I entered the Beit Midrash where girls were davening shacharit, two of whom adorned in tefillin, and I immediately threw up a little in my mouth. Eww! I thought.
My aversion was the same as the disgust a child feels upon learning about the-birds-and-the-bees. Eww! We are disturbed by things that are different than how we’ve perceived them before. Our disgust or opposition is merely an expression of our fear of the unknown.
While studying at Drisha this summer, I was exposed to a diversity and liberalism in Judaism that I hadn’t previously encountered. Drisha, a non-denominational Jewish learning institute, attracts Jews from all ends of the spectrum, and is known to be quite “open.” You know how they say that the greatest fear there is, is not-knowing? It is so true. I was scared of liberal Judaism until I faced it, learned what it was all about, and got a closeup view.
Let’s be clear – I may or may not agree with many facets of the liberal approach – and that is irrelevant to our discussion. What I learned was that there are many Jews who practice differently than I do who do so with pure intent, broad knowledge, and intellectual honesty.
Women wearing tefillin is immensely complex but it is only one example of a whole movement that is developing in orthodoxy. Making changes, within the boundaries of the letter of the law and outside of it, is a minefield. Whatever your opinion may be, there are various ways to regard this greater issue of diversity.
We can have a panic attack and forbid it all, closing the door to potential danger and secularization by turning this issue into black or white – assur or muttar. That’s one approach. It’s the easy way out. But it doesn’t align with the Judaism I know. The Judaism I know and believe to be correct is more complex than that. There are so many considerations to be made both on the smaller scale and in the larger context. Shunning these changes just for the sake of it, is foolish. Our religious practices are constantly being altered. It’s part of the natural course of life and history. I don’t believe that God expects us to ignore the changing times. On the contrary, it necessitates us to figure out the correct and honest balance to strike, leshem shamayim (for the sake of God).
The other approach is to face the “danger” head on. If we fear a slippery slope, then lets work on setting clear boundaries. If we feel that a breach in tradition is negative, then it is incumbent upon us to speak up about it. Just because something might have a feminist or political agenda, doesn’t mean it is intrinsically wrong. Feminism isn’t a bad thing. I believe Judaism supports and even condones the idea of gender equality, even if on the surface it doesn’t appear as such.
People are scared of change and of newness. And rightfully so. I see both sides. I see the dangers and I see the benefits.
Having said that, regardless of what you believe, the following points are crucial to bear in mind.
1. If u can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. This may be extremely radical, but is it possible to say that by rejecting the openness, we are perpetuating the issues, widening the gap?
I am not suggesting that you change your belief system! But join the debate and discussion. Don’t shun the institution and reject it from the get go. Have a conversation, communicate, understand their approach, and share yours. The only way to be true to yourself is by opening your ears and lowering your defense mechanisms against other opinions.
2. See the positive aspects and take lessons. I read a wonderful article praising the components of passion for tefilla and closeness to God that the quest of women to wear tefillin has brought forth. We should all be fighting for what we believe in. People who take a stance are the people we want as our future leaders. So if your opinion is valuable, join the discussion so that you too can be heard.
3. My final and most important point is that whatever you do and whichever path you choose to follow, make sure it is based in intellectual honesty. I’ve heard radically controversial stances on both ends of the spectrum that were based on nothing, weak arguments, and uneducated statements. It made me nauseous. If you believe in something and know it to be true on an intellectual and emotional level – your sincerity will show. Just do what you believe and know and feel is right. But be honest with yourself. You’re the only one you’ll be answering to. And God.