Monday, January 27, 2014

A Wise and Thoughtful Orthodox Response to Two Women Wearing Tefillin

Rabbi Harcsztark is the principal of SAR Academy in New York, a Modern Orthodox high school. He has permitted two young women whose own practice was to wear tefillin while davening to do so in the school minyan. This prompted the usual and predicable responses. Right-wing commentators explained that the sky is now falling.  The next thing ya know, boys will be cross-dressing and eating treif, while guitar-strumming tambourine-clanging lesbians will be leading the davening. Left-wing commentators agree, argue that this is all good, but claim that we need more. All women should be permitted to wear tefillin to help break down the hegemony of a male-dominated hierarchy.  Or something like that. I try not to read this stuff. But what few people have focused on is the subtlety and wisdom of Rabbi Harcsztark's actual decision. Rather than engaging in broader culture wars, he focused -- oddly enough -- on the welfare of these two young women and his school community.

Rabbi Harcsztark wrote a detailed letter explaining his decision. It is worth reading. He begins by noting that these young women have a real and demonstrated commitment to wearing tefillin as part of their davening, and that his focus is on their welfare and the halacha, not the broader political issues:

Both students, in their respective ways, have shown real commitment to this mitzvah. Since their bat mitzvah, they have been taught, in accordance with their family practice, to daven each day with tefillin. For me, this was a question of whether I could allow a young woman to practice as she had been taught - to daven each and every day in a meaningful way wearing tefillin as an expression of her עבודת השם. I felt that my responsibility was to consider the person before me and the halakha, before considering the political fallout of the decision.

Shocking.  He then explained that (1) halacha permitted but did not require women to wear tefillin, and (2) it was not the school's practice for women to wear tefillin. But he then permitted it for these women in this context.
As such, I granted the two girls permission in the context - in a tefilah setting - of a group of girls who were supportive of their practice. I felt it appropriate to create space at SAR for them to daven meaningfully. I explained this to our students in this way: it is a halakhically legitimate position despite it not being our common communal practice.

But this ruling is limited:
I did not, in so doing, create new policy nor invite any female student who wanted to don tefillin to do so. These are girls who, I believe, have been מוסר נפש (for a teen to get up at 6:20 each morning is meaningful commitment) for this מצוה.

He then spoke with each grade, emphasized that this was not a practice he was promoting or advocating, but was committed to not excluding people with different but halachically permitted practices.
I told my students (and I went to each of our four grades for a community meeting to explain the decision - as well as giving two faculty shiurim for staff) that I am not committed to the idea of SAR girls putting on tefillin. I am not encouraging our girls to do so. But I am committed to having our boys and girls be able to daven in the same shul where a woman might be doing so. That when they see something different, even controversial, before deciding in which denomination it belongs, they must first take a serious look at the halakha and ask their Rabbi whether there is basis for such practice. I suspect that I would not differ much regarding normative halakha with most people in our community. But I would differ strongly with someone who thought this was cause for that person to be removed from the community - or that such practice could not be supported within the community shul.

I'm a little puzzled by the controversy. Rabbi Harcsztark's decision was narrow and nuanced. His ruling fell within the four corners of traditional halacha, but he permitted these two young women to deviate from his community's traditional practice for the benefit of their spiritual development and the continuation of their family practice. He based his ruling on his own specific and detailed knowledge of them and of his community.

The narrowness of the ruling seems to me to be quite prudent and quite appropriate, and its hard to think of this as the camel's nose under the tent. I don't see how this controversy is any different than a rabbi making a lenient ruling for a particular family regarding (say) the kashrut of a chicken or family purity or sukkah walls when someone else might reasonably disagree and make a stricter ruling.

Interestingly, another Modern Orthodox high school, Shalhevet in Los Angeles, was confronted with a similar issue. A female prospective student asked Rabbi Segal, the head of school, if she would be permitted to continue her practice of wearing tefillin at school davening. He considered her request, and after reviewing the relevant halachic literature and consulting with his rabbis, he ultimately decided not to permit this, but would allow her to daven at a nearby synagogue or at home instead.

Rabbi Segal, like Rabbi Harcsztark, reached a different conclusion. But he did so with regard to his community, although it looks like he had much less knowledge about the particular young woman and her own practice. (She was a prospective student, and he presumably did not have a longstanding rabbi-pupil relationship with her.) At a different time and with a different student, perhaps he would reach a different conclusion, just as Rabbi Harcsztark would presumably reach a different conclusion with different students.  Apart from the members of the particular school communities, I don't think the actual decisions require comments from outsiders, any more than than a decision about the kashrut of a particular chicken requires comments from outsiders.

The more important related issue for me -- and other non-Orthodox Jews -- is how can we encourage people to wear tefillin in the first place, not how to we discourage a subset of people who find it meaningful from doing so. Tefillin is a very strange mitzvah, and I find it both odd and brilliant that the Chabad Rebbe picked it as the mitzvah to focus on in Chabad's outreach programs.

This topic is timely.  Yesterday, I taught my my 12 1/2 year old son how to put on his new tefillin. And this coming Sunday, February 2, 2014, is the Conservative Judaism's World Wide Wrap, a day where many Conservative synagogues have some sort of event teaching about tefillin. I'm going to mine.  I would encourage anyone interested to attend and learn about tefillin.

I don't have any great insights into tefillin. For better info, google around or go to a World Wide Wrap event on Sunday. But I do have one less-than-great thought regarding the oddity of tefillin. When you put them on, you look like a deranged Martian, with boxes and straps and knots and all sorts of crazy things. There's no getting around that. But just go with it. Once you accept that fact, it makes it a lot easier to get past the oddness and focus on the mitzvah itself. It's even pretty cool

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