Dignity and difference: A Jewish educator’s views on women wearing tefillin

“We should know what we see, not see what we know”.

-Rabbi AJ Heschel

There is a story that is told (possibly apocryphal, but the lesson to be learned remains) about a Chassidic Rebbe from Eastern Europe who came to Germany to see Rav Shimson Raphael Hirsch’s community, which was, in what might be one of the bigger understatements of all time, considerably different from his own. As he was shown the shul, with its structured davening, he remarked on how beautiful it was. When he saw the yeshiva, he again commented on the beauty of what he saw. When he stopped at the girl’s school, where the girls were learning Torah, he was once again struck by the beauty of Hirsch’s approach. At the end, of the tour, he was asked what he thought. He replied “Very beautiful, but still no shidduch”. As much as he appreciated that Hirsch’s approach was beautiful for the kehillah in Frankfurt, he felt quite certain that it was not the right approach for a chassidic community.

As the whole issue of women wearing tefillin came to the fore this week, I was fortunate enough to watch it unfold before offering my opinion. I was thus saved from making pronouncements without full knowledge of what was going on. Even now, after I have read as much as I can, I am not going to say what THE correct approach is. As I frequently tell my students, if someone tells you “The Jewish view of issue X is…” you don’t need to hear the end of the sentence to know they are most probably wrong, as there is rarely only one view on any issue. I will leave the halachic analysis for those who are for more erudite than myself. Besides, as has been noted, many of the issues in the debate are meta-halachic and sociological. Instead, I will comment from the perspective of a Jewish educator.

The two sides of the debate are coming from very different perspectives on issues such as a woman’s role in Judaism, feminism, how halacha is decided and what makes a view a legitimately Jewish/halchic one. Each side remains convinced that they are reading the sources and the ethos of Judaism correctly, and that the future will vindicate their position. One side insists that the other is stuck in the past, while the other suggests that their opponent lacks appropriate respect for the past. I am not a prognosticator and I am not a prophet. Only time will prove who is correct, or whether only one approach can work. I’m more confident in discussing how the debate is being carried forth, and the message we give to our children and students as we debate this and other issues.

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, the principal of SAR was not seeking to decide national communal policy, or even decide on a new policy for his school. In a letter he sent out to parents of his school (which is making the rounds on social media, but has not, to the best of my knowledged been put online), he thoughtfully explained that he was approached by two young women who came from a Conservative background, who had worn tefillin since their bat mitzvah. For various reasons, he decided to allow them to continue do so at school, within a particular framework. He was not the first principal to have allowed girls to wear tefillin at school, as it had already been allowed in various cases some twenty years earlier. This would have, and, more importantly, should have been seen as a decision by a principal for what works for his school, but an article in a high school newspaper, and the internet prevented it from being seen for what it was.

This was now a bigger issue and there was room for discussion, nuance, and respectful passion. Indeed, this was the tone taken by many, including Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton. As a mechanech, I know how much thoughtful discussion could and hopefully did come from discussing the various issues involved. What I find unacceptable are the personal attacks and snarkiness shown to Rabbis Harcsztark, and Goldberg, both of whom, I have no doubt, were speaking lishma. Even more troubling were those who commented on the girls themselves. Without knowing either of them, people felt free to opine on the girl’s motives, religious observance and character.

I understand that there is a kulturkampf going on in the Orthodox community and that there are passionate advocates, thank God, on both sides of the debate. Still, it behooves us to recognize that as much as our views are being evaluated by our children and students, they are also seeing how we express them. If we can not engage in debate without making use of ad hominem attacks, perhaps it is best to stay out of the debate. One can believe, as I myself do, that Rabbi Harcsztark made the right decision for his school, or that he did not. It is okay to believe that feminsim has no place in dictating halachic practice, or that it must. Some will feel that certain segments of Orthdoxy are heading for the cliff, while others will believe that they are taking Orthodoxy in the direction which it must go. Let us commit to show, that no matter how passionately we are sure we are right, that we can engage the other side with respect.

About the Author
Pesach Sommer is an Orthodox Rabbi, fundraiser, educator and runner. He is married and has eight children. He currently works for Just One Life, where he directs special projects including their charity running program Team Just One Life. Pesach is 42 years young.
Related Topics
Related Posts