I began praying with a tallit when I was in high school in the early 1970s. Active in NFTY, it was not a gender issue but rather an affirmation of a more traditionalist stance. I didn’t think about tefillin, I don’t think anyone knew at the time did. Both tefillin and the gendered-ness of certain mitzvot were ideas that I knew existed somewhere, but not in my life.
Several years later, I landed up on the upper West Side of Manhattan, in the orbit of JTS but not formally affiliated with it. I joined the West Side Minyan and the greater Ansche Chesed community that was just beginning to come back to life. Becoming more committed to halakha but still firmly egalitarian, I bought a pair of tefillin. The discourse about “equal obligations for equal rights” that accompanied the debate about accepting women to the JTS rabbinical school was very much in the air but my personal decision was not based on extensive learning. I taught myself from the NCSY Tefillin book and prayed with tefillin for several years, mostly in private but also with the weekday minyan at Ansche Chesed. The few times I wore them elsewhere, I found the feeling of being stared at unbearable.
Then we made aliya, founded Kibbutz Hannaton and had three children. I was on an emotional roller coaster and couldn’t maintain the practice. The tefillin got put aside.
Fast forward. When my daughter was nearly Bat Mitzvah she asked in the most natural way, “Why aren’t you buying me tefillin? Are they too expensive?” It had never dawned on her that she wouldn’t put on tefillin and it never dawned on me that she would want to. At the time, none of the girls or women in her TALI school or the NOAM youth movement prayed with tefillin, but she knew I had a set (and probably didn’t know how little use they got) and her brothers each lit a Shabbat candle. Although she was raised in a very different religious environment than I, she also had little concept of mitzvot being gendered. I gave her my tefillin. She used them faithfully, even in the IDF, despite some nasty feedback. I felt that the tefillin were being put to good use, and was content to be part of a transitional generation.
More years passed, my children grew and left the nest. I began to feel that I was now “using someone else’s exemption;” there was no reason why my life obligations could not accommodate tefillin, especially because I prayed every morning and my synagogue community was accepting. Just when I was on the verge of starting again, a friend was threatened in a public place by a man who found the tefillin marks on her arm objectionable. I felt embarrassingly weak, but that scared me.
The dissonance of reciting Shema without tefillin, “bearing false testimony against myself” (see TB Brachot 14b) continued to nag. Since I work at home, I began using my husband’s tefillin “on a second shift” after he left in the morning. Slowly my commitment strengthened and I bought my own set. Thankfully, the seller didn’t ask who would be using the tefillin. Most of the conversation revolved around the scarcity of Ashkenazi sets. I didn’t want to wait, lest I lose courage. I bought a Sephardi set, and retied the arm knot so I could wrap inward. With an Ashkenazi knot and Sephardi parchment, my hand tefilla represents the ingathering of exiles.
Laying tefillin remains primarily a private practice for me, limited to home and few “safe places.” External expressions of piety feel brazen. Not as a matter of gender, but rather of faith and theodicy. So much in the world is broken, how dare I declare myself committed to God and mitzvot beyond the minimum required for communal identification? Some days, I honestly don’t know.
What I do know is that laying tefillin has strengthened my discipline for prayer. I miss far fewer mornings now. Afternoons and evenings, too. Like moving from being in a relationship, to being engaged and then married.
Indeed, when wrapping the tefillin straps around the hand it is customary to say, “I will betroth you forever: I will betroth you with righteousness and justice, with goodness and mercy…” (Hosea 2:21-22), which I also said to my husband at our wedding. Before doing this, I move my wedding ring from its usual place to my forefinger (so it doesn’t come between my finger and the tefillin strap), returning it to where it was originally placed when we stood beneath the huppah. For me, it is a moment of recognizing the balancing acts and adjustments we must all make between multiple commitments. It is one of the most significant pieces of my tefillin puzzle. Sometimes I think the world-to-come will be a time when all of our commitments fit together without juggling. May it come speedily and in our day.
Originally published at V'Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit