Bound for Glory: Females in Phylacteries
How an otherwise non-religious woman finds herself transformed by tefillin
Every morning, as soon as I have the house to myself, I go back into my bedroom, clip a small, suede kippah to my hair, and drape a wool tallis over my shoulders. Then I roll up my left sleeve and position a little black box against my biceps. Inside the box is a bit of parchment with four passages from the Torah commanding me to bind the words they contain to my arm. Whispering a blessing, I take the strap that holds the box and spiral it down my arm exactly seven times. A second box goes on the front of my head, each prescribed gesture accompanied by its own prescribed blessing. Then I wrap the strap from my hand three times around my middle finger, reciting with each turn a line from the prophet Hosea; ” I betroth you to Me forever: I betroth you to Me in righteousness, justice, kindness and compassion; I betroth you to Me in faithfulness: and you shall know God.” When all this has been done, I’m ready to begin my morning prayers.
“Laying tefillin.” as it’s called, gives prayer a tangible dimension that helps the worshiper focus. Symbolically, binding God’s commandments to the arm and the head serves as a reminder that human actions and thoughts should be directed toward the good. For over two thousand years, laying tefillin has been a standard part of the Jewish male’s daily observance, a crown of adulthood for the bar mitzvah boy. Aryeh Kaplan’s booklet, ”Tefillin” for Orthodox teenagers calls phylacteries a sign of the “bond of love” between God and man. The “man” part is no accident. Up until the last few decades, tefillin have been strictly a guy thing. Though early rabbinical writings include a few notable examples of women who wore them, these instances are so unusual that to many Jews the practice seems unnatural. In a chapter headed, “For Girls Only,” the booklet cheerfully asserts, “The home is a woman’s tefillin.'” Because we, unlike our poor deprived male counterparts, can have babies, the tract explains, we “partake of God’s attributes more intimately than any man,” and therefore don’t need extra emblems of holiness.
Some opponents of females in phylacteries frame their arguments in less kindly terms: Tefllin contain portions of the Torah, and our messy female fluids make us too unclean to have physical contact with these sacred texts. According to Jewish law, women are exempt from mitzvot that need to be performed at specific times in a day (tefillin are donned for morning prayers), but this exemption has hardened, for many, into an actual ban. Tefillin have also been understood as off-limits to us because Deuteronomy 22:5 prohibits cross-dressing. As absurd as these arguments sound, they have serious ramifications: Just two years ago, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas Party pushed for legislation that would have punished any woman caught wearing tefillin at the Western Wall with seven years in prison.
Even most gender-egalitarian Jews who are used to seeing women wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah blanch at the idea of women wearing tefillin; it simply carries the air of taboo. Among the people I know, many of whom are much more observant than I am. I only know of one other woman who wears them. And though I’ve been doing it almost daily for over a year, the fact that I do continues to surprise me each time I feel the soft bite of the cool, leather strap on my skin.
My decision to take on tefillin was a natural next step in a process that had started a year earlier, when my mother died. For years, I’d maintained the same casual, twice-a-year relationship with religion as I’d grown up with, dropping my kids off at Hebrew School, but rarely setting foot inside a synagogue myself But my mother had always warned that if someone died, God forbid, I’d want to talk to a rabbi. And I did. At my first bereavement counseling session, we talked about the Jewish law that requires that an orphan recite the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer every day for eleven months in the company of a minyan. The rabbi gently cautioned me not to commit to an obligation I couldn’t fulfill. I was undeterred. And before long, what I began from a sense of duty became the highlight of my days.
There’s nothing fancy about the 7 p.m. minyan. An assortment of Jews trickle in. some to say Kaddish, some simply to be there, others answering a last-minute call from the rabbi. Sometimes it takes a while to marshal the needed 10, and while we wait, we chat inconsequentially. The service itself lasts about 15 minutes. Then the worshipers shake hands, wish one another well, and hurry home. To the outsider, the ritual must seem numbingly mundane. Bui for the mourner, gathering with a group of people who simply come to stand beside you can be enormously consoling. And to the person who’s feeling as if the roof has been ripped away from overhead, the very routineness of minyan gives a comforting structure to days that may feel frighteningly chaotic. All day long, in those first few weeks after my mother’s funeral, I needed to hold myself together—pay attention to my family, turn out my work assignments, take care of the laundry and put dinner on the table. Minyan offered 15 blissful minutes when I could let down my guard, give in to my grief and, as time passed, notice, and feel glad that my pain was abating.
February came and went—my first month as an orphan— and still, every night, just as my husband sat down to his second helping of dinner. I’d push back my chair, throw on my coat, and drive off to minyan. Saturday mornings, I hurried to synagogue, desperate not to miss a minute of the two-and-a half hour Sabbath service. Week by week, as the sting of my grief waned, my official mourner’s status was becoming a convenient pretext for what really kept drawing me back. Somehow—between the soothing nostalgia of sounds from my childhood, the solace of repeated ritual, the relief of briefly stepping out of my life, and my vast well of vulnerability— I’d stopped being a spectator, and was actually praying. To what or whom, I couldn’t quite say. Certainly not the angry man with the flowing white beard sitting on his heavenly throne. Words like love and unity are easier to swallow than the G-word.
More than specific messages beamed up to some supernatural being, my prayers feel like a form of internal reaching towards an intensely peaceful sense of connectedness. Once I found this feeling through prayer, I started noticing it all over the place: while walking by the lake, while making love, while helping my kids with their homework, even while calling my cranky grandmother on the phone. Once I started getting it, I couldn’t get enough of it. And the best way. for me, to get more was to practice more Judaism.
By April, I was no longer sitting on the side-lines at minyan, but stepping up to the front and leading the prayers. Six months later, the cantor was teaching me to chant in Hebrew from the Torah, and I was studying the texts with the rabbi and delivering occasional sennons. People started asking me if \’6 considered attending rabbinical school. For Chanukah, my husband treated me to my own tallis—an acknowledgment that although my 11 months of mourning would soon be ended, my new involvement with Judaism was far from over.
But without a mourner’s obligation to say Kaddish, what form would my observance take? Left to my own devices, I would have gladly kept up the daily routine. I probably also would have made more than a nod at observing kashrut, and at extending my observance of Shabbat. I wasn’t living in a vacuum, however, and although my family had accepted, and even supported, my new life as a Jew, they didn’t share it. It didn’t seem fair to continue to disappear on them every night, or ask them to say goodbye to bacon with their eggs. I began my second year of orphan hood on a reduced synagogue schedule: Shabbat mornings and just one or two evening services a week. But I made up for the minyans I was missing by davening the morning service on my own at home. And I upped my spiritual ante by taking on tefillin.
Of all the unexpected rituals I’ve found myself observing—touching mezuzahs as I walk through doorways, reciting the “Modeh Ani” when I awaken— none has felt stranger than this one. The very idea of encasing words in a little black box and attaching the box to your body for half an hour each morning sounds like science fiction, or like slipping a textbook under your pillow the night before an exam. The smell of the leather, and the pleasure I feel when it tightens against my skin, seem to come curiously close to kinky. But the hardest hurdle has been alienation. Unlike the cadences of Torah and the taste of Manischewitz. I have no early memories of tefillin. Before I put them on myself, I’d only seen anyone wrapped in them on the rare occasions when I’d wandered into a weekday morning service and found a handful of men with one sleeve rolled up. The dark leather spiraling their arms and the bizarre black boxes balanced on their heads took me aback, as if I’d stumbled on some secret ceremony I wasn’t meant to witness. But I’d moved so far inside the religion by now that to feel estranged from such a basic ritual was unacceptable. I took my internal recoiling as a challenge to try tefillin, myself It helped that I already happened to have some of my own. They’d belonged to my great-grandfather. My grandmother handed them down to me when my son was born. For 12 years, they’d been buried in my closet, along with a small, silk tallis, a yellowed talit katan with sacramental fringes, and a Jewish pocket calendar from 1947. When I brought the tefillin to the rabbi, he explained that they weren’t really a set— one for the arm and one for the head—but a mismatched pair of frontlets, both made for wearing on the head. Unperturbed, he pulled out a pile of stray tefillin—the legacy of men who’d once gathered to daven Shacharit, perhaps as far back as
the 1880’s. Among them, he found an arm piece that matched one of my great-grandfather’s head tefillin. And he gave me some supple new straps to replace the brittle old ones.
What would my great-grandfather and that other, nameless congregant think if they could see their beloved tefillin being worn by a woman—and one whose marriage to a non- Jew most Jewish authorities don’t even officially recognize? By the same token, how can I, an educated person—a progressive thinker and a feminist—be wrapping myself up in a tradition that defies rational thinking and for millennia denied the full humanity of women? Even many of my friends who are feminist Jews stop short of tefillin. They reason that if they’re not willing to follow such fundamental rules as keeping kosher and not driving on Shabbat, they haven’t earned the right to take on this obligation. It’s as if, within the unspoken hierarchy of Jewish observance, I’ve stolen all the bases and gone straight for home.
From so many angles, this picture looks wrong. And yet, being held in the wrap of the straps feels absolutely right. Feminism, at its core, is about personal liberation. Each morning, as part of Judaism’s prescribed dawn blessings, I acknowledge the divine source of my freedom. The words I wear are generations old. But their bond to me is brand new. By my very act of participating in the tradition, I turn it into an agent of my own emancipation.
I close the prayer book, kiss its comer, and carefully set it down. I remove my tefillin. exactly reversing the order in which I put them on. I roll down my sleeve and boot up my computer. The leather straps have etched faint lines into my skin. As I start my day’s work, I can feel it subtly tingling.
Ruth Horowitz is a journalist and the author of four children’s books. She lays tefillin in Burlington.
Ayana Friedman, a tefillin artist in Jerusalem, says: “I chose to make my tefillin oval, using velvet, satin, beads, and gold and silver thread, because I wanted to represent softness and femininity. The use of a dead animal’s skin did not seem right to me. the embroidered surface is an homage to women’s traditional crafts, which have not been properly valued through the years. The colors—blue and white—represent spirituality and purity: the endless sky, and a bride’s dress or a clean Sabbath table cloth.”
A prayer written by the artist with Rabbi Einat Ramon (here shortened and modified by Rabbi Susan Schnur), can be tucked into the tefillin:
“It is now my intention, God, to unify the circles of my being: My soul, the wisdom of my heart, my deeds, my household, my Torah, my tree of life, the universe in its entirety. I set this before You, God, all bound together.”
[The cost of a pair of tefillin is $300. Contact Ayana at firstname.lastname@example.org]