Orthodox girls fight for the right to don tefillin

As young women come of age and demand more gender equality, observant communities are made to contend with a heady dose of halachic egalitarianism

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

‘Strange,” “spiritual” and “cool” — these are some of the words that Eden Farber, a modern Orthodox teen from Atlanta, uses in recalling the first time she prayed with tefillin, or phylacteries. “I looked down at my arm and at first I was so confused,” she says. “But it felt so Jewish… I felt different in the way I was davening (praying).

“After I took them off, there was this mark. All day, I was just staring at the mark on my arm and I felt so connected… this is what davening is about. This is what the guys talk about, and what’s in the stories and the Gemara (Talmud), and I felt a part of that,” she adds.

Tefillin, two small black boxes containing parchment with verses from the Hebrew Bible that are wound around the head and the arm with black leather straps, are considered a time-bound commandment in Orthodox Jewry and are therefore a man’s domain. Most Orthodox men begin praying with — or “laying” tefillin — shortly before their bar mitzvah, and are thereafter considered obligated to do so every morning.

High school senior Avigayil Halpern, however, feels it is an obligation of every adult Jew, regardless of gender. She received permission to pray at school with tefillin in September 2013, but kept a low profile. And though she officially went public with her use of tefillin at her Connecticut private modern Orthodox Jewish high school on Thursday, the seeds were sown years ago.

“In the middle of my sophomore year, I decided I would be a woman who wears the tzitzit (ritual fringe) and tefillin. I decided it was something I wanted to do before leaving home,” Halpern says.

Last summer, as a Bronfman youth fellow in Israel, Halpern purchased a few pairs of tzitzit on Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall and began wearing them. And then she climbed to the top of Masada where she prayed with tefillin for the first time, fulfilling that mitzvah as well.

Avigayil Halpern prays for the first time with tefillin at Masada, summer 2013. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Avigayil Halpern prays for the first time with tefillin at Masada, summer 2013. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Farber and Halpern are part of a growing trend in modern Orthodox high schools in which female students are expecting to be able to express their own Jewish observance “as fully” as the males.

In November of last year, Los Angeles Jewish school Shalhevet publicly debated the issue and rejected it, while in December New York’s SAR high school in Riverdale officially permitted girls to begin laying tefillin.

Halpern attends the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford with some 60 other students and was given permission to don tefillin in the school’s morning prayers at the beginning of the year. She began, however, by practicing at home.

“I wanted to get the hang of it without being stared at,” she says, and she still feels ambivalent about using them in front of strangers.

“I was on the train Friday morning davening and was really, really nervous about laying tefillin in public,” she tells The Times of Israel. She’s been praying with phylacteries since September, but she still feels ill-prepared for confrontations with strangers. “I went back and forth with myself before deciding not to.”

The ban on women wearing tefillin is literally based on hot air

Halpern is not alone in her ambivalence. Although LA’s Shalhevet school has decided not to permit the practice, its head, Rabbi Ari Segal, says, “I still stay up at night wondering if I made the right decision.”

Rabbi Yehuda Henkin (photo credit:
Rabbi Yehuda Henkin (photo credit:

Women wearing tefillin is considered a forbidden practice for most of Orthodoxy.

As the halachic authority for the Jerusalem-based Nishmat Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin answers questions of Jewish law for the halachic advisers training program and and the center’s Halachic Hotline.

In addressing the question of women in Orthodox Judaism wearing tefillin, a time-bound mitzva that only men are commanded to perform, Henkin explains the controversy centers on the concepts of “guf naki” (clean body) and “beged ish/isha” (male/female garb).

‘The standard reasoning is that you need a clean body, which is taken to mean no flatulence’

“The standard reasoning is that you need a clean body, which is taken to mean no flatulence. Now, that applies equally to men and women,” says Henkin. But since the men are obliged to wear teffilin, and used to wear them all day long, they were given a “leniency” of sorts and allowed to wear them for morning prayers. That dispensation, however, wasn’t applicable to women, who weren’t commanded to wear tefillin to begin with.

“It sounds unusual for modern ears, but that is the way it is,” says the American-born rabbi, the grandson of lauded halachic authority Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin.

“Then you get into the question of ‘beged ish‘ (men’s garb) and ‘beged isha‘ (women’s garb), so it would be necessary to avoid publicly putting on tefillin,” says Henkin, adding that perhaps there were some rare exceptions wherein a scholarly woman who has taken the obligation on herself may pray with tefillin in her own home.

“In the best of worlds I would be against, but there are always exceptional cases. I wouldn’t get too upset about the issue,” says Henkin.

Women of the Wall members pray while wearing traditional prayer shawls and tefillin, May 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)
Women of the Wall members pray while wearing traditional prayer shawls and tefillin, May 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

Despite the controversy attached to it, the subject is hardly new to modern Orthodox high schools: Even 20 years ago, at New York’s prestigious Ramaz school, girls were permitted to wear tefillin at the school’s affiliated synagogue, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. But note: The permission was not for prayer within the campus, unlike at SAR and at Halpern’s school this year.

(Update: Ramaz head of school Paul Shaviv contacted The Times of Israel on Tuesday with the statement, “Ramaz would be happy to allow any female student who wants to observe the mitzvah of tefillin to do so.”)

New York’s SAR school refused to comment to The Times of Israel, but Shalhevet’s school paper, The Boiling Point, shared in a much-circulated article that Rabbi Tully Harcsztark wrote in a December 8 email, made privy to the paper: “I have given permission to two female students… to put on tefillin during tefilah. They do so every day and have not been permitted to do so in school until now.

“I believe that it is halachically permissible although it is a communally complicated issue,” added Harcsztark.

While Shalhevet’s Segal agrees there is halachic support and that he’s “happy to rely on minority opinion to allow the young woman to wear the tefillin,” his school’s community is not yet ready to accept girls wearing tefillin.

‘Norms shift. Girls didn’t always learn Gemara. Lots of innovations happen in Orthodoxy, but they take time — they are not revolutionary, they evolve’

“The school is a community and at this point for the school to survive and thrive, it needs to conform to some modern Orthodox norms,” Segal tells The Times of Israel. He adds: “Norms shift. Girls didn’t always learn Gemara. Lots of innovations happen in Orthodoxy, but they take time — they are not revolutionary, they evolve.”

“Women laying tefillin is going to happen, if it’s not happening already. I know there are very committed and devout women who are doing it for all the right reasons… In 10 years, the world landscape will be totally different than what we see today,” says Segal.

Elsewhere in the United States, the norms have already shifted to the left in some large modern Orthodox communities.

SAR is an established school in Riverdale, New York, a liberal modern Orthodox community with no lack of potential students. And while Segal’s school, Shalhevet, is at the point where it receives more applicants than students, it is not ready to be a pioneer for feminist Orthodox girls at the expense of the larger, more centrist community.

SAR’s Riverdale community houses the cluster of contentious Open Orthodox institutions founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, including Weiss’s synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the new Maharat program for women, which prepares women to the level of Orthodox ordination.

The underlying potential for a schism between Open Orthodoxy and mainstream modern Orthodoxy is looming large, especially in regards to women’s roles. Weiss was recently the center of a Diaspora-Israel struggle when his testimony of a Riverdale couple’s Jewishness for purposes of a wedding in Israel was rejected by the Israeli rabbinate. With the intercession of Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett, the Weiss case was resolved last week.

‘Other than mitzvot that are biological, any mitzvot that are communal — and those are primarily domestic — should be for both men and women’

Weiss’s institutions, alongside other liberal Orthodox schools such as New York’s longstanding Drisha program and Jerusalem’s nondenominational Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, form the vanguard of Open Orthodoxy and the frontier of Orthodox feminism. They have had a trickle-down effect, alongside the growing prevalence of partnership minyanim in which women read from the Torah and lead parts of the service.

Many high school girls take it for granted that since they can study Talmud “like the boys,” everything else should follow — and soon.

“Other than mitzvot that are biological, any mitzvot that are communal — and those are primarily domestic — should be for both men and women,” says Halpern.

For some girls in supportive communities, the problem now is the pace of change, which has led them to seek out “halachic egalitarian” communities as modeled by New York’s Mechon Hadar.

“I think that right now most of the people who are like-minded are all living within the Orthodox community,” says Farber, the Atlanta teen. “But the question is: are we going to build a halachic, egalitarian movement or will we find our niche in modern Orthodoxy?”

Farber spent two years at the conservative, modern Orthodox Yeshiva Atlanta before continuing her “unschooling” at home. She says she didn’t bring up the subject of laying tefillin there.

“Even if I had been wearing them at home then, it’s not even possible the administration would have considered it,” she says.

Farber recently published an op-ed in the student publication Fresh Ink for Teens about her path toward tefillin and her hurdles to purchasing her own set. She says she first prayed with phylacteries this summer while at BIMA, a nondenominational Brandeis summer program.

Through BIMA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conferences and short programs at Drisha in New York, Farber has met girls her age who “are really passionate about Jewish feminism and making an egalitarian lifestyle work. Right now, something my friends and I are discussing are the lines between Open Orthodoxy and right-wing egalitarianism.”

A looming schism?

“Modern Orthodox day schools need to start getting behind the genuine desire of many religious women to find more enriching avenues for spiritual expression,” says Elana Sztokman, coauthor of the recent award-winning “Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools.”

“We know that there is no real compelling halahic objection to women wearing tefillin — Rashi’s daughters wore tefillin, King Shaul’s daughter wore tefillin, many of the women in the hasidic world who served as rebbe figures wore tefillin. This is a deeply meaningful and soulful practice of connecting to God in prayer.

“Women’s passion for ritual inclusion is most definitely going mainstream. I hope Orthodox leaders can show some wisdom and courage vis-à-vis women’s religious aspirations to help avoid unnecessary schisms,” she says.

Members of the Women of the Wall organization wear prayer shawls as they pray at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem, January 02, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Members of the Women of the Wall organization wear prayer shawls as they pray at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in Jerusalem, January 2, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It is not just in the United States that women are searching for more meaningful — and recognized — roles. Israeli Orthodox women are demanding to take rabbinic ordination exams, and many of them have completed programs such as Nishmat’s certification for halachic advisers, now both in Israel and the US.

On a recent visit to Israel, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach lauded the level of learning among the halachic advisers, saying, “Women should have been Halakhic decisors a long time ago… Women should be Torah scholars as much as men are.”

“The question is, what are the priorities of our times? We have a difficult enough time getting the men to put on tefillin,” he says.

“For those people who are troubled by women putting on tefillin, the message needs to be, ‘Fair enough, put on tefillin, but accompanied with a serious embracing of Talmud.’ Judaism is not in a state where we can play games with it; if it’s to be closer to God and leads to greater observance, then OK. If it’s to demonstrate we can do everything men can do, it’s not a spiritual motivation, rather politics, and that’s not favorable to Judaism. Assimilation is catastrophic. Let’s never forget the bigger picture,” says Boteach.

Hilla Singerman, a senior at Baltimore’s Beth Tfiloh Dahan community school, says this perception of a battle of the sexes has prevented her from wearing the tallit she had worn since her bat mitzvah. “If I had chosen to wear it, it would have been seen as a religious and social protest more than as aiding my tefilot [prayers].

“If people know you are feminist and Orthodox, they misconstrue you as a troublemaker, that you’re not doing it because you feel connected to it,” says Singerman.

“Girls and women who want to embrace this practice should be lauded for their commitment, sincerity and dedication to Judaism and Torah, and not made to feel like deviants,” says Sztokman.

Next year, Halpern and Farber will be attending Midreshet Ein Hanatziv in Beit She’an, Israel, where Farber is hopeful they will find a like-minded community.

“I know every year there are a couple of students who daven with tefillin,” says Farber.

All teens interviewed are excited to raise awareness of the issue and hope that the topic of women wearing tefillin becomes more accepted in the broader modern Orthodox community.

“I hope more girls will feel comfortable with it. But right now, more than the halachic qualms, the response I hear from other girls is, ‘Eew, it messes up your hair!’ ” says Farber. She laughs, pauses, and says, “Seriously, 70% of the comments have been about my hair.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed