Sunday, August 28, 2005

Fringy Madness

Week before last, I went to Shabbos morning services at Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, and wrote a long rambly memo on it to myself, which got some happy conversation going. I noted that in the shul's literature it states that everyone is to cover their head, and adult Jews are to wear a tallis, but that both of these are optional for women over the age of twenty. I was confused, never having heard that twenty was the age at which women traditionally could decide whether to wear a tallis or not.

Anonymous from Netivot Shalom wrote:

"As for the women over 20 thing...the whole asking grown women to cover their heads was a huge shul issue a few years ago, with many older women saying that they hadn't grown up with it and DID not feel comfortable with it. The age 20 thing was supposed to be a generational compromise (to reflect that people who had grown up in the shul WOULD be comforable with it), and the age limit was supposed to increase a year every year...but I'm not sure that it has in practice. We've all been a bit distracted with the move to the new building.... "

Anonymous from Netivot Shalom 2 (married to the first Anonymous) wrote:

"For the age 20 thing, after the rabbi decided to require women to wear head coverings and tallesim, it was decided that they couldn't enforce this on older women who spent their whole lives without doing this. The compromise is that they took the age from the first year when the bat mitzvah girls were required to wear them and they've been increasing the cutoff age annually. In reality, most regularly attending women wear a head covering and a tallis except the rabbi's wife who I guess didn't agree with his decision."

The Balabusta, when she attends shul, (or when she davens at home), wears a tallis (the same tallis she got as a bat mitzvah gift from her parents). Having learned that yarmulkes are getting more, not less, aggravating for her as she gets older and wears her hair fluffier, she has abandoned them for a variety of hats, mostly black and floppy.

I grew up in a synagogue where a tallis on anyone was an oddity. I wore mine for my bat mitzvah, but it was never intended I should wear it to services at Emanu-El after that. I sometimes wore it to pray at home. It wasn't until I began to attend Conservative services as an adult that I began to wear it regularly to daven in public.

The Jewropean said...

"As an Orthodox reader, I am surprised the rabbi would actually force women to do this. Here, women are proud they aren't required to wear tallis and tefilin because their bodies are holier than men's. (If anyone wants a detailed explanation, I can post one).

I have never seen an Orthodox woman wear a tallis though, though different kinds of headcoverings are not uncommon. Many unmarried women choose to wear a had or a cap in shul, same for married women who don't wear a wig, and some even wear a hat in addition to a wig."

Alan Scott responded:

"As a different Ortho individual than Jewro, I'd just like to highlight that even according to us, halachically there is no actual prohibition on women choosing to take on the mitsva of tefilin, or tallit, or lulav, or musaf, etc.
And that "women are holier than men" thing *really* irks me. It's fluffy reverse sexism meant to mask real sexist attitudes some have against women. Next they're gonna tell us that Kohanim are less holy than Israelites, because of *their* extra mitsvot. There are much more reasonable, equitable understandings of obligational dimorphism out there."

And the Jewropean responded to THAT...

"alan scott,
I'd never say they're forbidden. Actually my choice of words "aren't required" was explicitely chosen in order not to exclure it as a volontary act.
And while the statement that women are more holy might annoy you, it is definitely implied by Chazal. It also is an explanation why women have less BINDING mitzvos.
I strongly reject any abuse though and especially using that statement as an excuse to prevent them from taking on voluntary mitzvos."

The idea that women's exemption from certain mitzvot is based on a superior feminine holiness definately annoys me, simply because it seems obvious that, gracious as it is, it's just not true. Not that women aren't holier--the Balabusta sees some evidence there ;)--but that historically speaking, it's not the reason for exemption.

But I am a third-wave Jewish feminist rabbinic school dropout with hat hair. I have a complicated relationship to exemption and tzitzit.

On the simplest level, I attend synagogues where the custom of the community is that women wear tallisim and yarmulkes-or-some-equivalent. Truly, I don't give it an enormous amount of thought. It's what people do, me too. I assume my daughters, if I should have some, will, although they could become old-school Reform or hard-core Chassidic for all I know. It's ordinary, in my neck of the woods, to compliment a Sisterhood macherette on a pretty tallis she picked up on a trip to Israel.

Now, back when I was applying to rabbinic schools, I had a very tense conversation about tefillin with JTS. They informed me that whether or not I was required to lay tefillin (which I don't, never have, although I sometimes think about it for several minutes at a time), would depend on the decision of their board. This made me intensely cranky. If they were going to obligate me, I wanted a decision made with some halachic solemnity, not a year-by-year whim of the board's. Didn't go to JTS, so it was never an issue. It was only later that I started to understand the compromise position the Conservative movement was taking around women and time-bound mitzvot--essentially that if you want to be a woman who gets such male privileges as smicha, you take on male obligations.

Now that is where the third-wave Jewish feminist with hat hair starts to pick at the threads of tradition and get cranky again. Because it makes sense, from one standpoint, and none at all from another. If we are going to admit that 1. Women have been exempted from time-bound mitzvot and their trappings and 2. Women have been excluded from crucial sources of authority in Jewish communities and that 3. Those two things are directly connected, then presumably if we change 2, we change 1. Right? Right.

Or not. I sometimes have an uneasy feeling that when we do this, we are signing on to generations of spitefulness and condescension towards women's Judaism. There is an elaborate spiritual life and body of practical knowledge that developed in the absence of men's obligations and learning. My enthusiasm for it was largely slammed in rabbinic school. And of course, the basic concept of two classes of women seriously underlines the inequity that's there. All Conservative men are obligated to lay tefillin, even though most of them don't. If they want to go to rabbinic school they will. Simple. For women...you can be a perfectly observant Jew and NOT lay tefillin, or you can be the kind of Jew who gets to be a rabbi, and obligate yourself to the REAL Jew's mitzvot. Erk. I see the logic. But I also see the nasty subtext.

Does this make any sense? I wear a tallis myself, but I bristle at the notion that rabbinic authority can override generations of tradition that state a woman does not need to. I don't like the idea that for women to be given respect and authority in the community they must prove they're good enough by doing things the guy way. At the same time, I'm aware of exactly how powerless Jewish women have historically been because they were exempted, excluded, and shut out from sources of Jewish knowledge and authority, and that all this talk about gender differences and women's superior holiness counts for less than nothing when a get is on the line. Why shouldn't I take for myself/obligate myself/just be another Jew out there...?

Anyway, I also didn't make it to Beth Abraham again, since I spent the night in San Francisco, and spent Shabbos morning drinking coffee and talking to my parents. Maybe next week, excpet I may be out of town. This is taking a while for me to do.

15 comments:

Barefoot Jewess said...

I don't like the idea that for women to be given respect and authority in the community they must prove they're good enough by doing things the guy way

In this, you assume it is a "guy way" rather than an expression of soul and a halachic reality.

I lay tefillin, know women who do, and I haven't met one who ever talks about wanting to do "guy" things. The fact that it is not prohibited, tells me it is not a "guy" thing. C encourages tefillin, but it helps to see it in terms of tradition- traditionally women have not laid tefillin. The change will be slow. Older women ask me why I lay tefillin. They say they wouldn't do it because they grew up seeing it as a "guy" thing.

I think what is needed is education;
laying tefillin is more than a tradition. I see more younger women wearing tefillin which suggests the education is taking. Change takes time.

I also don't see the connection between getting respect and wearing tefillin. Wearing tefillin is intensely personal spiritual thing on one level, and certainly not a mere "trapping" of power (and let's face it, out of context wearing tefillin can look silly rather than denoting power). And women laying tefillin are more likely to be met with skepticism or derision than respect.

Barefoot Jewess said...

Laying tefillin, at best, can be a mark of devotion. If my rabbi did not lay tefillin, I would really wonder about my spritual leader.

Balabusta in Blue Jeans said...

I'm not in any way opposed to women laying tefillin, and do not think it is, or should be, exclusively a guy thing.

My issues are around how we define observance, and what practices we value--and I don't think I'm expressing them real well here. I'd like to lay tefillin sometimewhen. I hope more women will. But I'm also not ready to be told I have to. Does that make sense?

If the Conservative movement said all women were obligated, I wouldn't have an issue. (Might still not do it, but there are a lot of things like that for me.) It's the connection of the rabbinate to obligation that bugs me.

How did you start with tefillin? Who taught you? Where did you get them? This is actually something I'm very curious about...and ambivalent about. Possible because I grew up in such a Reform setting that I have very rarely seen anyone pray with tefillin.

Anonymous said...

There is a growing movement within the Conservative movement which rejects the notion of time-bound-mitzvot as a relict of an older time, when all adult women were likely to be occupied full time with infants.

At the Conservative Yeshiva, I beleive they now hold that ALL Jewish women are equally obligated in time bound mitzvot, including set times for prayer, tallesim, and tefillin.

The ruling at Netivot Shalom was based on our rabbi's ruling that the halacha on wearing tallesim was obligatory for both men and women today. (and if you come to weekday services at Netivot, you'll see that about half the women there do leyn tefillin, including every Bat and Bat Mitzvah kid).

Personally, I'm female, grew up in a Classical Reform congregation where yamulkes for men were frowned on...and I'm still getting used to the Tallis thing. I'm not 100% comfortable with the idea of equal obligation for fixed prayer...what I am supposed to do when I'm breastfeeding? I'm holding off of tefillin for now.

Barefoot Jewess said...

BBJ,

I understand your concerns. It is harder to tell women what to do than men who have had millenia of tradition behind them. Also, as I understood it, you were being told you would have to lay tefillin as a rabbinical student? Did I get that right?

I think that in that case, it would call for an examination on my part on my discomfort with doing just that. Perhaps I am misunderstanding, here. If you think about rabbis as spiritual leaders, and how pulpit rabbis set the tone for their congregations, well, then would you want a female rabbi who did not lay tefillin? Who was not in the vanguard? I think that I would probably respect her anyway but would be rather disappointed as well, because there would be no one there to support my choice, as my (male) rabbi did.

As to what practices we value, or what defines observance, I followed my rabbi, his decisions as mara d'atra (the guy who makes the final decision), who in turn, follows C halacha, which in this case, is rather flexible. Also, he encourages women to lay tefillin, presents it as an option, but does not impose it on them; change is slow in coming, easier for the young ones. All girls are educated with tallit and tefillin in mind.

Meanwhile his wife refuses to be a rebbetzin type and argues that she will lay tefillin when they come in "ladies' white". Heh. I love that her choice is respected, by him, and by a lot of us.

Yes, it makes sense that you should not be told that you have to. But if you were going to be a rabbi, I think things become a little more urgent, in terms of leadership, example, etc. Something to be explored.

I started with tefillin by total accident. I wasn't considering them; I had just started wearing a tallit (and feeling worthy enough to do it, finally). But a casual friend and I were attending morning minyan every day of the week, and she was wearing tefillin.

I walked in one morning and she mentioned to the rabbi that I was interested in tefillin (which was true). Before you know it, lo and behold, he was taking out one of the extra pairs and showing me how to put them on, and having me recite the blessings. He does that for anyone expressing and interest, man or woman.

I had psychological difficulty with the arm for about a year (feeling bound, and squirming), but the moment I placed the box on my head, I was hooked. I felt as if I had been waiting for this all my life. I loved it. I felt beautiful. It put me in another space, spiritually. I look upon tefillin as spiritual amplifiers. They enhance my focus.

Well, then I wanted a pair. I got them thru my rabbi. They are kosher but not fancy. They cost me $80 7 years ago (he gets them with a discount). I took them to Israel with me, and davenned at a Conservative shul in Jerusalem. Heaven.

In my synagogue, very few women wear tefillin. I can understand your ambivalence, and I think that would be an exploration that would bear fruit.

Barefoot Jewess said...

Wow, anonymous!

Netivot Shalom sounds awesome.

I think that time bound mitzvot are for women who do not have children under foot or those women with servants :). I like the idea that halacha would be sensitive to women as mothers and yet include women who have the time to meet the obligation and/or who desire further expression.

Balabusta in Blue Jeans said...

Blu Greenberg suggests that women's exemption be actually limited to those times when they have children of an age to need care. I rather like that, and think it should be extended to men as well. I had a conversation on line some years ago with a father of three about the issue of his being obligated and I not. Guess who really needs to be excused from Shacharit? Also, actually considering the pattern of a woman's life would make that reason for exemption relevent--based on real patterns of Jewish life.

The Jewropean said...

Dear Balabusta,

I didn't mean to annoy you with this explanation for the exemption. Though I stand by four points
1) The claim that the exemption was just invented by some rabbis is a Reform one. Their philosophy is to say halacha was changed throughout history. That's inconsistent with the Orthodox concept of halacha.
2) The superiority explanation has been used before feminism, so it is not per se apologetic.
3) Using it as a way to de facto prohibit women from doing them is an inacceptable abuse.
4) If some non-Orthodox communities force women to do them, that's just as wrong as to forbid them.

PS: Sorry but I don't have any understanding for women who drive to shul but put on tefilin. This is the same as men running around with tzitzis (which is also an optional mitzva) and driving to shul. The obligatory mitzva comes before the optional one.

The Jewropean said...

"At the Conservative Yeshiva, I beleive they now hold that ALL Jewish women are equally obligated in time bound mitzvot, including set times for prayer, tallesim, and tefillin."

Do you mean JTS? And can I have any sources for this please? Because the local Masorti (Conservative) rabbi says they encourage it, but not consider it obligatory.

" Guess who really needs to be excused from Shacharit?"

Are you Sefardi? Because they hols women only need to pray twice a day, my Ashkenazi community does hold women pray three times a day, but they may, under certain circumstances, do so after the zman.

Balabusta in Blue Jeans said...

The Jewropean said...

"The claim that the exemption was just invented by some rabbis is a Reform one. Their philosophy is to say halacha was changed throughout history. That's inconsistent with the Orthodox concept of halacha."

It may be inconsistent with that concept. I'm not Orthodox, and I do believe it is self-evident that halacha has been interpreted in various ways in different times and places. How not? On a road, you don't just stand still.

"The superiority explanation has been used before feminism, so it is not per se apologetic."

I don't think you need the feminist movement for smart and empathetic rabbis to be troubled by the idea that women are less than men in Judaism and look for a satisfactory explanation. ;)

"Using it as a way to de facto prohibit women from doing them is an inacceptable abuse."

Agreed!

"If some non-Orthodox communities force women to do them, that's just as wrong as to forbid them."

This is sort of where I come in. And I'm still not sure where I stand.

Barefoot, you asked me if I'd be comfortable with a rabbi who didn't lay tefillin. If she said that as a woman she did not consider herself obligated, but encouraged women in the community to do as they felt was best for their own practice, I think I would be comfortable with that. I don't know. I see the exemption as a relic of women's exclusion from the ritual life of the community, but I also see it as part of a women's tradition of more personal and less structured prayer, and wish we found that valuable as well.

"Sorry but I don't have any understanding for women who drive to shul but put on tefilin. This is the same as men running around with tzitzis (which is also an optional mitzva) and driving to shul. The obligatory mitzva comes before the optional one."

Er...wouldn't it be acceptable to drive to shul to put on tefillin? On a Monday, I mean. ;)

Actually, driving to shul on Shabbat is a somewhat murky issue in Conservative interpretations of halacha. In 1950 it was decided it was permitted, if necessary to get to the shul, provided you made no stops on the way there or back (driving to shul fine, picking up milk on the way home, not fine). In Israel they ruled against this in 1992. In the States it's currently debatable, unless something's happened I don't know about. (Highly possible.) My rabbi drives on Shabbat, although he prefers to take public transit using prepaid passes if possible. (He lives two counties away from the synagogue, so walking would involve leaving at least twenty-four hours in advance, and jogging on the freeway--and he is in his eighties.

As I've said on this blog before, I don't know if I drive on Shabbos--I need to learn to drive on weekdays first.

Anonymous said...

The Conservative Yeshiva is NOT JTS. See www.conservativeyeshiva.org/ Don't have any sources--just conversations with people who studied there. And the ideas of the rabbinical students may or may not be the same as the ideas of the Rosh Yeshiva!

While the Conservative movement permits driving to shul, many (though not all) of the more observant Conservative Jews I know, especially those who are young, don't have very much respect for that teshuvah, and make a special effort to live close to shul so that driving is unneccesary. And those who live too far to walk often make arrangements to pre-pay for busses or trains, so as not to drive.

However, if you hold that driving to shul is not a violation of Shabbos, there is no contradiction between being a woman who leyns tefillin and driving to shul on Shabbos. Just as if you hold that women are required to wear tallis and tefillin, there is no reason why Jewish girls shouldn't be taught to wear a tallis and tefillin as part of their Jewish educations!

The Jewropean said...

Balabusta,

"I'm not Orthodox, and I do believe it is self-evident that halacha has been interpreted in various ways in different times and places. How not? On a road, you don't just stand still."

Evidently. But making an interpretation by applying existing halacha in a new way to a new situation, something I strongly endorse, as opposed to ghettoisation, is something else than making up new rules from nothing, something I oppose.


"I don't think you need the feminist movement for smart and empathetic rabbis to be troubled by the idea that women are less than men in Judaism and look for a satisfactory explanation. ;)"

I don't think one is less is some mitzvos are optional. One is less if one is excluded from them. On the other hand, all instances where women really are less, must be eliminated. My position is clear there. For example, I strongly endorse mechitzos running through the middle, as oppose to putting women in the back.


"Er...wouldn't it be acceptable to drive to shul to put on tefillin? On a Monday, I mean. ;)"

If the monday isn't yuntif ;-)


"Actually, driving to shul on Shabbat is a somewhat murky issue in Conservative interpretations of halacha. In 1950 it was decided it was permitted, (...)"

I have heard of this. It does seem to me that the opponents of this permission state it was introduced for convenience, and not for logical reasons. I also heard JTS expects its students not to do it.


"(He lives two counties away from the synagogue, so walking would involve leaving at least twenty-four hours in advance, and jogging on the freeway--and he is in his eighties."

What about moving?


"As I've said on this blog before, I don't know if I drive on Shabbos--I need to learn to drive on weekdays first."

Good luck for your driving exam.

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