How do we empower women?

Yesterday, Avital Chizhik posted an article in Haaretz that asks for “real empowerment” for Orthodox women instead of tefillin, egalitarian prayer services, and female Rabbis. With all of the buzz that tefillin-donning women are getting, I respect Chizhik’s evaluation of the greater issues at hand. There is a larger conversation about women’s involvement in Judaism, and I share her frustration with the dialogue often being domineered by men. I stand with Chizhik in charging women to make their way into the conversation. However, I would frame the conversation differently.

In her article, Chizhik states that the discussion on women wearing tefillin leaves women who aren’t interested in tefillin out of the limelight and back in the shadows. Chizuk is concerned for Orthodox women who are searching for empowerment but do not feel the pull of tefillin. She asks for “a mentality shift that encourages girls to open their minds, voice their opinions and fulfill their ambitions.”

While I definitely agree that women should take part in the conversation about gender roles in Judaism, I would like to see a more colorful conversation, where women have the platform to express their individual thoughts. An inclusive conversation would give voice to Orthodox women, no matter where they fall on that vast spectrum.

Chizhik states, “Ask the average American Orthodox woman if she would lay tefillin, if it were acceptable, and she will likely give you a blank look and laugh.” While I admit that I, too, have no desire to wear tefillin, I would not respond with laughter. Tefillin may only be one very specific mitzvah, but I do not want to push it aside as inconsequential. I want to address all of the ways that women seek fulfillment in Judaism, even if only a handful of women have such a desire (and I assume it is much more than a handful). I want to include all discussions of halacha and women, even when the particular notion at hand is not something that has personal meaning to me.

In order to give voice to women’s opinions, I would like to participate in rich and diverse conversations. There should be space for women to question their right to don tefillin, and there should be space for women to seek involvement in other ways. I admire Chizhik for finding her own “phylacteries” in dressing modestly and making blessings, but I also respect another Orthodox woman’s desire for literal phylacteries.

I understand that there are many issues to tackle beyond wearing tefillin. For women who do not want to wear tefillin but still look for empowerment in Judaism, we deserve a conversation as well. But that does not need to detract from another conversation; let it add another layer.

About the Author
Rebecca is a recent Penn grad and a writer in New York City.
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