Nobody wears tefillin on weekends
From Adina Gerwin
On one of the first clear autumn mornings of seventh grade while I was going to prayer in my Jewish day school, I noticed strange leather boxes hanging on my friend’s arm.
I saw a teacher show the boy how to dress them and remembered it was tefillin, or in English phylacteries. I will refer to them as tefillin because no one I have ever met, Jew or not, has known what “phylacteries” means. Tefillin are black leather boxes with scrolls of Hebrew parchment. A set contains one for the head and one for the arm, each consisting of a scroll, a box and a strap. I had seen tefillin in the synagogue before, but I had never seen a boy asked to carry her to school. I knew this boy was having his bar mitzvah right now, and it must have something to do with it, but several girls already had their bat mitzvahs and were never asked to wear tefillin. I was confused. Why are boys forced to wear tefillin but girls not? Shouldn’t this school be egalitarian? I said nothing that particular morning, but a deep question had formed.
I started doing research and started talking to various rabbis about the history of tefillin and why women at our school were allowed to wear them but were never required to do so. What I found out is that the policy of getting men to wear tefillin came from the Talmud, a book of Jewish law written between AD 200 and AD 600 – roughly two millennia ago. In the Talmud, rabbis discussed many different ritual prayer clothes, including tefillin. The rabbis agreed that men must wear tefillin during prayer and women are exempt. Again I was confused: Why do the same rules apply in my school as in the Talmud? In this ancient society, equality and egalitarianism were not logical concepts that were taken seriously. In addition, between AD 200 and 600, gender roles were very pronounced and well established. Judaism has developed dramatically over the past two millennia, so why are the guidelines the same at my school?
There are three main denominations in Judaism today. Orthodox Jews are very observant and do not like changing any laws. Since women traditionally never wore ritual prayer clothes, Orthodox women are not allowed to wear prayer clothes today. In the conservative movement, the official line is that Jewish law has changed and evolved; animal sacrifices have ceased since the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and women have traditionally been given male prayer roles. Reform Jews focus on the more ethical parts of Judaism and are less concerned about ritual obligations; they have eliminated all gender differences.
At my school, most of the children come from the Reform and Conservative Movement and are less attentive, while there are very few Orthodox children. Of the 75 seventh grade students, I don’t know a single child who wears tefillin on weekends or outside of school. After finding out all of this, I decided to speak to the middle school rabbi. When I told him that the guidelines being enforced did not reflect the level of compliance that most children hold up, he told me he didn’t care. Over the next few months, I kept seeing him and trying to find a compromise. I suggested that boys only need to wear tefillin a few times a week, or maybe a few days without tefillin every two weeks. Whenever I tried to bring up something or point out the shortcomings in the system, he dismissed it and said he was not interested in working on a policy change. There are moments in your life when you are forced to realize which values are most important and decide how far you are willing to stand up for what you believe in. After being fired and silenced for the third or fourth time, I realized how important equality was to me and that I had to find another way to get my point across.
I started wearing tefillin myself and encouraged other girls to do the same. I spoke to the religion teachers and asked one of the teachers to wear tefillin. I explained to her how out of date the laws were and how unequal this rule was. The Tefillin Rules create an annoying and ridiculous gap between the two sexes. What does it mean when men are forced into these uncomfortable leather-bound boxes as a symbol of devotion to God, while girls are forced into nothing? It prevents girls from embracing mitzvot like wearing tefillin because it makes them a masculine thing; Since only boys are required to wear tefillin, the school assigns a gender to these mitzvot. The teacher still wears tefillin to this day. I have spoken to other children in my class and throughout middle school about raising awareness of these inequalities. Most of the girls didn’t care about the injustice of this policy. They were happy to benefit from it and felt that wearing tefillin was an entirely manly thing to never try. The boys didn’t like wearing tefillin, but they thought there was nothing they could do about it. I was angry and annoyed.
Every day I carried and watched boys forced to wear uncomfortable leather straps was one where I saw tradition turned into a practice that took from these boys the essence of what religion is: something that enriches your life. The daily experience of witnessing an uncomfortable tradition that made boys complain and hate their beliefs was painful. Ultimately, I refused to experience this. The pain and anger drove me not to be silent and to speak to the rabbi repeatedly, to meet with the administration and just try to teach my colleagues the value of equality and how Jewish tradition can be important and beautiful.
In the wide world this issue of ritual obligation is a minor issue, but at my school we have to pray every day, and I believe the gap between the name of something egalitar and the reality of the difference in treatment between boys and girls deserves attention. I will never be silenced and will keep talking on this subject. Since that experience, I have continued to wear tefillin every day, five days a week, trying to encourage other girls to do the same; The problem is, most of the girls at this age feel that tefillin is strictly masculine. I have also spoken to various boys about refusing to wear tefillin, but they are afraid of the administration and the consequences. So I spoke to several school principals, including high school and other rabbis, about changing this policy and the importance of tradition, egalitarianism, and pluralism. Ultimately, I found out that my school has had this policy for over 20 years and that any administrator is utterly afraid of controversy and change. I will refuse to remain silent and keep fighting, but at this point I also accepted that this policy does not reflect the kind of Judaism that I value and love.
Adina Gerwin is sixteen years old and lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. She is a student at Abraham Joshua Heschel High School.
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