I remember vividly standing behind the mechitzah in my high school’s Orthodox minyan, beaming as I stood out among all the other girls praying beside me. I remember smiling at my accomplishment, feeling as though I had moved mountains with my unremitting determination. The black leather straps on my arm began imprinting my skin and my identity as I tightened them in satisfaction. I had taken on a new life-long mitzvah and decided to lay tefillin, but from behind the mechitzah in a tense Orthodox minyan, I felt as though I had begun to pave the path for a feminist Jewish revolution.
Just five years ago, I expressed a remote interest in laying tefillin in my South Florida Jewish community and my day school reacted with trepidation. No female student had ever taken on this mitzvah before and my seemingly pluralistic school circumvented the subject in order to avoid disrupting the predominantly large Orthodox presence in our student body. Confused by the lack of enthusiasm for my new halakhic undertaking, I channeled my energy into passion and determination. If my community day school could not embrace even the thought of my performing a mitzvah, then I will do so boldly in the most intentional and successful prayer space on campus: the Orthodox minyan.
Growing up in a Conservative home where laying tefillin was allowed but not expected of me, I chose to take on this mitzvah of tefillin–not because of my commitment to Egalitarian Judaism or halakha, but simply because I knew there were Jewish communities where women were not given this option. Knowing that there was a place in my own school where I could not lay tefillin, I quickly developed an interest in what I considered to be a “controversial mitzvah.” For the next two years, I stood in the back of the Orthodox minyan, laying tefillin on the other side of the mechitzah in confidence. The high school boys initially ignored my “feminist phase,” hiding their faces in their prayer books and attempting to disregard the incongruity that stood behind them. Gradually, however, crude comments and glares replaced their shock; under the auspices of the Orthodox rabbinic leadership, the men within this prayer space disguised their discomfort by ensuring I constantly felt isolated and excluded from the community. There was nothing holy about the judgments, saliva, and stares that interrupted my prayers. But I wore those like a badge of honor; they became the strongest motivations behind my sudden commitment to halakhah.
While the Orthodox boys denounced my tefillin-laying in their minyan, my Conservative community applauded my interest in Jewish rituals, deeming me the “super Jew” in school. Egalitarian Jews in my community offered me books about feminism and propelled the idea of me becoming a rabbi some day. What no one — including myself –realized, however, was that my interest in tefillin as a halakhic obligation was nothing deeper than a political response to tension I faced as an Egalitarian Jewish female.
Upon transferring to New York City in eleventh grade, I watched my own political agenda clash with my Jewish identity, sending my Jewish feminist status in a downward spiral. I joined an egalitarian minyan at my new Jewish day school, one where prayer was valued and intentional. Advised by a female Conservative rabbi, this minyan had no mechitzah for me to challenge with my rituals; suddenly, laying tefillin became an expectation rather than a statement. For the remainder of the year, I performed what I once considered to be groundbreaking controversy without receiving one blink or cynical remark. During those months, then having experienced a prayer community without tension, I no longer felt ferocious passion toward Halakha or pride in feminism: I simply felt tight black leather straps wrapped around my left arm. It was during those months when I needed to take step back and differentiate between my motives for laying tefillin and those of my South Florida Conservative community. I needed to reexamine why this ritual was meaningful in my life and rediscover a motivation to continue this life-long mitzvah, one that was not based on political fads.
Today, I wonder if there are women who can relate to the eighth grade self-confident “super Jew” who explored rituals at the expense of kavod ha’tzibur, the honor and respect of the community. I sometimes wonder if the women who congregate by the Kotel in their tallitot and tefillin feel called to adopt these particular Jewish laws for themselves out of pure egalitarianism or if it is the daunting mechitzah that sparks this religious curiosity. As I read increasing articles of young women laying tefillin in their Orthodox day schools, I can’t help but wonder what they hope to accomplish after seeing the unnecessary tension form in the community as tradition coincides with equality with every wrap of leather around their arms.
I am by no means discouraging women from taking on this mitzvah; I applaud every female who feels a spiritual obligation to, like Will Friedman writes, “proclaim God’s glory to the world.” But I ask, having tested the Orthodox waters with my experimental halakha, where are our hearts focused while making such religious and political statements in Orthodox settings? Are the leather straps on our arms worth the looks discomfort, criticisms, and outcries on the other side of the barrier? More importantly, however, is this ritual worth perpetuating the division of Jewish community, especially at a time where we cannot afford to lose something as pivotal as Jewish unity?
There are places for halakhically-driven females to take on every mitzvah they choose. There are places where mitzvot and community collaborate beautifully for every gender. May we find those hidden gems in our communities, rather than disrupt the peace in Orthodox prayer spaces. Tefillin should be the leather that wraps communities together, not a divisive tool through which to express our politics. May we never allow rituals and the political statements that accompany them distract us from the power of our holy community.