When I was a freshman in a New Jersey Orthodox high school, I was pulled into an administrator’s office. She asked me why I wore only one earring and what it meant. I was 14. I told her it meant nothing more than what it was.
She asked me why people were always around me (as though I was leading a conspiracy or rebellion). I told her that I hung out with friends, like all kids.
She asked me if I was a conscientious objector. I was 14 years old, I had no idea what that phrase meant, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. So, I guessed and said, ‘yes’.
Later on, I was asked not to come back the following year.
Her judgment of me and my motivations brought me no closer to Judaism. They did not engender respect for her or the institution. For the next few years, the hole that they had tried to force me into had no meaning to me other than rejection.
Unlike the two young women currently at the center of a firestorm in another Orthodox high school, I was not seeking to put on Tefillin or to challenge the establishment in any way. However, like them, what I was trying to do, was to be myself while finding my way through life.
Thankfully, their principal, Rabbi Harcsztark, is smart enough to recognize the profound position he finds himself in and that his support or rejection of them can greatly influence their relationship to Judaism.
Unlike other rabbis, Rabbi Harcsztark looked at the individual girls, their needs and their situations and made a decision within the boundaries of Halacha.
To say this has caused an uproar in the Orthodox Community would be an understatement.
One Rabbi regaled us with an ode to the beauty of the ‘benefits of a woman’s place’ and how he envies his women. The clear message being, ‘be happy with what you have, asking for more is unnatural’.
Another Rabbi scoffs derisively, accusing those who ‘allow’ women to lay tefillin of ‘cherry picking’ their sources (as if this does not occur everywhere) and damaging the ‘mesorah’.
A third tells us of the view that it ‘appears arrogant’ to take on more strictures that necessary. “…if the behavior is an outlier to what is customary, even when it is stricter, it is inappropriate because it smacks of religious superiority.” I wonder how this works in regards to sleeve length, hemlines and stockings.
What I find arrogant are those who castigate girls & women who take on mitzvoth in service of God, and accuse leaders who apply Halacha on a case by case basis whenever possible, of ‘manipulating mesorah’.
There are Rabbi Harzcarks and there are ‘others’. There are those who draw people closer to Judaism, and there are those that push them away. There are those that look at Torah and try to make room within the bounds of Halacha for as many as possible, and there are those who turn away anyone who doesn’t fit the mold.
It seems to me that we risk losing more people by holding to rigid interpretations of Halacha in cases where there are other options that can be considered. The Torah lives with us — and yes, we must live with it — but it is far more understanding of people and circumstances than we humans seem to be.
Of my year in that school, I remember only one teacher – Rabbi Harcsztark. He always had a smile while teaching and he listened to every student’s opinion.
I am not surprised that he is still listening to his students now. And I can bet you those girls have a far better feeling toward Torah and Judaism than I did at 14.