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Women wearing tefillin cause a stir in Jerusalem

Women of the Wall board member Dina Greenberg, right, helps another woman lay tefillin during an event in Jerusalem on Feb. 3, 2019. Photo by Elizabeth Kirshner and Tammy Gottlieb/Women of the Wall

JERUSALEM (RNS) – On a bustling street corner in downtown Jerusalem earlier this month, a group of determined Jewish women performed a commandment long reserved for men.

Standing in front of a table set up by the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall, the women tied on tefillin — the small boxes with passages from the Torah curled inside that Jews “lay,” or strap to their foreheads and arms during daily prayer.

Chaya Rowen-Baker, a Conservative rabbi, brought her daughters, aged 13 and 15, to the booth because she wanted to make the experience a teaching moment.

“I feel it’s important for their education. I want them to understand the importance of religious freedom,” Baker said after the three had wrapped themselves in colorful Women of the Wall prayer shawls and carried out the commandment.

Baker said she also wanted “to set an example for other women who might be considering laying tefillin” but lack the confidence to do so. “We’re making a public statement that women laying tefillin is normative and okay, and it’s something that women can do, according to most rabbis.”

Women of the Wall board member Linda Avitan, right, helps another woman lay tefillin during an event in Jerusalem on Feb. 3, 2019. Photo by Elizabeth Kirshner and Tammy Gottlieb/Women of the Wall

Laying tefillin, also known as phylacteries, is a central commandment in Judaism — one that Jewish men have been carrying out for millennia. But in the past few decades, as egalitarianism in many Jewish circles has blossomed, so too has the desire, at least by some women, to fulfill this ancient, sacred rite, despite the fact that women aren’t required to do so.

While Reform, Conservative and even some modern-Orthodox women in Israel regularly lay tefillin in the privacy of their homes, synagogues and seminaries, few do so in public, fearing a backlash from fervently Orthodox Jews who believe that tefillin are the domain of men, not women.

Women of the Wall’s event was part of the Worldwide Wrap, an annual campaign spearheaded by the U.S.-based Conservative Movement to encourage men and women to lay tefillin.

It was just the latest initiative by Women of the Wall to bring women’s religious participation to a public setting.

It has been an uphill struggle.

Women of the Wall co-founder Anat Hoffman, right, helps another woman lay tefillin and adjust a prayer shawl during an event in Jerusalem on Feb. 3, 2019. Photo by Elizabeth Kirshner and Tammy Gottlieb/Women of the Wall

For the past 30 years, successive governments have refused to recognize the organization’s right to hold collective women’s prayer services and read from a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the Western Wall, despite court rulings to the contrary.

Not long after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally agreed to pleas from Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox Jews to create a pluralistic prayer space at the wall, he reneged when his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners threatened to topple the government.

It took months before Jerusalem’s municipal government allowed Women of the Wall to set up its tefillin table on King George Street, but not at Zion Square, a busier location the organization had requested.

By contrast, Chabad, an Orthodox movement, has a permit to operate a tefillin stand on the square, day in and day out. Each week, hundreds of men lay tefillin at the Chabad table.

“We have been corresponding with the municipality since October, and our lawyer told them that you can’t give a year-round permit to Chabad and reject us,” said Lesley Sachs, Women of the Wall’s executive director. “The site we were given on King George Street isn’t as good as Zion Square, where people meander. People pass our location on the way to somewhere else.”

That didn’t prevent two to three dozen women and some men from approaching the tefillin table for the two hours it was open, some merely out of curiosity and others intent on laying tefillin.

Still others came to confront the activists.

One older woman, who, from her clothing, appeared to be secular, called the event “ugly and disgusting.” An hour later a young Orthodox man accused the women, wrapped in prayer shawls, of provocation.

“I wouldn’t go to a vegan’s house and put a steak in front of his eyes,” the man shouted. “This is Jerusalem!”

Another Orthodox man urged him to calm down. “A couple of months ago the police stopped me after I became agitated during Women of the Wall’s prayers at the Western Wall. I regret my actions,” he said.

Women of the Wall board member Dina Greenberg, right, helps other women lay tefillin during an event in Jerusalem on Feb. 3, 2019. Photo by Elizabeth Kirshner and Tammy Gottlieb/Women of the Wall

The criticism didn’t prevent Melissa Carp, an American rabbinical student studying at the Reform Hebrew Union College for the year, from laying tefillin, along with several of her classmates.

After wrapping a prayer shawl around her shoulders, Carp placed a square tefillin box on her upper arm and wound the black straps several times, until they reached her fingers. A moment later she placed a second tefillin box at the front of her head, secured by pre-tied straps. Finally, she recited a prayer acknowledging God’s presence and the commandment to lay tefillin.

“It was meaningful to do this in a really public space in Jerusalem,” she said. “When Women of the Wall prays at the Kotel [Western Wall], they’re attacked for praying in a holy place. Yet they’re also being attacked while praying in an everyday space.”

Carp called this proof that objections to women’s communal prayer in tefillin and prayer shawls isn’t about a site’s holiness.

“This shows that the Kotel isn’t the issue. What’s at issue is a woman’s right to perform commandments, even when women aren’t obligated to do them. What’s at issue is gender inequality.”

Sachs felt the event was successful, even when people came up to criticize the women.

“We had some heated arguments, but we’re always happy to talk about what we’re doing and why,” Sachs said.

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Michele Chabin

75 Comments

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  • ““I feel it’s important for their education. I want them to understand the importance of religious freedom,” Religious freedom is the freedom to honour Christ.
    “It was just the latest initiative by Women of the Wall to bring women’s religious participation to a public setting.” If they are trying to take over things designed for me, it is blasphemy, not “religious participation”
    “It was just the latest initiative by Women of the Wall to bring women’s religious participation to a public setting.” No. it’s women wanting to be men.
    ” What’s at issue is gender inequality.” No, what is at issue is the word of God. If God wanted these women to do male things, He would have made them male
    There is no filthiness in being a woman and restricting oneself to women’s matters. God made us separate from men with separate rules and guidelines

  • Worldwide, women deserve and fight for equality in all aspects of life. The fact that some religious or cultural views don’t support this doesn’t seem to matter anymore or stop them.

  • In the conservative churches they do not have equality. If you women want to be subjected to your men, that’s your right but others don’t.

  • Why do you think they do not have “equality”? Having a different role, and responsibilities does not take away from what today’s world calls equality. “Equality” is just society’s attempt to pull women out of the protection of men, when it comes to the church – a means of pulling the family apart – one of the foundations of the church

  • You are correct in your thinking! If you got lost in the jungle, the concept of God does not care if you eat the animals or the animals eat you, because everything has got to eat. You might want to have a high powered rifle if you get lost in the jungle to protect you from things that God will not, and even that will not protect you from disease, impure water, venomous snakes and insects, deadly microprobes, and a multitude of other things that will kill you in God’s so called creation.

  • Women don’t need the protection of men. Men need the protection of women. Women can be a tempering influence, to the macho male culture!

    Having different roles and responsibilities doesn’t mean those roles can’t be switched or shared equally.

  • If God didn’t want women to do male things he could stop them. The fact that he doesn’t means one of two things: either God doesn’t care or God doesn’t exist!

  • Lets look at God’s first four moral Commandments:

    1. You shall have no other gods before me. (Jealous) (Egotistic)

    2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God. (Jealous and Egotistic)

    3. Thou shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. (Egotistic)

    4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. (Egotist) (One day a week, just for me “the Lord your God”)

    Are those your first four moral commandments????

  • “English Standard Version
    (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God),”
    Exodus 34:14
    There you go peep – you’re starting to agree with Him

  • I defend Jesus right to have been gay/homosexual. –Jesus never got married, started running around with a bunch of young men in his thirties, telling everyone to love each other. You could read a lot into this story.

  • I cannot agree or disagree, because this fabricated story about God is most likely fantasy and fiction. God is supposed to have spoken to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments when he was alone. How could you possibly verify any of this story?

  • I’m sorry for whatever has made you feel that way, or are you just following the culture that is currently anti-male? You seem to be someone who can think for herself, so I won’t belittle you with following the culture, Susan. I’m sorry for whatever hurt you.
    You are right, at this point in time, men do need the protection of women – women to stand up for the man that the feminists are trying to turn homosexual, because homosexuals don’t seem to threaten them.
    “Having different roles and responsibilities doesn’t mean those roles can’t be switched or shared equally.” Perhaps when Christ enables men to have babies, that may be.

  • When a woman mows the lawn, takes out the trash, brings home the bacon then fries it up in the pan she isn’t pretending to be a man. NOR when a man changes a diaper, feeds the baby, plays with the kids, cleans the house or does the laundry is he pretending to be a woman.

  • When I shop, cook, clean the house, and watch the children, my wife does not equate that to me pretending to be a woman.

  • I didn’t see any Bible passages claiming mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, frying bacon being a man’s job.

  • Give an example of a man’s job thousands of years ago when the ancient texts were written, re-written, and re-written again?????

  • It’s hard to guess ages in pictures, but the girl in the third photo looks too young to be dragged into controversy.

  • I do not know any more than you do. But he fits the description. A Jewish man in Jesus’s time was expected to marry and start a family at a much younger age. The average man did not live a long life in biblical times.

  • There is usually a more dominant person in each relationship (male or female), notice I did not say “dominating”

  • There were many people named Jesus in that time. If you don’t know his name, how can you claim he is a homosexual?

  • How do you know – in fact you are wrong – He wrote in the sand. He is responsible for the entire Bible –

  • where? The prohibition against cross dressing has been used as an argument but not all agree that the tefillin, which is a ritualistic item, applies.

  • It doesn’t bother you that your God’s name is Jealous? Jealousy is usually equated with insecurity. Not a very perfect God.

  • God is just a concept, that is why every religion has a different idea about the concept and what this concept of the “all powerful” expects of them.

  • Sandi, I didn’t see that God prohibited women from wearing the tefillin in the Bible. However, the first link did have a good quote that speaks to this issue: “Jesus taught that God is not as concerned with the external trappings of religion as He is with the true nature of the heart.” I don’t believe God is as small as you make him out to be.

  • Your basic argument is that if God doesn’t stop genocide, God is responsible.

    That, of course, simply dispenses with the notion of Free Will.

    That means in your view we are either automatons or God does not exist.

    Stick to atheism. Theology is most assuredly NOT your forté.

  • I said that I do not know any more than you do. The biblical description says nothing of a marriage or children, just that he, 31 year old man, roamed the countryside with a bunch of young men telling everyone to love each other.

  • To what point?

    You’ve made it clear you don’t know the Bible from Bublé, you copy and paste “exegesis” from zany sources that don’t pan out, you’re not a man, you’re not Jewish.

  • the husband is the priest of the household and he is instructed to love his wife. Otherwise I dont remember saying there was scripture to those points

  • Sandi, you seem like a devout Christian. (“Religious freedom is the freedom to honour Christ”, you say.) Why are you even bothering to debate arcane points of Jewish practice, which logically you wouldn’t believe to be important?

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