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I Don’t Wrap Tefillin But I Like That I Could

I don’t like praying on the women’s side of the divider. I’ve only done so once but once was enough. On Shavuot last year I went to the local Chabad for services because my family was currently in between shuls. I noticed from the women’s side that, while the men were completely engrossed in what they were doing (tallit and tefillin and all), the women were not. Women came and went throughout the service and some women were even having side conversations. I was willing to write this off as a onetime occurrence, until this past summer when I met a Jewish girl from Canada who reported the same phenomenon. Then I started asking my more traditional friends, and they all said that side conversations were the norm. Now, I’m not one of those people who thinks that services should be dead serious all the time, and that everyone must be paying a hundred and ten percent attention, but having side conversations feels a little disrespectful.

It’s clear why this happens. The women aren’t allowed the mitzvah of tallit and tefillin and they don’t count in minyans. This sends the message that women’s prayers don’t matter, or at least not as much as men’s. Ergo if you’re on the women’s side of the divider, what you do doesn’t matter. This is why I belong to a conservative shul where men and women pray together and both can wrap tefillin and wear tallit, and not to the Chabad where I went for Shavuot. While at my synagogue I have the opportunity to wrap tefillin, and many of my female peers do, I, oddly, don’t feel a particular need to. I find tefillin very masculine and feel uncomfortable wrapping, the same way I would feel uncomfortable being required to wear khakis and polo shirts every day. I like the idea that I could if I wanted to though, and that I am treated the same as my male counterparts in prayer.

This is similar to how I feel about feminism. My femininity is a part of my personality. I own exactly one pair of pants. I like to wear my hair long. I engage in stereotypical female pastimes. I sew and enjoy acting and writing poetry. I don’t feel the need to cut my hair short, wear cargo pants and combat boots, and play football. But I like that I could. Feminism for me is about opportunity. I don’t necessarily want to do the same things that men do. But at the same time the idea that I shouldn’t be allowed to do things because I’m a woman is abhorrent.

One of the things I like about the conservative movement is that it keeps traditions that are typically just for men and allows women to take part in them. The reform shul I used to belong to simply didn’t engage in tefillin use for men or for women. I feel uncomfortable with the idea of getting rid of traditions altogether because they are for men only. That’s no different than banning dresses because they are traditionally worn by women. Feminism shouldn’t be about forcing everyone to dress androgynously and pretending that gender isn’t real. In the same way, modern Judaism shouldn’t be about getting rid of traditions that are only for one gender. Both my Feminism and my Judaism are about equality of opportunity as opposed to androgyny. 

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Girl with Tefillin at Kotel
Full image
A young girl places her tefillin at the Western Wall, Jerusalem.
Courtesy of Michal Patelle/Wikimedia
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How to cite this page

Eigerman, Elisabeth. "I Don’t Wrap Tefillin But I Like That I Could." 9 October 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 20, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/i-don-t-wrap-tefillin-but-i-like-that-i-could>.

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