Tefillin Barbie's new career
"You know Barbie's getting a new job," says my friend Mimi to me. "People can vote for her new career."
I put tefillin on a Mattel Barbie doll in 2006, unwittingly creating the Jewish icon now known as Tefillin Barbie. Tefillin Barbie has a religious-girl denim skirt, a T-shirt, the tallit and tefillin more generally worn by Orthodox men during morning prayer, and a volume of Talmud; a whimsical activity for a vacation morning, she generated an absolutely vast and wholly unanticipated amount of reaction, positive and negative.
"Hurrah," people say. "Now we can have Rabbi Barbie!"
But why, people? Why? Barbie put on tefillin and picked up a gemara, so now she has to be a rabbi? Why can't she be an IT engineer who prays with tefillin and learns gemara in her lunch break?
See, we have this little problem in the liberal Jewish world. We assume that anyone who's Jewishly invested must be on the rabbinical track. Not completely Jewishly illiterate? Surely you are in rabbinical school. Pray with tefillin? No one does that except rabbis. If Barbie is wearing tefillin and learning gemara, how can she possibly be anything other a rabbi?
It's fair enough, in a way. We managed to create a world where the default level of Jewish education is impressively minimal. The only people who cared for advanced educations were rabbis. The only way to get an advanced education has been to go to rabbinical school. So there is an extensive correlation between liberal Jews who - like Tefillin Barbie - lay tefillin and learn gemara, and liberal Jews who have been through rabbinical school. More's the pity.
It's not an exclusive correlation, and really it would be jolly nice if we could stop assuming that it is. I'm no rabbi; I have a degree in mathematics and a career as a calligrapher-scholar. I pray with tefillin, observe Shabbat in accordance with halakha, and learn Talmud for fun. I and those like me feel vastly frustrated when people assume that we must be rabbis.
We're lucky, now, to live in a time when women can obtain high-level Jewish education in contexts other than rabbinical school; if we keep assuming that only rabbis can have Jewish knowledge, we damage ourselves as Jews.
Barbie's new career is, it seems, a combination of computer engineer and TV anchor (even Barbie has to work two jobs to make ends meet?) In her role as computer engineer, she's apparently supposed to convince little girls that one can be feminine and technically minded.
In assuming otherwise, we damage ourselves as women; the assumption is that only social misfits can be engineers, engineering is only a career for women who fail at being feminine. But no – actually you don't have to be a feminine failure, an ipso facto man, to be an engineer. You can be a perfectly ordinary woman and an engineer; while I question whether pink-laptopped Computer Engineer Barbie entirely demonstrates this, it's a point that needs making.
What Barbie's New Career theoretically demonstrates in the plane of socially-acceptable femininity, we could also apply in the plane of Jewish engagement. Barbie says, regular girls just like you can be engineers. Likewise, regular Jews just like you can be engaged and educated. You don't have to be a social misfit to be an engineer, and you don't have to be a rabbi to be an engaged Jew. You can be a perfectly ordinary professional and an observant, liberal Jew. Tefillin Barbie certainly does not demonstrate this and she was never intended to, but when I resist the idea that she should be Rabbi Barbie, the point is made. The richness of the professional world is not limited to men, and the richness of the Jewish world is not limited to rabbis.
If Tefillin Barbie is Rabbi Barbie, she thoroughly reinforces the idea that only rabbis can pray with tefillin, only rabbis can learn Talmud, only rabbis can be educated, committed, engaged, contented Jews. So no; let our Jews be computer engineers, and let them also pray with tefillin and learn Talmud. Let us not assume that being female prescribes a life of Barbie-pink frippery, and let us not assume that being a committed Jew prescribes a career in the rabbinate. Let us rather assume that Jewish life is worthwhile for all of us – women and men, clergy and laity - and proceed accordingly.
Jen Taylor Friedman is a post-denominational halakhically-observant egalitarian Jewish ritual scribe and scholar. She is notorious for having created Tefillin Barbie, and notable for being the first woman in modern times known to have written a sefer Torah. She blogs and sells Tefillin Barbie from www.hasoferet.com.
Check out JWA's Go & Learn lesson plan Teffilin Barbie: Considering gender and ritual garb. Three versions available: for youth, families, and adults.