What’s wrong with the tefillin debate

There’s something atypical about the current debate over the halachic permissibility of women laying tefillin. I’m an SAR alumnus, and for the last two weeks I’ve been reading the halachic arguments on both sides, trying to figure out how I feel about the issue. I’ve realized that everyone who has spoken out on this has taken the bait of a cleverly framed “issue” that was completely manufactured. As a community we have been deceived into a legitimate halachic debate that has become dangerously polemic and political, at the cost of the interpretation of halacha for the sake of avodat Hashem. This does a disservice to the issue at hand, and frankly, is embarrassing for all the people involved.

Rabbi Harcsztark allowed two girls to lay tefillin in a women-only minyan in SAR High School and over the past couple of weeks a fight has ensued in the media between those who support SAR’s decision and those who think that it is assur (forbidden) for women to lay tefillin. Prominent voices have published their opinions and interpretations of whether the act is halachically permissible. As a result, Rabbi Harcsztark’s decision has effectively become a new frontier in the fight for women’s rights in Orthodox Judaism. While there is certainly a halachic debate to be had on the permissibility of women laying tefillin if we want to have it, it should not originate from the SAR situation.

Rabbi Harcsztark set an apparently controversial policy to let two Conservative girls lay tefillin in school. I’ve realized that none of the halachic interpretations that have been published regarding the question of women laying tefillin actually address the SAR controversy because the two girls that petitioned to lay tefillin in SAR aren’t Orthodox.

Somehow, that was turned into a conversation about the halachic permissibility of women laying tefillin, which shouldn’t have been up for debate. In the Conservative movement, it is halachically permissible for women to lay tefillin. Rabbi Harcsztark expressly stated that he is neither endorsing nor advocating for Orthodox girls to lay tefillin, nor will SAR allow any girl who wants to don tefillin to do so. There’s a valid and halachically irrelevant discussion to be had about the ramifications of a Modern Orthodox day school allowing Conservative practices within its walls, and that’s definitely been discussed albeit not focused upon.

Furthermore, some Orthodox girls who’ve wanted to wear tefillin haven’t been told that they were violating halacha before now. A Times of Israel article titled “Orthodox girls fight for the right to don tefillin” disguises the fact that the two girls it quotes were allowed to wear their tefillin when they asked. In his Dvar Torah to his congregation last Shabbos, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein reminisced how twenty years ago the Ramaz leadership did not allow one of his students to lay tefillin in school. He went on to say that, “I did ask them, however, if they would have any objections to my allowing [the student] to daven in the KJ morning minyan.” No one did, and when this girl showed up to daven at KJ every day, “Nobody objected to what was an unusual practice in our shul. Those who expressed themselves, did so in admiration for the model of piety and sincerity that they represented.” That was twenty years ago. The girls’ location is immaterial to whether their actions are allowed. At home, in shul, or in a high school, Orthodox women wearing tefillin is either allowed or it is not. Something is different about this situation that caused a public controversy where previously there had been none.

It is also telling that Rabbi Segal of Shalhevet High School, (whose student paper The Shalhevet Boiling Point first lent the SAR story national attention), also came out in support of women wearing tefillin. Rabbi Segal emailed his community saying, “there certainly exist legitimate halachik and rabbinic sources that suggest permitting the practice of women wearing tefillin (hence my willingness and desire to discuss the issue publicly and my encouraging [the student] to wear tefillin at a synagogue).” Just like Rabbi Lookstein, Rabbi Segal encouraged his student to wear tefillin in shul. There are so many examples of women being allowed to lay tefillin before now that it took me a while to realize what’s been driving the media firestorm.

Permission has been granted to Orthodox girls to don tefillin for years. It certainly wasn’t the norm, but it had happened. However, it wasn’t until SAR High School allowed the practice that it became a feminism-vs-halachic misogyny debate. If people truly felt this strongly about women laying tefillin one way or the other, the conversation would have started a long time ago. I’m not saying it’s not worth discussing, and I’m not trivializing the importance of the ongoing discussion. Both sides have valid arguments. But there’s a reason that it wasn’t that big of an issue until two weeks ago. I humbly submit that it is the involvement of SAR High School that was the spark that ignited the fire, rather than the desire for a constructive interpretation of halacha.

This halachic debate got blown out of proportion because SAR High School in Riverdale, New York took a liberal stance on a women’s issue. SAR High School (deserved or not) is perceived as being associated with the Open Orthodox movement and Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Traditional Orthodoxy is struggling to figure out where it stands on many women’s issues. Partnership minyanim that expand women’s roles in a minyan and women’s ordination have been among the most contentious issues. It has always seemed to me that while many traditional Orthodox Jews have problems with the Open Orthodox movement, it must be said that at least they are trying to find halachic justification for their actions. Like the two SAR girls’ donning of tefillin, the fight for women’s equality in davening has been grounded in a strong desire to serve Hashem as fully as possible. Until now, that is.

I’m ashamed because for the first time, I have the sense that the halachic opinions I’m reading aren’t originating from a desire to be closer to Hashem. They’re originating from Jewish politics. This isn’t the fault of any one specific person, but collectively our community has been complicit in allowing a halachic debate to be rooted entirely in a political narrative.

That is not a healthy foundation upon which to discuss halacha. I would urge everyone to take a step back and look at the situation objectively. The media has been allowed to warp two Conservative girls’ desire to be closer to Hashem into a new political frontier between Open Orthodoxy and traditional Orthodoxy. If we continue to debate without at least being aware of this, then a dangerous precedent has been set.

About the Author
Alex is currently an undergraduate at Washington University in Saint Louis, completing a B.A in English Literature. Growing up Modern Orthodox in New York, he couldn't pick a Jewish day school so he decided to go to three different ones for elementary, middle, and high school. He is an aspiring broadcaster who doesn't hesitate to call it like he sees it.
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