In traditional Jewish law, men—and only men—are considered obligated in positive, time-based commandments: praying three times a day, wrapping tefillin [leather strips bound around the arm and forehead for morning prayers] and wearing a tallit. One traditional explanation for this divide is that women’s bodies are inherently closer to God, and thus don’t need the intercession of those ritual objects. In a tshuva (authoritative Jewish legal decision) that permitted women to be ordained as rabbis in the Conservative movement 1984, Rabbi Joel Roth posits the idea that if a woman chooses to take on that obligation to don tefillin, she becomes obligated in the same way that a man is. That means supposed to continue fulfilling this obligation for the rest of her life (and a failure to fulfill such commandments becomes non-compliance, a serious infraction).
I’ve always bristled when presented with that gendered, opt-in model. My feminist instincts shudder at the implication that women’s observance isn’t mandated in the way that men’s is, as well as the fact that the model is so binary, so either/or. I often find myself passionately defending the idea that, regardless of gender, all Jews are equally obligated in all the commandments. Five years ago, I decided that these commandments are important expressions of my Judaism, my egalitarianism, my commitment to better myself and better the world. So (not every morning, but when I can), when I wake up, I wind the leather strap of my tefillin around my arm, say the requisite morning prayers, then remove them—same way a guy would.
In her essay “Living Like Weasels,” the writer Annie Dillard, idealizing a life in the wild, comments that “the weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice.” In my mind, the Roth responsum creates a similar distinction for men, fulfilling the commandments is a necessity; for women, it’s a choice.
Dillard acknowledges that choice makes way for different people to live entirely different lifestyles, without any judgment between them. Later, she says, “we can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—even of silence—by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling.” And yet, that clarity that Dillard brings in is quickly complicated. She compares herself to the weasel, suggesting that there’s a way that is better for her to live: “I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should … choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.”
This yearning resonates deeply with me. Like most American women, growing up I was always fed the idea that there was a right way for my body to be—and that if I just exercised more, ate less, tried harder I could achieve that “rightness.” For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard the women around me (no matter what their bodies looked like) say “Oh, no, I shouldn’t” when offered a slice of cake. The “should” of my body, of all women’s bodies around me, has never been “I should be as I am.” It’s unsurprising that, for me as for so many other women, the very existence of my body soon became intrinsically linked with shame and discomfort. Despite years spent trying to unlearn the messages of diet culture, I’ve barely begun.
In idealizing the weasel, Dillard seems to be envying its lack of preoccupation and anxiety: “I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive.” My attempt to create this “mindless” nature and achieve that freedom from “should,” circles back to the “calling” that I chose, that of ritual obligation, of tefillin.
Laying tefillin is spiritual and mystical—but most of all, it’s highly physical. The commandment to wear them comes from Deuteronomy 6:8, which instructs the reader to “Bind them [a reminder of the commandments] as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.”
I’m struck, every time, by the intense physicality of that action. I put them on before I begin the actual prayer, in a ritualized set of actions that I’ve done so many times they become instinctive, and intentionally mindless. I’m acting as the weasel does for a brief moment. And while that moment of pure mindlessness is fleeting, I can feel my arm constricted by the leather straps throughout the service, a reminder to allow myself that mindlessness. It forces me to be fully present, to not think about the stressors of the past week or my ever-growing to-do list.
Even after I take them off, signifying the end of a dedicated time of presence, I feel satisfied when the marks remain, sometimes for hours, as a physical reminder. The marks on my arm are like my own weasel’s journal—they don’t reflect how I felt, or what I thought, but simply what I did.
Wearing tefillin has become my way of “yielding… to the perfect freedom of single necessity.” There are many days when I wake up and feel no desire to put aside my own motives and focus on the present. (And truthfully, the majority of the time, I give in and go about my day). But there are times when I force myself to put aside what I want, to acknowledge that this ritual object has become a “necessity” for me. And when I can do that I am moving even further from the “should” and closer to a “perfect freedom” of just being.
Wearing tefillin forces me to confront my physical existence. Regardless of how I’m feeling about my body that day, when I put tefillin on in the morning, I have to look at my arm, have to feel my forehead, have to interface with something that often causes me discomfort and that I would maybe rather pretend wasn’t there. My body is no longer unfortunate, a distracting, painful, unavoidable side-effect of being a person. It’s necessary.
In choosing to make tefillin part of my practice, I have rejected that traditional idea that my body is somehow inherently different just for being female. My body isn’t holier in itself—but it is an essential part of an act I perform to achieve greater holiness. My need for this ritual doesn’t make me manly; my body is still that of a woman.
I have chosen to make tefillin my necessity, my obligation. Necessity and choice, the binary that Dillard constructs between weasel and person, and that Rabbi Joel Roth makes between man and woman, don’t exist fully in opposition to each other. I feel stronger paying attention to both.
Elana Rebitzer is a New York-based writer and educator. A former Lilith intern, she now teaches English at Comp Sci High.
“Tefillin #2” by Rivka Nehorai.