SAR Academy in Riverdale would be what you might call a long view, as it’s now been over 20 years since I left my community Jewish day school behind for college, career, motherhood, and beyond.
However, I admire and am impressed with the leadership of the school that is leading this charge, because I too remember always feeling encouraged and empowered by my school and by my teachers, never discouraged. The outraged reaction of some over women laying tefillin in this environment surprises and concerns me.
I share the view of Rabbi Yosef Adler, principal of the Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), who was recently quoted on the topic by SAR Academy’s Rabbi Tully Harcsztark. “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,” he said.
Having made this broad statement of support, perhaps it will seem odd that I have not grown up to stand among my more feminist peers when it comes to public observance. I am an attorney and more recently, a real estate agent, certainly not an old-school traditional wife, and yet, I have found myself most content occupying the traditionally female role within our Orthodox family. I am married with four children, observant of taharat hamishpacha, Shabbat, and kashrut. I will say only that my feminist streak, or perhaps just my rebellious one, has led me to dismiss the entire hair-covering/skirts-only-wearing subject as not relevant to our time, as some of the other mothers in our extended community also seem to have done.
But beyond eschewing the old-school uniform that our more traditional rabbinate still encourages for Jewish women, I remain as traditional as they come, and most comfortably so.
My husband is the one to encourage me in such things as making the motzei at the Shabbat table, or forming a mezumenet for benching when there are three women present, for example, and I am usually the one to demur, preferring that he lead as head of our family.
My daughter has known all along that participation in women’s minyanim/leining, etc., is available to her with our full support, though she too has not felt the need to partake of it. To mark the occasion of her bat mitzvah several years ago, she devoured her parsha and presented what she learned in the form of divrei torah delivered throughout her birthday Shabbat to our gathered family and guests. It is almost as if for both of us, being given the opportunity to participate in those public rites has eliminated our thirst for them altogether. She does study gemara in school, as I did at her age, and she has said that her choice of seminary will surely be influenced by where she can continue with these studies.
Of course, for me, as a mother, I know exactly what it is to create an environment of Judaism and faith in our home, and I am able to see what a full time responsibility that really is. I do not feel the need to lay tefillin for myself, nor be called to the Torah, nor read from it myself, as I do not lack for ways to express my Judaism and my commitment to Hashem, whether in our home, or in our shul or community.
My disinclination to lead in these public ways should not be interpreted as a manifestation of lack of skill or ability—I am fluent in our tefillot and am the daughter of a once lay-chazzan, descended from a long chain of family musicians fluent in our liturgy and its rich melodies. My fondest childhood memories include my father’s continual practice of the High Holiday service, which began each summer in July or August and continued all the way until Rosh Hashanah. He would descend to the basement and review the melodies he had selected, singing them over and again until they flowed effortlessly from his lips. As he practiced, I learned too, often by heart, and as I got older, I was able to join him in his practice and add harmony. I know that our time singing together brought my father great joy, but I don’t recall our ever discussing that I would actually not lead services myself when I got older; there didn’t seem to be anything to discuss.
I am sure that my davening, were I to lead from the amud, would be as beautiful as any man’s, and as confident. But for me, it would never match the rich baritone sounds of my father, and it would feel wrong for me to occupy his place, much like I would never sit in his seat in my parents’ home.
Moreover, I am so proud of my husband and three sons and their participation in responsibilities uniquely theirs. I do not feel diminished in any way, only proud to have contributed to the men they are and will become, as I am proud of my daughter and the woman she is growing up to be.
In one last observation, I would comment that in non-Orthodox, more egalitarian shuls I have been privileged to visit as a guest, I notice a distressing trend among the men of the community, that where the women have stepped up to fulfill the leining and other obligations, it seems that the men are now more chronically absent from these posts. It strikes me that perhaps our division of responsibilities as in days of old was more ingenious, and less insidious, than we might have thought—encouraging men into roles and responsibilities which might otherwise have been perceived as feminine, merely by defining them as the privileges of a Jewish male. I fear that on other movements’ way to helping women feel more integral to public observances, they have marginalized the men.
So, rather than wringing our hands at sincere young women looking to find a comfortable spot of their own in our very complicated Jewish universe, let’s applaud them and give them the room they need to explore all the mitzvot available to them within halacha. And save some applause for those who are content with the more traditional roles too. Our tradition has room for both.
By Mandy Greenfield Book