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The First—and Last—Time I Wore Tefillin

I used to think that being a feminist meant doing whatever men did. Now I’ve found my own place as a woman in the Orthodox world.

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On the one hand, deep down, they appealed to me. I’d always been particularly drawn to the mitzvot most associated with women, such as candle-lighting, and looked forward to following the laws of family purity from the time I first heard about them as a teenager. I’d also become very disenchanted with the “feminism” I read about in classes and witnessed on campus. The feminist scholars I read generally offered flimsy, one-sided arguments about the evils of institutions like religion and marriage, and treated “unliberated” women as pathetic victims. I watched peers pursuing casual hookups (because “enlightened women” could behave “just like men”), then dissolving in tears after the liaisons ended, because only at that point did they realize they’d really wanted relationships after all. A few of them ended up having abortions, which they often regretted later. How was any of this actually good for women?

On the other hand, throughout history in the vast majority of cultures around the world, men had indeed victimized women. When the early and second-wave feminists felt indignation at the status of women, they were reacting to real phenomena: violent attacks, like forced marriage and marital rape, and subtler ones, like labeling a girl a slut for behavior that would be praised in a man. If I left the fold of “feminism” as I knew it, would I be endorsing those individuals and institutions who oppressed women?

I had another fear: By accepting for a “feminine role,” would I be settling for second-best? After all, that’s what my role models had told me: If I wanted to excel, I had to do it on male terms. When my sister enrolled in a Conservative rabbinical school at the end of college, I cringed inside, but on the outside, how could I object to her fulfillment of the feminist agenda?

***

Moving to a large city, I joined an Orthodox synagogue, but I still wore pants and had not yet fully committed to the observant life. When I visited my sister, I let her friends count me in a minyan or a zimun but went without a yarmulke, tallit, or tefillin. I straddled the fence between the worlds of Orthodox Judaism and the liberal movements, thoroughly befuddled, until one day in my second year of graduate school, when I sat down to complete my weekly reading for a course in Eastern European anthropology.

My professor had assigned Slavenka Drakulić’s feminist essay collection How I Survived Communism and Even Laughed. Drakulić wrote that despite the supposedly equal status of women and men in Communist societies, feminine needs and desires were ignored if they departed from masculine ones. Women in Communist countries couldn’t even get their hands on decent sanitary pads or tampons. Visiting feminists from the West told their Eastern European colleagues that they shouldn’t wear high-heels or makeup, but to women who had been deprived of their feminine identities, wearing these things felt like resistance to the communist state.

Drakulić suggested women could be equal in status with men if people accepted them as essentially different, but of equal value. The needs of women and girls must be met, and their unique strengths must be prized. Most importantly, each woman had to choose her path herself. Neither a misogynist ideology nor a self-described “feminist” one should limit her choices.

Reading Drakulić’s essay comforted me. If I chose to be a woman in the traditional Jewish mold, I wouldn’t be selling out. In fact, for me to don a pair of tefillin just because men did or because a feminist told me to would be the real sell-out. Since I respected other women’s autonomy, I could also accept women who chose a different path for themselves, including my sister and her classmates at rabbinical school.

To me, there could be no greater expression of feminism than to value each woman as an individual created in God’s image, with the ability to choose her lifestyle. But many of the feminists around me—former role models, friends, and classmates—opposed my choices, sometimes vehemently and sometimes with little condescending smiles. When I eventually eschewed the label “feminist,” it wasn’t because I disowned them, but because so many of them scorned me.

Over the next two years, I would become fully Orthodox. In my new community, feminine roles like mothering and homemaking were prized. Female intuition, the binah yeseirah, was praised. The tears shed by a woman while murmuring psalms were considered more powerful than the tefillin-clad formal prayer of a man. By immersing myself in an environment where women were separate, but elevated, I felt for the first time truly free to be me.

I was blessed to enter the Orthodox life in a community where my neighbors and friends never pressured me to take any step—from wearing exclusively skirts to no longer singing in front of men—before I was ready to do it gladly. A decade and a half later, I never lay tefillin, I don’t get counted in a minyan, and I don’t learn Gemara. But I have a vibrant spiritual life, dressing in a way that makes me feel dignified and feminine, praying daily at home or in the women’s section. Now that my children are a little older, I learn Torah, Jewish law, and mussar, Jewish character development, on a regular basis. I connect to God through blessings, verses of psalms, and caring for my family throughout the day.

My husband prizes the influence I have on our home, and I treasure his. Throughout my school years, I always felt in competition with male classmates. Today, my husband feels like a partner. We teach our daughters and sons that women and men are on the same team, and both their roles are necessary for each other’s mutual success. We define those complementary roles by Jewish custom and law, not by pop culture.

***

Drakulić tells a story in her book that speaks to me: Sharing my mother’s feminist sensibilities, she refused to buy her daughter a Barbie. And then, she writes, “only a couple of days before her twenty-second birthday, when I asked her what she wanted for a present, she told me she wanted a Barbie doll.”

Raising my children in the Orthodox world does not guarantee they will follow the path I’ve chosen. Someday, my daughters might choose to lay tefillin. If they do, I will accept their decision, because it is ultimately their choice, not mine. My job is to love them unconditionally. I’m not sure if most people would consider that the stand of a feminist, but I think that’s as pro-woman as a person can be.

***

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The First—and Last—Time I Wore Tefillin

I used to think that being a feminist meant doing whatever men did. Now I’ve found my own place as a woman in the Orthodox world.

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