In the recent flurry of discussion around gender, tefillin and Orthodoxy, a key point about the essence of tefillin has been missed.
Put simply, tefillin, at its core, encodes full citizenship in the world of learning. Wearing tefillin is nothing less than the embodiment of the value of Torah study, the manifestation of a commitment that by studying Torah, Jews strive to make their very essence a concrete extension of God’s will in the world. Those who wear tefillin thereby demonstrate their full responsibility to transmit and produce the next generation of Torah.
Though many of us associate tefillin with prayer, on account of the fact that Jews generally only wear them at morning services, the origins of this mitzvah are in fact not connected to prayer but to study and learning. Any thoughtful and coherent approach to gender and tefillin should therefore not track with our discussions of gender and prayer but rather with our vision of education and how we understand women’s citizenship in the creative and authoritative process of transmitting and interpreting Torah.
Let us review the origins of the gendering of the mitzvah of tefillin, understand the meaning behind it and then assess our options for responding to our current moment. How we think about this issue, perhaps even more than our specific policies, is critical to how the as-yet unknown future of gender and Jewish religious practice will unfold.
Why were women exempted from tefillin?
Tefillin is not just any mitzvah. There is something uniquely powerful about it to women who wish to wear them and something uniquely repellant to those who wish they wouldn’t. Why?
To begin to get at an answer, we need to go back to the origins of the gendered approach to tefillin. How do we even know women are exempt in the first place? Our earliest evidence comes from the Mekhilta, a commentary on the book of Exodus drawing on traditions from the sages of the early first millennium of the common era, the same sages who feature prominently in the Mishnah. Many passages in the Mekhilta—like the one we will look at—appear in the Talmud and serve as authoritative sources for Jewish practice until today. Much of the Mekhilta is a close reading of verses in order to derive or justify practical law. This passage is expounding on Exodus 13:9:
שמות פרק יג:ט
וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל יָדְךָ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת יְקֹוָק בְּפִיךָ כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה הוֹצִאֲךָ יְקֹוָק מִמִּצְרָיִם:
It shall be for you a sign upon your arm and a reminder between your eyes, so that God’s teaching will be in your mouth, for God took you out of Egypt with a strong arm.
The language of “upon your arm” and “between your eyes” is understood to refer to tefillin, and the Mekhilta expounds on the next phrase of this verse as follows:
מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מסכתא דפסחא פרשה יז
“למען תהיה תורת ה’ בפיך” למה נאמר? לפי שנאמר “והיה לך לאות”: שומע אני אף הנשים במשמע? והדין נותן: הואיל ומזוזה מצות עשה ותפילין מצות עשה, אם למדת על מזוזה שהיא נוהגת בנשים כבאנשים, יכול אף תפילין ינהגו בנשים כבאנשים? ת”ל “למען תהיה תורת ה’ בפיך”—לא אמרתי אלא במי שהוא חייב בתלמוד תורה. מכאן אמרו הכל חייבין בתפילין חוץ מנשים ועבדים.
מיכל בת כושי היתה מנחת תפילין, אשתו של יונה היתה עולה לרגלים, טבי עבדו של רבן גמליאל היה מניח תפילין:
“ולזכרון בין עיניך למען תהיה תורת ה’ בפיך”—מכאן אמרו כל המניח תפילין כאלו קורא בתורה, וכל הקורא בתורה פטור מן התפילין.
Mekhilta of R. Yishmael, Bo, Massekhta de-Pisha Parashah 17
“So that God’s teaching will be in your mouth.”—Why was this said? From the statement “It shall be for you a sign,” I might have thought that women are included [in the obligation to wear tefillin]. Indeed, it would be logical: given that mezuzah and tefillin are both positive commandments, if mezuzah is gender blind [because it applies to anyone who lives in a Jewish home], ought not tefillin also be gender blind? Therefore, the verse says: “So that God’s teaching will be in your mouth”—[Tefillin only applies] to one who is obligated in Torah study. This is the basis for saying that all are obligated in tefillin except for women and slaves.
Michal bat Kushi used to put on tefillin, Yonah’s wife used to make the festival pilgrimage, Tavi, Rabban Gamliel’s slave used to put on tefillin.
“As a reminder between your eyes, so that God’s teaching will be in your mouth”—This is the basis for saying that putting on tefillin is like reading from the Torah and one who reads from the Torah is exempt from tefillin.
The Mekhilta makes a number of key points. First, it anchors the exemption from tefillin in an exemption from the obligation to study Torah. [This same linkage is affirmed on Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 34a.] This is the first thing we must understand: Tefillin is not a mitzvah anchored in prayer; it is a mitzvah anchored in the obligation to learn. Perhaps more powerfully: those who wear tefillin are entrusted with a microcosmic Torah that they place on their bodies. It doesn’t make sense for someone who does not share equally in the burden of the intellectual and spiritual core of Torah study to be obligated in its physical corollary. If that wasn’t clear enough, the final line of the Mekhilta passage above emphasizes that learning Torah and wearing tefillin are essentially the same thing; indeed, one who is truly learning is exempt from wearing tefillin while doing so!
Second, the Mekhilta takes women’s exemption from Torah study for granted, apparently as a self-evident fact known from elsewhere. Indeed, all early rabbinic sources assume—but do not demonstrate—the exemption of women from Torah study. It is only much later sources in the Talmudim (Yerushalmi Berakhot 3:3 and Bavli Kiddushin 29b) that link this fundamental assumption back to verses, stating that the phrase found in Deuteronomy 11:19, ולמדתם אותם את בניכם—you shall teach them to your banim—intends banim not to be read as the gender-neutral “children” but as the gender specific “sons.” [Rambam Talmud Torah 1:1 notably does not cite this prooftext, recognizing it to be a post facto scriptural anchoring of a self-evident law.] Early figures in Mishnah Sotah 3:4 argue whether it is critical nonetheless to teach women Torah or whether this is unnecessary, foolish or forbidden. But none question the basic assertion: women themselves are not expected to sustain and produce a culture of learning.
Third, and most important: the Mekhilta makes clear that women’s exemption from Torah study and the corollary exemption from tefillin are not about gender at all. In fact, women and slaves are exempt from these mitzvot. Indeed, the supplemental stories about Michal and Tavi—both of whom don tefillin despite their exemptions—treat as equally exceptional and interesting the notion that a woman or a slave would put on tefillin. This strongly suggests that Torah study and tefillin are both markers of freedom and full citizenship in rabbinic society. I would go further: it is not at all clear that rabbinic sources generate these categories internally. They may well take external categories from the Roman world in which they live and map them onto our internal rituals and practices. Women and slaves—neither of whom could vote in ancient Rome, nor in most ancient civilizations—are self-evidently not expected in the Beit Midrash, which is the seat of rabbinic power, creativity and influence. The Mekhilta picks up only from that starting point—it would be absurd for someone so excluded to be expected to wear tefillin.
This approach to thinking about Torah study and tefillin is borne out in other sources from the Talmudic era. On Talmud Bavli Ketubot 28a, R. Yehoshua b. Levi rules that it is forbidden for a master to teach his slave Torah. On Talmud Bavli Gittin 40a, he offers a corollary ruling: a slave who puts on tefillin in the presence of his master is thereby emancipated! On Ketubot 28a, Rashi pithily explains why Torah study and putting on tefillin are so problematic for a slave: they are מנהג בן חורין—the way free people act. Based on a slightly modified version of R. Yehoshua b. Levi, later poskim (Rambam Avadim 8:17 and Shulhan Arukh YD 267:70) rule that actively clothing a slave in tefillin or instructing him to read Torah in public renders him free, in a way that no other mitzvah performance would.
We see here how the commandments of Torah study and tefillin are, for Hazal, intimately bound up with notions of freedom and full citizenship. The performance of other mitzvot is less indicative of these states of being and social standing. Once we acknowledge the inextricable link between Torah study and tefillin, an inescapable conclusion emerges: Any discussion of gender and tefillin must be connected to a discussion of gender and Torah study. This is especially true in the context of a Jewish school, which is responsible for training the next generation of Torah students and scholars.
Thinking about gender and tefillin in the contemporary world: Four Approaches
There are at least four ways to think about gender and tefillin.
Nothing has Changed, Take 1
One approach is to maintain that women are indeed exempt from Torah study and remain, at best, visiting and welcome members of the Beit Midrash. Here and there, they may make significant contributions, but we and God expect nothing of them when it comes to generating the culture of learning that lies at the heart of a community of Torah. Their exemption from tefillin is consistent with and a powerful reminder and marker of this fact. And, in the context of this assumption, it would indeed probably only be wise for a few isolated individuals (like Michal and Tavi, the woman and slave mentioned as exceptions in the original Mekhilta source quoted above) to take on a mitzvah that has traditionally had such high standards and potent symbolism associated with it. This approach would use the language of option—at most bordering on encouragement—when speaking about women and tefillin, since women remain different from men with respect to their underlying obligation to the culture of Torah study. That underlying gender gap can either be grounded in a claim that women remain descriptively or prescriptively lower-class citizens in the broader society, or in an ontological claim, grounded in biology, that posits that men and women are different on the intellectual and spiritual claim and thus we expect different things from them.
This approach maintains a great deal of harmony with earlier sources in affirming the tight connection between Torah study and tefillin. Its weaknesses: 1) If it posits or reifies the social inferiority of women, it is increasingly out of step with reality. 2) If it imports a biological essentialism that is lacking in the early sources, it fails to explain why slaves are exempt from tefillin as well. 3) It does not make any sense of co-ed religious schools that assign an equal load of Jewish learning to boys and girls and even have them learning in the same classes, sometimes with women teaching the Torah content. It is not really coherent for a school to suggest that a girl is exempt from Torah study even as she can be given an F in a mandatory Talmud course.
But I suspect this approach will continue to have strength in educational settings where men and women are segregated and do not share the same curriculum. And even in coeducational settings, if the students are treated as consumers, rather than potential producers of Torah, it may well be that women will never truly see themselves as protagonists in the rabbinic conversation (whose male-dominated landscape presents enormous challenges for gender-blind Torah to begin with) and thus find it odd to think of themselves as obligated in Torah study and its corollary, tefillin. There are unlikely to be more than a few outlier women who wear tefillin in such communities, as has been the case throughout Jewish history. Indeed, given some of the other concerns historically raised surrounding tefillin—how they have become culturally gendered male and our reticence around wearing them more than the absolute minimum demanded—such communities are likely to be negative, not just neutral, about most cases of women and tefillin.
Severing the link between Talmud Torah and Tefillin
A second approach is to demand of women that they be full members of the Beit Midrash, bearing its burdens of consistent learning and daring creativity, while maintaining a gender gap surrounding the obligation of tefillin. The key to this approach is to weaken the link between tefillin and Torah study. Boys and girls may be equally obligated to study Torah, but only boys put on tefillin, which will no longer be strongly linked with Torah study. This approach has been taken by many Conservative institutions for some time and is now currently emerging from a number of modern Orthodox high schools.
In certain ways, this feels like a safe move: there is ample precedent for women to study Torah, at least in certain contexts, such that equally including men and women in this act doesn’t feel violative of tradition and expected norms of behavior. By contrast, tefillin, with its more checkered history around gender, is more fraught, and thus the temptation to dissuade, or at least not demand, gender-equality in this area of practice. In fact, I suspect the conservatism of this approach will make it attractive for many. But I fear the link between Talmud Torah and tefillin will not be so easily severed (quite aside from the question of whether it should be—I think it should not).
That leads me to a fear of two possible outcomes, both of which would be undesirable and would contraindicate the religious values of those advocating this approach:
1) By maintaining a gender gap around tefillin, we will unwittingly maintain a gender gap in Talmud Torah. Men and women who grow up in a world in which men are expected to put on tefillin and women are not will come to understand that the enterprise of Torah expects men to produce Torah and women, at best, to consume it. This is further reinforced by the fact that there are so few places where women can learn for many years at an advanced level. The “tefillin gap” will sadly confirm that women are not being trained as poskot who can take full responsibility for Torah. When done consciously, this is the first approach outlined above, and it has integrity. When this is an unconscious result and is the opposite of what the institutions say they want with respect to women’s Torah study, it is a religious and pedagogic failure.
2) By maintaining a gender gap around tefillin in a secular and religious context that otherwise demands high intellectual and spiritual achievement from both men and women, the mitzvah of tefillin will (further) suffer in practice and gradually become irrelevant. Boys will grow up in a beit midrash with peers from whom they learn and with whom they generate Torah. They will see that those peers do not put on tefillin. They will reach an inevitable conclusion: Tefillin is a strange, arcane ritual devoid of much meaning that is at best the basis for a nostalgic male bonding ritual at a Men’s Club event. Tefillin will be diminished and will no longer be a powerful embodiment of a Talmud Torah whose telos is not in the mind, but in the body. It will be a mere ritual practice that affords meaning to those who connect with it. I suspect this process is farther underway with more observant boys than we are aware of.
This approach therefore seems unstable.
Nothing Has Changed, Take 2
A third approach would hark back to the Mekhilta and its assumption that women and slaves were exempt from Torah study. It would recognize that the exemption was based on class and social standing, not gender alone, and therefore conclude that in a society in which men and women are equal under the law (with respect to suffrage and basic rights) and equally educated, the obligation in Talmud Torah is automatically gender blind. The dramatic upheaval in the social status of women in recent decades does not change anything about the halakhah in this regard, it simply applies the eternal halakhah to a new reality: the set of free citizens expected to contribute to the culture of Torah study and creativity has grown. By extension, the obligation of tefillin is gender-blind as well, even though it was not previously. The scope of a set of statutes exempting minors from culpability in an area of law might dramatically change if the state redefines who is considered a minor (e.g. by lowering the age of majority from 21 to 18) without the core value of the law (minors are exempt) changing one iota. So too, this approach contends that nothing has changed: free citizens are obligated in Torah study and its physical corollary, the wearing of tefillin. Whether or not contemporary men and women follow through on their commitments in this regard, the driving texts and values expressed by the Written and Oral Torah demand that they rise to these expectations.
The great advantages of this approach are its honesty, its fidelity to the values of the earlier texts and its compatibility with the (stated) goals of coeducational schools with rigorous expectations around Torah study. Such schools (and the communities they spring from) do expect the same things from their boys and girls and don’t think of their Talmud classrooms as functioning in academic mode for boys and extracurricular mode for girls. The disadvantage: It ignores history entirely, particularly the deeply gendered history around the highly embodied mitzvah of tefillin. To expect that all women, en masse, suddenly put on tefillin after millennia of communal indifference (and some significant opposition) may be impractical and unwise. And the practice of putting on tefillin can alienate many women from their home community even if they are comfortable with the practice in private. No matter how good the theory of this approach is, any failure to acknowledge and name the complicated feelings of many women around tefillin may undermine an eventual goal of a gender-blind practice. While I endorse this approach philosophically, I don’t think it exhausts our responsibility in addressing this issue.
Moving through history towards core values
A fourth approach builds on the third, assuming gender-blind obligation in Talmud Torah in the contemporary world and therefore a theoretical corollary gender-blind obligation in tefillin. But in reality, this approach would acknowledge that tefillin might be very different for women than other mitzvot from which they were classically exempt, including the study of Torah. Tefillin has a deep history of being male, and as a mitzvah that is worn, it feels to many women like the inappropriate donning of clothing intended for another gender. This is already captured by Targum Yonatan on Deuteronomy 22:5—a verse forbidding cross-dressing—which describes tzitzit and tefillin as male garments not to be worn by women. Though this explicit reason does not achieve acceptance in mainstream halakhic sources (see Responsa Radbaz III:73 for one example), the instinct behind it likely informs some of the opposition to allowing (classically exempt) women to perform this mitzvah optionally. It can hardly be an accident that the only two mitzvot that medieval German authorities (Maharam of Rothenberg and Maharil) single out as inappropriate for women to perform voluntarily are tzizit and tefillin, both of which involve wearing something on the body. While mainstream sources do not actually consider women who wear tefillin to violate a Biblical ban on cross-dressing, this concern is plausibly strong enough to justify a delay in how easily and quickly we expect contemporary women to fulfill their obligation.
Engaging and legitimating discomfort for those who experience women and tefillin as an inappropriate crossing of gender boundaries has two advantages: 1) It can maintain a gendered practice around tefillin without claiming that women are exempt. Men and women can be equally obligated in Torah study, even as the cultural gender context surrounding its physical manifestation might make some women feel they are doing something forbidden when they wear it. We are under no obligation to cultivate that feeling—indeed, those following this approach probably have an obligation to steer people away from it—but we do no one a service by pretending it doesn’t exist when it is real. 2) Concerns about gendered attire are notoriously unstable across and even within cultures. Honoring a particular woman’s feeling or experience in this regard is not a normative statement about how subsequent generations ought to feel. Those who grow up with mothers who put on tefillin at home and with girls who do so at school will no longer feel the gendered associations in the same way that their ancestors might have. We can thus maintain a gender-blind discourse around obligation—which is critical to be faithful to what Talmud Torah and tefillin are supposed to be about—while creating the space and pace of change required to move from one paradigm to another. [Perhaps making tefillin more personalized might also help women take on this mitzvah. I will note that there is no obstacle to painting the backs of the straps various colors (Shulhan Arukh OH 33:3); that might enable some communities to personalize tefillin in a way that would feel more comfortable around the clothing issue.]
Those taking this approach will avoid speaking about the contemporary obligation in tefillin in gendered terms, even as they will acknowledge that the implementation of a theoretically gender-blind mitzvah against the backdrop of a deeply gendered history cannot (and perhaps should not) happen overnight. Those who have already been raised with a gender-blind model of this mitzvah will be poised to be particularly important and influential leaders in this transitional period.
My money is on the fourth approach. As a father, I will in the next year purchase tefillin for my daughter and present it to her just as I would to my sons: as one of the most powerful and beautiful ways that we transform our Torah into something concrete and transform our bodies into agents of God. As a teacher and educator, I will never speak about options or exemptions for women so as not to torpedo this mitzvah’s future, but will also fight to create space for women to make the journey towards tefillin in a way that honors its complicated past.
As the Mekhilta teaches us, our connection to tefillin is ultimately derivative of the culture of Torah study we feel obligated to build. My dream is that I will someday learn insights of Torah from my grandsons and granddaughters, because they felt obligated to participate in creating a culture of learning that will continue to sustain our people. I expect that tefillin, in keeping with its essence, will be an integral piece of turning that dream into a reality.
Appendix: Historic Opposition to Women Wearing Tefillin
Voluntary wearing of tefillin
For much of Jewish history, most Jewish communities and authorities expressed no resistance to women wearing tefillin. The Mekhilta’s report above about Michal provides a concrete example of a specific woman who did so, despite being exempt. Talmud Bavli Eruvin 96a reports this tradition with an explicit addendum saying that the Sages were aware of her practice and that of Yonah’s wife and did not protest. Tosefta Eruvin 8:15 also seems unfazed by the possibility that women would put on tefillin when necessary to transport them from one place to another on Shabbat.
By contrast, Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:3 challenges this report of rabbinic acquiescence to Michal and Yonah’s wife with the fact that women are exempt from the mitzvot they performed. The assumption is that women should not be doing mitzvot—or at least these mitzvot—if they are exempt from them. R. Abahu thus contradicts the earlier report, declaring that Yonah’s wife was sent away from her pilgrimage and that the Sages objected to Michal’s wearing of tefillin.
In any event, the overwhelming majority of medieval authorities follow the Talmud Bavli’s lead, treating its report of rabbinic acceptance as normative. They therefore show no special concern about allowing women to put on tefillin any more than they would for other mitzvot from which they were classically exempt. Many explicitly permit them to do so. [For a few examples, see Tosafot Eruvin 96a, Sefer Hahinukh #421, Meiri on Eruvin 96a, Rashba Rosh Hashanah 33a, Responsa Rashba I:123, Ritva on Eruvin 96b.]
גוף נקי—A Clean Body
Nonetheless, some kept the disapproving strand in the Talmud Yerushalmi alive. R. Yitzhak of Dampierre (France, 12th c.) tried to expound on the basis for the objection to Michal. He, following in the wake of his uncle, R. Tam, was a forceful proponent of the idea that women could voluntarily perform mitzvot from which they were exempt. He was opposed to the notion that the concerns about Michal and Yonah’s wife were grounded in a general discomfort with women performing mitzvot from which they were exempt. Instead, he searched for other reasons to explain the Sages’ opposition in this case. Yonah’s wife, he argued, was sent away for fear of the improper optics of bringing an unnecessary sacrifice to the Temple.
In trying to explain the objection to Michal’s tefillin, R. Yitzhak reached for another concept associated with tefillin—the requirement to maintain a clean body. On Talmud Bavli Shabbat 49a, R. Yanai states this requirement as a prerequisite for wearing tefillin. This seems to have been a fairly minimal standard: Abaye defines it as controlling flatulence while wearing tefillin and Rava defines it as not sleeping in them. Nonetheless, we can hear over time attempts to use this requirement to justify not wearing tefillin at all. Tosafot on Shabbat 49a argue that this move is illegitimate, because a person can certainly easily meet this standard and they bemoan the fact that tefillin is a widely neglected mitzvah. Indeed, R. Moshe of Coucy (Semag Asin #3), pleads with the men of his time to at least wear tefillin during prayer; they can surely maintain their bodily integrity during such a limited amount of time in such a lofty context. [This helps explain our current practice of wearing tefillin only during morning prayer.]
Back to R. Yitzhak: in searching for a way to explain the resistance to Michal, R. Yitzhak suggests that R. Abahu in the Yerushalmi felt that women were not as careful to maintain a clean body as were men. Therefore, even if they are generally allowed to perform mitzvot from which they are exempt, women should not put on tefillin because of these bodily concerns. It is not clear if R. Yitzhak’s claim relates to the standards articulated by Abaye and Rava, or if he is appealing to a sense (or a reality?) that women’s bodies were less clean than those of men, either due to menstruation or the care of children.
We should not, however, expect to find full coherence in R. Yitzhak’s innovative gendered use of guf naki, for several reasons: 1) R. Yitzhak is explaining a tradition that he does not consider authoritative, rather than ruling like it. The notion that women could perform mitzvot from which they were exempt was a point of consensus among the Tosafists and they saw Michal’s wearing of tefillin as indicative of this position. 2) He is primarily motivated not by the proper normative meaning of the tradition in the Yerushalmi, but by providing an alternative to an interpretation he wants to marginalize: the idea that women may not more generally perform mitzvot from which they are exempt. 3) He is doing all of this in a culture where barely any men are putting on tefillin, such that any limitation on tefillin and women is of minimal impact on female participation in religious life.
It is the Maharam of Rothenberg (Germany, 13th c.) who is the first figure to affirm the normative status of the Yerushalmi’s tradition and to adopt R. Yitzhak’s explanation of it. He thus argues for objecting to women’s donning of tefillin on account of their inability to keep their bodies sufficiently clean. It is worth noting that Maharam, like those before him, had no broader objection to women performing mitzvot from which they were exempt. It is also worth noting that Maharam’s opposition to tefillin for women is followed by Maharil’s opposition to tzitzit for women a century later (also in Germany). Given the awkward way in which guf naki is brought into the gendered conversation about tefillin, it is not implausible to see it as the legal language for an opposition to what might have been perceived as a kind of ritual cross dressing, specific to these mitzvot that are worn. If so, we would expect that opposition to fade if and when tefillin were no longer experienced as necessarily male. [There are many such instances in this area of halakhah, such as in the gendered history of pants.]
Rema follows Maharam’s approach and its language of guf naki eventually dominates the Ashkenazi communal landscape, leading to common practice in Orthodox communities until today: women are allowed and even encouraged to perform mitzvot from which they were classically exempted but are dissuaded from putting on tefillin.
However, even within the framework of guf naki, there is a solid case for claiming that this is no longer an obstacle. Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo Kiddushin 1:64) justifies Maharam’s approach as the way all Sages always thought about women and tefillin. Michal, he argues, avoids rabbinic opprobrium because she was exceptional: she was extremely righteous, was part of a royal family, had no children and could easily keep her body clean, unlike other women. The advent of indoor plumbing and hygienic products has enabled all people to be cleaner than in earlier centuries, and the advances for feminine hygiene have been particularly striking. Even one on the branch of the halakhic tree that is concerned about guf naki in a gendered way can plausibly claim that such concerns no longer apply the way they once did. But as we have shown, guf naki is likely not really the heart of the matter to begin with: tefillin’s connection with Torah study and the issues of gender and class that surround it are much more central.