“From the day that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, G-d only has in G-d’s world the four cubits of halakha” (Berakhot 8b).
Before I say anything, I want to acknowledge from the outset my bias as a male. My understanding of the subject of women and tefillin is necessarily limited in that I cannot fully empathize because it is not my experience. However, I hope that these words that come from the heart will resonate with both male and female readers. I hope to offer some perspectives that may both oppose and support the practice of Orthodox girls partaking in the mitzvah of tefillin, but as I hope to show, I think there is a lot more at stake.
I imagine that when anyone begins to fulfill a new mitzvah, if he or she is excited about it, the experience is spiritual and uplifting. I recently bought a couple of (desperately needed) new pairs of tzitzit. Making the berakha and putting them on was renewing – this is why our Sages instruct us to say shehechiyanu when we buy a new article of clothing.
However, I imagine that after a while, most guys who may have been excited about first putting on tefillin lose much of the spirituality after a while. Waking up for shacharit is a commitment, to be on time actually means to arrive early in order to have enough time to put on tefillin, and I can almost guarantee that concentration for most guys for that half hour is sporadic at best.
So while some girls may wish to put on tefillin like boys, with the understandable perceptions that it brings one closer to G-d, is this really what happens with tefillin?
In my humble opinion, physical objects that we use for mitzvot are neither what is necessary nor sufficient for having a true connection to HaKadosh Barukh Hu on their own. If that were so, I would also need tefillin to have a successful mincha and ma’ariv. However, we wear tefillin for neither of those, and furthermore, there is no correlation between my concentration at shacharit and my concentration at mincha and ma’ariv. Sometimes, that concentration is fantastic. Many other times, it’s mediocre. When I was younger, I thought I should wear my tallit over my head during the Amidah because it looked spiritual. I do not, though, because I am neither married nor a talmid chakham (though with G-d’s help, I will be able to achieve both of those). What I also realize, though, is that while it may look holy and spiritual to wear the tallit in such a way, I bet that many men who do this also have problems with their concentration. Though I wish and hope that wearing tallit and tefillin will enhance the our connection with G-d and prayer, we must be aware of the limitations of each spiritual act. (Granted, also, neither tallit nor tefillin are really “prayer garments” – the Torah mentions neither of them as it relates to prayer – but that is beside the point for now.)
What is external cannot replace what is internal. If there is nothing in the heart, no object can compensate. Successful tefillah must come from within; it must be part of our essence as human beings.
In fact, when I think of what it means to be holy and what it means to be an Eved Hashem, a servant of G-d, all of the mitzvot I think of apply equally to men and women. Is there daily Torah study that fosters spiritual growth? Is Shabbat truly an elevated and different day in one’s hearts and actions? Is one’s speech clean of profanity and needless gossip? Do one’s actions reflect mentschlechkeit? I could list more, but all of these mitzvot, prayer included, in my opinion, speak most about a person’s character and spirituality, are gender equal (both men and women are required to pray), and require very little of the physical. They speak to what is truly in a person’s heart, not what one displays on his or her body, because after all, looks can be deceiving. Someone can wear tzitzit outside their pants, come to pray daily, dress modestly, yet still have very little that is spiritual inside.
What this means for tefillin is that while it is my obligation and I cherish it, I realize it can only meet its potential when the spiritual substance is there – just like with all other mitzvot. After all, since we no longer have the Beit Hamikdash, which was supposed to be our physical route to God, all we have is the halakha within our own four cubits that each person must produce from within and for his or herself.
Which leads me to the next point I want to make. While I believe that many girls have received off-putting responses from rabbis when they bring up a subject related to change, there are many rabbis who do not respond such yet take a conservative approach to changing custom. While our history has witnessed the Essenes, Sadducees, Karaites, Maskilim, and more, none of those groups are around to propel a meaningful Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism and halakha are what have perpetuated Judaism from generation to generation. While Judaism in fact must meet the challenges of each generation, changing the tradition that has remained alive –and kept us alive – must be done cautiously. Our rabbis are the defenders of our tradition, and when they are cautious – hopefully respectfully so – they have a goal in mind that I hope we all think to be noble. They also have much history and halakha backing them up, so our rabbis positions are certainly legitimate, even if one disagrees with their conservatism, be it from a halakhic or ideological standpoint.
Therefore, seeing the Times of Israel headline “Orthodox girls fight for the right to don tefillin” is disturbing. Why are we fighting? If we have an issue, we need dialogue and conversation about our tradition. Fighting about mitzvot is not the way of Torah. Korach and his followers fought; Hillel and Shammai respectfully debated. The latter argument survived, the former did not. Both those in favor and against women wearing tefillin must be very careful. This must be a controversy for the sake of Heaven – not a controversy that demands equal rights without sincere commitment to tradition and not a controversy that disparages sincere individuals as rebellious feminists.
All of this being said, to those who take issue with girls wearing tefillin – if there is nothing else positive about girls wearing tefillin, I think we should be thankful that there these teenage girls are begging to do a mitzvah. Today, there are Orthodox teenagers that are texting on Shabbat, using drugs and alcohol, engaging in sexual activity, and losing their faith in G-d overall. Where do our energies belong?
I think this all comes back to my original point. Yesterday I was discussing matters of hashkafa (ideology) with one of my rabbeim, and we agreed that today, the biggest problems that Orthodoxy face today are probably not the ideological ones. These may be the ones hitting the headlines. But what does not make the headlines – because it happens every day – is that many of our masses do not understand why halakha is relevant and beautiful, hardly grapple with G-d, and many lives are void of meaningful spiritual connection, even if they are technically keeping Shabbat and showing up to synagogue.
Ultimately, what I think is at stake is not whether or not women wear tefillin. What matters for both men and women, however, is how Jewish education will inspire us to create within ourselves a love of G-d and mitzvot. Those obligations that those of us fulfill must be done out of a genuine love. As I think the Ramaz administration correctly expressed in its decision to permit but not encourage girls to wear tefillin, I do not believe that for girls, love of G-d must include performing the same mitzvot as men. But if a girl consults with her rabbi though and he permits her to put on tefillin, then let it only be the beginning of a journey that includes increased concentration in prayer, serious Torah study, transforming Shabbat into a different kind of day, and a nurturing of positive character traits. And men are equally at task for this charge as well.