In What Am I Obligated?

Dear friends and family, 

This week, I was faced with the question of what to do when holy objects of ritual and spiritual expression become tools for political and social provocation, incitement, and aggression. 

Last year, I began wrapping tefillin.Tefillin are comprised of four essential sections from the Torah taken from Shemot (Exodus) and Deuteronomy (Dvarim). These psukim are declarations of faith and peoplehood, and are housed inside of little boxes that are bound above the forehead and the bicep. In wearing these houses, or batim, on our bodies, we become a microcosm for the values that what we want to create in our homes and our lives. Tefillin are an ot, or sign, to remind ourselves to remain closely bound to our deepest values, and allow those values to guide our cognition (tefillin shel rosh) and behaviour (tefillin shel yad).

In Rabbi Michael Hattin’s siddur class, we happened to be learning about the brachot for wrapping tefillin, and discussed why it is that women have historically been discouraged from wrapping (among other positive, time-bound mitzvot). Contrary to popular belief, women are in fact allowed to wrap tefillin according to halakha. However, women are not chayav (halakhically obligated) to perform the mitzvah of wrapping tefillin in the same way that men are. Some sources say this is simply because of biology- if a woman needed to nurse a child and could not complete the mitzvah of wrapping, she shouldn’t be punished or feel obliged. Other sources discuss women’s exemption from obligation in the context of children and slaves, who were not in control of their own time, and therefore could not necessarily complete these mitzvot within their required time frame. Even more so, the rabbis raise an important question about the necessity to keep the body clean and pure while wearing tefillin. The risk of accidently defiling the tefillin while wearing them in an unclean or impure state (including using the restroom and passing gas) was, for the rabbis, reason enough not to wrap unnecessarily.

We learned, though, that if one is not obligated to do something and they do it anyway, it can be seen as a provocative and mocking gesture. Hence, the rabbis of the Talmud (think 2000 years ago, at the fall of the second temple) frowned upon women opting into this provocative act, and not much has changed since in the Ultra-Orthodox world. Conservative, Reform, and even liberal Orthodox spheres, however, have made varying amounts of space for women to self-obligate in the mitzvah of wrapping tefillin and/or to wrap tefillin without taking on the mitzvah obligation, arguing that women’s roles and realities have since evolved, and that ritual objects like tallit and tefillin have tremendous potential to enrich the prayer experience, and should be tools that are available to everyone regardless of gender. 

It seems, though, that doing a ritual act while knowing that it is provocative implies in part that the act may be devoid of personal spiritual and ritual enrichment, and I struggle deeply with the notion that my tefillin, when worn on my head and my arm, become symbols of provocation rather than tools for ritual expression simply because of my gender. 

At the beginning of the week, my class heard from a representative of Women of the Wall, a prayer group that gathers every Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the month) in the Women’s section of the Western Wall to pray, read Torah (if they can manage to sneak one in under the strict rules of the Kotel plaza), wrap tefillin, and wear tallit. Each month when the Women of the Wall arrive to pray, they are met with protesters who believe that the religious norms of the Kotel are that of Ultra Orthodoxy, and that women should not be wrapping tefillin, wearing tallit, or reading from the Torah there. I have heard and read about how violent and aggressive these protests can become, and suggest that the complexity of the dispute requires more reading to understand the nuances of each side's argument, both on a practical and a political level. 

This morning, my friends and I were invited by our school to join the Women of the Wall’s Rosh Chodesh Torah service, either as spectators or as allies. I was curious about these issues which feel so relevant to the inner conflict I feel even on a micro scale when wrapping tefillin and wearing a tallit in my shuls and minyanim at home and at school, and chose to take advantage of the opportunity.

I arrived at the Kotel at 7:30 in the morning. The Hallel service, prayers of praise and gratitude sung on the first day of every month, was blaring through the loudspeaker from the men’s section, presumably in an attempt to drown out the voices of the progressive women’s Torah service next door. As I stood on the edge of the Women of the Wall’s prayer circle, I could hear both group's call to prayer. In that moment, as their voices filled each of my ears, I felt compelled to respond “amen” (I agree!) to both sides. I was faced with the desire to reconcile the near impossible difference between my own egalitarian values and practice, and the obligation I feel to respect the norms of the space I found myself in. This morning, I heard both groups’ prayers as expressions of legitimate, authentic, and necessary Judaisms. 

And yet, even that beautiful flicker of a moment was not enough to prepare me for the violence, hatred, and aggression that I saw as the Women of the Wall finished their prayers and exited the plaza, ushered by police and security. The men and women who had been shushing and blowing whistles to drown out the noise of the Women’s prayer began shoving, spitting, and throwing food and drinks at the Women as they folded their tallit and tefillin and made their way out of the prayer space. As I watched this scene unfold at the foot of the Western Wall this morning, I thought about how the brother spitting at his sister and the sister using sacred prayer as a tool for activism will inevitably happen all over again in just one short month.

At Pardes we learn that Jewish law is made up of makhloket (disagreement). We are Jewish, after all, and for every Jew there are three opinions. Jews ask questions and do not accept the status quo. This is the only way that we believe we will ever grow. Disputes that lead to positive growth and deeper understanding are considered makhloket l’shem hashamayim (disagreements in the name of Heaven). Today at the kotel, I felt that this makhloket was no longer based in desire for growth and betterment of the Jewish people. Rather, this dispute has become based in a lack of ability to understand or consider the other, and perhaps even senseless hatred. 

This makhloket has turned our religious and ritual symbols- our tefillin, tallit, and our Torah, and arguably the largest symbol of the Jewish people, the Western Wall- into tools of intra-religious aggression, hatred, and violence. The concept of makhloket l’shem hashamayim tells us that there are different ways to understand and read our Torah, but we must be weary that this can be the greatest beauty or the largest downfall of our sacred text, and of our people, if not handled with great care. 

After hearing from representatives of Women For the Wall, a group which fights to maintain the Orthodox status quo of prayer and ritual in the women’s section of the Western Wall and the Original Women of the Wall, an egalitarian group more inconspicuous and unassuming in their religious practice at the Kotel, my class wrapped up the morning as a group. As we looked out onto the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, we sung “Od Yavo Shalom”/ “Peace is Yet to Come”. The song and the moment moved me to tears, as I was reminded that peace will only come if we actively work to bring it. 

So, what do I believe that I am obligated in? Halakhically and ritually I am still figuring it out. I do know that I will keep using my tefillin as a tool of spiritual and ritual connection, to guide my thoughts and behaviours toward goodness and kindness. I also know that as a Jewish person and as a human being I am obligated in helping to bring the peace that the Jewish people so badly need by supporting, respecting, and helping actualize the prayer and practice of all of my brothers and sisters who daven next to me, while doing my best to remain true to my own.

Wishing you a Chodesh Tov and a Shabbat Shalom, 


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