Several Modern Orthodox High Schools in the New York area have recently allowed female students to don tefillin during the morning prayer services at school. This decision has generated much controversy, rancor and name-calling. On one side are those who think this is an outright break with halakhic norms, and on the other side are those who think this is a wonderful step forward for halakhic Judaism.
This article is not going to pass halakhic judgment on this issue. Halakhic cases can be made on both sides. This article, rather, will deal with the larger question of the nature of prayer and the mitzvah of tefillin.
The goal of prayer is to come closer to God, to bring God into our lives, to experience in some way the reality of the Divine Presence.
If we had no historical precedents, would anyone suggest that the best way to come closer to God is to pray by means of wrapping one’s arm with leather straps? Would it occur to anyone that having leather boxes on one’s arm and head are vital to creating spiritual intimacy with the Almighty? I think no one would think so.
But we do have historical precedents: the Torah—as explained by our sages–commands the donning of tefillin. Halakha has imposed this as a commandment on males and has exempted women from this mitzvah. Various explanations may be offered as to why and how the donning of tefillin brings males closer to God, and why women do not need this mitzvah for their spiritual well-being.
Speaking personally, I don tefillin daily as a fulfillment of a mitzvah of the Torah. Do I need tefillin in order to feel intimacy with the Almighty? Are my prayers deeper or more heart-felt because I wear tefillin? The answer is: No. My inner prayer experience is not contingent on tefillin in any way. I pray on Shabbat and holy days without tefillin, and don’t feel any lack in my spirituality. I communicate with the Almighty when making blessings and private prayers all day long: my not wearing tefillin at those times does not in any way impinge on my spirituality.
In thinking carefully about this matter, I conclude that I don tefillin not in order to enhance my prayers, but as a fulfillment of a commandment to place the words of the Torah as a sign on my arm and head. In olden times (and even today in some cases), men would wear tefillin not only while praying, but throughout the day if they could maintain proper devotion. The mitzvah of tefillin is related to, but separate from, the mitzvah of praying.
For whatever reasons, halakha commands males to don tefillin, and males often fulfill this commandment during morning prayers. But tefillin and prayer are two independent domains, and are not contingent on each other. One may wear tefillin while studying Torah. One may pray without tefillin (as we do on Shabbat and holy days).
If for whatever reasons halakha has exempted women from the commandment of tefillin, should women feel that their spirituality is thereby diminished? If males don tefillin for morning prayers, should females feel that their own prayers are less meaningful if they too are not donning tefillin?
I think it is most correct to view prayer and tefillin as two separate mitvot. The goal of prayer is to bring us into a relationship with God through the “service of the heart.” Donning tefillin is a separate commandment (on males) to put the words of Torah as a sign on the arm and head.
Prayer itself is neither enhanced nor diminished by whether one is wearing tefillin. Prayer is an inner spiritual experience, dependent on one’s spiritual frame of mind. Wearing tefillin does not make one pray better; not wearing tefillin does not prevent one from meaningful prayer.
If this is so, then there is no obvious spiritual reason for women to don tefillin for morning prayers.
Of course, though, there is a sociological consideration. If males and females are praying in their schools (or synagogues), and the males wear tefillin while the females do not, someone will raise the issue of “egalitarianism” or something related to that theme. Why shouldn’t females also be allowed to don tefillin? The question might be reframed: why should females feel the need to don tefillin during prayer services if they are exempt from the mitzvah of tefillin?
If people properly understand the role of prayer as an inner religious experience, I don’t think that donning tefillin would be a burning issue for them. And if some females think that they are deprived of an important mitzvah, they might don tefillin privately at home before going to school or synagogue.
I think our schools and synagogues need to devote serious attention to the separate domains of prayer and tefillin; need to explore candidly—and without rancor—spiritual options that are halakhically valid and warranted; need to think carefully about spiritual and sociological factors that impact on the way we make our decisions. We must keep focused on serving the Almighty in purity and truth.