Sunday, January 26, 2014

Some thoughts on women wearing tefillin

As I understand it, the specific situation is a complex one, and we should be careful not to impugn the motives of the individual school administrators or the individual girls engaging in the practice. At the same time, one should not dismiss arguments from those opposing by virtue of the gender of the author ("mansplaining"). That is just an ad hominem. And also one should realize that in the current environment, such a position is going to be an unpopular one, and "shaming" those who propound the position as backwards and ignorant will not aid in arriving at a truthful conclusion.


1) The story about Rashi's daughters wearing tefillin is an urban legend. (See this article in the Jewish Action: What’s the Truth About…Rashi’s Daughters?)

2) What about Michal bas Kushis (or Michal bas Shaul)? She wore tefillin, after all! This is also the stuff of legend. Be honest, you non-chareidim. Do you think (a) that the historical Michal daughter of Shaul really wore tefillin and this is an oral history, or (b) do you think that it is a midrash which some rabbinic figure came up with, perhaps by close reading of some Biblical passage, and perhaps to teach some important lesson? When the gemara says that she wore them ולא מיחו בידן חכמים, the Sages did not protest, do you think that historically the Sages were around to protest or not protest?

Such a tenuous fable was not sufficient in Talmudic times to arrive at a definite halachic conclusion. Rather, the rabbis interpreted the halacha in light of the halachic system they had assembled before them.

That is what the Yerushalmi is doing in Eruvin 59a:

התיבון הרי מיכל בת שאול היתה לובשת תפילין אשת יונה היתה עולה לרגל ולא מיחו בידם חכמים.  רבי חזקיה בשם רבי אבהו אשתו של יונה היא שבה מיכל בת שאול מיחו בה חכמים.  

That is, Rabbi Abahu holds that (certain) instances of petur from tefillin also establish an issur to wear tefillin. Thus wearing tefillin at night, a time of petur, is also forbidden. And thus a woman wearing tefillin is forbidden. They object from this midrash, and they cavalierly rewrite the midrash. How do you know the Sages didn't object?! Since we know it is forbidden, say they objected.

But really, that is not the way halacha is established. Just like we don't establish women as dayanim on the basis of (misinterpreting) a pasuk about Devorah being a "shofetet" or women as mohalot on the basis of Tzipporah, in an emergency situation before mattan Torah circumcising her son. (Gemaras and Tosafot notwithstanding.)

3) Even if there is halachic basis for an action (at the same time that there is solid halachic precedent against the action), that does not mean that every praiseworthy action should be taken.

No, this is not (entirely) impugning the motives of women wearing tefillin, in a way that we do not subject men to such scrutiny when they accept some extra practice.

Rather, it is recognizing that historically, praiseworthy actions have been abandoned by the Jewish people in the face of outside groups co-opting it.

If I got up in shul and tried to establish that they publicly recite the Aseres Hadibros every day, people would object, I think / hope. Even though this was the practice in the Beis Hamikdash. Why? מפני תרעומת המינים. Rambam objected to standing up specifically when the Aseres Hadibros was read (though this is admittedly and unfortunately current practice).

They used to decorate shuls with foliage for Shavuot (and still do in my shteible), but the Vilna Gaon tried to get it nullified when Christians had a similar practice, and many shuls no longer do it.

Even though the avos offered sacrifices of matzeivos, because pagans did so, this practice was later Biblically rejected.

Certain actions which otherwise would not have been considered optimal were taken להוציא מלבן של צדוקים.

And like it or not, there are other current sects of Judaism which, in the interests of egalitarianism (and which believes that Orthodox Judaism has been treating women unfairly and unequally) has established the practice of women wearing tefillin.

If so, it is not a simple appeal to rare historical precedent or finding classical sources which permit or encourage it. Rashi's daughters, had they worn tefillin, did not do so when there was a competing sect promoting the wearing of tefillin. So too for Michal bat Shaul. So too the Rashba. Were the Rashba alive today, he would not just read the dry texts, but also realize that the same act hundreds of years ago does not have the same meaning as it has today, and he could very likely forbid.

Again, this is not to judge the motivations of the specific identified individuals involved. But the actual facts on the ground legitimately brings in the question of sectarianism, and maybe even a call to question motives in general.


yosef Greenberg said...

But you still stand during aseres hadibros, no?

This is a very well put response. Direct, and to the point. (You haven't been writing these kind of posts lately.)

Efraim said...


Anonymous said...

The Rav of my Shul spoke about the very issue of standing for Aseret Hadibrot before Ma'ariv two weeks ago.

His Maskanah for the Shul is that people should not stand unless they have a personal Minhag to do so. And if your Minhag is to stand for all of Kriyah, definitely do not sit for the Aseret Hadibrot.

joshwaxman said...

Thanks. Yeah, I've been away lately, handling other obligations...
I started out sitting but once everyone else in shul is standing, there are possible issues of al tiff rosh min hatzibur

joshwaxman said...

Autocorrect caused previous spelling....

ABDeb said...

The issue is that the whole debate around women wearing the tefillin seems largely based on making a political statement, not realizing that Judaism is older than our modern sensitivities, and not subject to our modern categorizations. The notion that a woman is considered less, or less able to practice Judaism because she cannot wear tefillin or tallis is an interpretation. I would personally disagree, as women are accorded many rights and responsibilities under Judaism, and the fact that women are not required to perform time-bound mitzvah's is simply a matter of common sense. More laws are applied to men in Torah than they are to women, hence why men are Rabbi's and are bound by these commandments. The centre of Jewish life, however, is in the home. The mother/woman is in charge of the home, and has many valuable responsibilities within it, not least opening the most important day in the week, Shabbat, by the lighting of candles. I would ask any women believing that a lack of tefillin equals oppression to read the 31st chapter of the Mishlei and see whether the virtuous wife described there needs to wear tefillin and tallit.


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