This Purim as I was eating my last (no really!) piece of hamantaschen the other night, I sat down to peruse on Facebook everyone’s lovely costumed photo posts. My friends and acquaintances, close and distant, were all dressed up in lovely, cute and sometimes clever attire. One school in the area encouraged its alumni to post pictures of their families celebrating the holiday. While most were impossibly cute, another image struck me to the core. A family had dressed up their sons as girls wearing tefillin. I immediately commented that this image needed to be taken down ASAP as it was completely offensive to those women who serious don tefillin everyday and was not funny at all. To the school’s credit, the image was removed and I was issued a genuine apology. Now, at the risk of being deemed a feminist without a sense of humor, I asked myself why I found the image so troubling. It was Purim after all, our annual topsy-turvy day. Why was it so troubling?
The picture and its underlying controversy reminded me of a B’nai Akiva school girl’s comment to a woman praying at the Wall for Rosh Chodesh Sh’vat. As my daughter and I were praying with the Women of the Wall, we were joined from women and girls across the Jewish denominational spectrum. Many of the women donned kippot, tallit and tefillin. One young girl accosted one such clad woman yelling,’Why are you dressed this way? The torah says you can’t wear a kippah! Do you want to be a man?’
The last question is the true one. Many women who seek to put on tefillin, participate in Partnership Minyanim or Tefillah groups and or even to learn Talmud, are often asked this question- ‘Do you want to be a man?’ The threat is twofold. It horrifies many that women would seem more masculine and threatens some men as some form of emasculation. It smacks at the core of gender identity in general and its complicated position within traditional Judaism.
Personally, I don’t want to be a man physically or emotionally. I, in the words of the song, “…enjoy being a girl.” But to be honest, in my spiritual and religious life, I guess I don’t want to be a man physically but I would like to be considered as a man–really as a full human being– in my Jewish community. I would like to be a man in that I would be considered as a reasonable, thinking adult and not as a child. I would like to be a man in that my spirituality would be treated as seriously as a man’s. I would like to be a man in that my prayer and learning would be valued as much a man’s. I would like to be a man in that any time I try to grow spiritually either by learning or action my motives wouldn’t be questioned or considered selfish and vain. In true feminist fashion, I suppose I do not want my biology to be the only determinant of my destiny within Judaism.
However, in true post-feminist difference-feminism fashion, I don’t want to be forced to abandon or mute my female-ness. Although, I probably won’t be putting on tefillin any time soon, I fully those women who do and do so l’shem shamayim. I know these women do not want to physically become men. I know their practice is not in vain, selfish or casual. It is not a v’nahafoch hu, a reversal of roles. It is not a costume and not a joke —even on Purim.