Justice, Religion, Sex & Gender

Tefillin Gemach for Women

Soferet Jen Taylor Friedman has started a tefillin gemach for women, based in NYC. She explains,

A gemach is a charity which lends things to people in need. Sometimes it’s basic stuff like plates, sometimes it’s wedding dresses, sometimes it’s furniture, and sometimes it’s tefillin. Men who can’t afford tefillin can borrow some from a tefillin gemach for as long as they need them. But women can’t, because gemachen don’t exist in the liberal Jewish movements (so far as I know) and the liberal movements are the only places where they’re interested in women laying tefillin. Bit of a bind, as it were. So I’m working on doing something about it. Slowly, as yet, but working on it. And lovely people who donate tefillin completely out of the blue are a vital component.

Go here to contact Jen if you have tefillin (or money to buy tefillin) to donate to the cause.

13 thoughts on “Tefillin Gemach for Women

  1. Ya’ know, I’m not sure. It’s definitely not something that would be encouraged, or… how to phrase this properly… it would never come up independently, because it’s simply not on the mind of a Chabad shaliach in the course of their day. Once you put it on their mind, the response will probably be something of a mixed bag. It depends how motivated the shaliach is in that moment to engage in a conversation that isn’t very relevant to their practical daily responsibilities. Also, probably not every Chabad shaliach is equipped to have this conversation in a way that would allow progressive Jews to be receptive to what they have to say.
    In my experience, many progressive Jews tend to mine their interactions on faith and spirituality, and setting off any of these mines will end the intellectual portion of the discussion, ushering in righteous indignation that has interesting parallels to an emotional self-defense mechanism. It really takes someone experienced in these matters to understand (and respect) the myriad of sensitivities and steer the conversation appropriately. Not every Chabad Rabbi is so equipped, but many are, and among them are a few real giants, in my estimation.
    I’m interested myself in the response Ilona will receive. It’s well worth a try, and at least it will be a kosher pair of tefillin paired with someone who knows how to use them.
    In the wider context, we’ve had this discussion in the past, I think. On the one hand, where is it forbidden for women to wear tefillin? There are conflicting rulings by the Rema (who discouraged it) and Gra (who forbade it) but the halacha merely says that women are exempt (Mishnah Berachot 3:3, Orach Chaim 38:3). On the other hand, it’s a time-bound mitzvah tailored (by The Tailor) to bolster male connectivity with the divine. So, from a spiritual perspective, it’s something of a misappropriation from the designated intent of the act. It’s like a man wearing women’s underwear. I mean, he could (not really, under halacha, but follow the analogy), but they weren’t designed with him in mind.
    However, whereas some misappropriations of the tools G-d gave us are actually harmful, in a spiritual sense (like having sex out of wedlock), what’s really the down side to a woman wearing tefillin? The issue seems quite trivial and (the very few) Jewish men who blow this issue out of proportion have a high hill to climb to appear neither silly or brutish. In my unscholarly opinion, the worst that can happen is that, by wearing tefillin, a woman is depriving herself of a far greater potential for spiritual action and fulfillment, desensitizing herself to the level of a man. That’s my best dramatic spin on the deal. Oh well, how tragic for her, but my life goes on and everyone else’s should too.
    Btw, I am disregarding ritual tefillin-wearing from scholarly tefillin-wearing, if it can be called that. In other words, a fully-observant and knowledgeable Jewish woman learning about tefillin and wearing them for a time in that context is different from a Jewish woman assuming the mitzvah of tefillin as hers to perform. There might be no downside to her doing so, but in the same way, what exactly is the upside, from a spiritual perspective? What is her spiritual opportunity cost to wearing tefillin?
    There are some few exceptions. People bring up Rashi’s daughters wrapping tefillin (although there doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence for it). There have been other examples throughout history, both ancient and recent, for which there is evidence. At the same time, none of the women who we know, in fact, wore tefillin, were running around promoting female tefillin use; it was a private matter. Tefillin at their essence are a spiritual tool designed for men. If a gaon, tzadik or rebbe (in the traditional sense, not a graduate of Chicago University’s Jewish Studies program – no disrespect implied) ever privately advised a woman in a specific circumstance to use that tool, to affect a particular effect in her spiritual life, without broadcasting this to the world, it wouldn’t shock me. If a G-d fearing, learned woman (Jewish Studies majors are, again, excluded, from the “learned” adjective, not the “G-d fearing” – no disrespect implied) chooses to use this tool for some unusual reason, fully understanding the implications, who is anyone else to argue? But in the main this is a tool designed and deployed for the spiritual service of men.
    I recognize that there exist women who feel a strong need to wear tefillin. Some would call this outcome a lack of proper education, understanding or the result of a spiritual identity built on non-normative premises and foundations. Personally, and I mean personally, I think it reeks of the worst sort of misogyny that men, who are spiritually lower, have so inculcated in women a reverence for men, that women think doing as men do is the path to their spiritual aliyah. That’s fucked up and I get angry thinking about it.
    Go back to the notion of tefillin as a tool, consider the purpose of that tool, and equate it with something more tangible… say, crutches. G-d gave men spiritual crutches because they couldn’t walk on their own. Women are perfectly healthy; they don’t need crutches. However, because women see that G-d paid more attention to the men in this regard (the way a doctor pays more attention to the sick than the healthy), they equate crutches with greater connection to the divine. So, you’ve got perfectly healthy women demanding to walk around in crutches. Who knows, maybe someone who thinks their legs are broken really might need crutches as much as someone whose legs actually are broken. It’s a curious thing to watch, and some may call it insanity, that healthy people should walk around in crutches. As I said, my life goes on.
    So, I accept that there are women who feel a strong need to wear tefillin. What’s more, and more importantly, I accept that many of these women feel their need to wear tefillin has real justification. This means that anything I or anyone else tells them to dissuade them from wearing tefillin will feed into a self-reinforcing narrative of resistance, and will probably have the opposite effect – i.e. “denying” them tefillin only increases the perceived holiness and necessity of tefillin, etc.
    So, in short, whenever a Jewish woman wants to wear tefillin, the first thing an observant Jewish man should do is immediately give her a pair of tefillin, without a second’s delay, and show her how to use them. The more determined she is, the more quickly he should submit. And after she’s done the deed, he should do what he can to engage her in that very necessary conversation about crutches, and how a supremely healthy and powerful spiritual being like her really doesn’t need them. (But whenever she feels she does, she can borrow his.)
    By the way, there is an entire flipside to this issue which never gets addressed. It relates to the frail egos of men. Women don’t really get this, but we men feel inferior to women. It’s true. The proof is that we like to do things that are for men only. By creating our “in” club, from which women are excluded, we create a preferential hierarchy – we elevate ourselves over others, artificially. In truth, we’re merely compensating for our inherent (i.e. built in, and out of our control) sense of inferiority as compared to women. Boys-only clubs are our way of psychologically leveling the playing field. If we can’t give birth to human life, then you can’t play golf with us, or whatever.
    So, maybe it’s not healthy, but it’s the reality: we men need our boys-only club. When denied it, we will create it in whatever way we can. G-d, as the One responsible for creating us, understands us perfectly. He gave men the mitzvah of tefillin (among others) to heal our bruised egos, to allow us to compensate for our deficiency in a healthy way. If He hadn’t done that, we might have invented our own compensatory mechanisms for our inferiority complex – say, beating women, G-d forbid. And we, well, we like that kind of special attention from G-d. It helps us forget that, you know, (*gulp) women are better.
    I’m joking around a little, but this is a serious issue. I’ve seen the consequences of taking away the “boys-club” from Jewish men in other areas of divine service, and the results are consistently bad.
    This requires some sensitivity and maturity on your part to understand what I’m trying to express: I’m not arguing for keeping women from Jewish ritual to which they are entitled, just so that men can feel better about themselves.
    But if a ritual, such as tefillin, was designed specifically for the spiritual health of men, and part of its usefulness is that men are obligated in it (made feel special), and women are not obligated in it, we should consider what could happen to the spiritual health of Jewish men when Jewish women insist they are also obligated in it.
    Or, to really break this down, do Jewish women care enough about Jewish men to give them a spiritual space they can call their own?

  2. The cover of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism Winter 2011-2012 features a beautiful photograph of two women, their arms wrapped in tefillin, holding hands.
    The first editorial, on page 8, by Rabbi Charles Simon, starts off like this, “There have been numerous articles and discussions about the growing disappearance of Jewish men from today’s synagogue life.” He then offers nothing, NOTHING even remotely approaching a dress-down of the problem, much less its rectification. I’m not expecting Zeek or Heeb magazines to do much better. So who will?
    Are we not allowed to talk about the obvious connection here, which I discussed at the end of my last comment? I’m asking seriously. Is the notion of carving out a male-exclusive spiritual space beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse in the non-Orthodox Jewish community?
    I’ll make another analogy here, to boys-only education. I’m not an expert in education, but I seem to remember several years ago there was a firestorm over research which suggested that boys learned better in boys-only environments. Some high-profile feminists went nuts. A similar situation that Rabbi Simon describes in the synagogue is happening in education. Women passed men some two decades ago. Nearly 60% of undergraduates are women. Little to nothing is being done to address this gap, which continues to grow.
    Should the history of sexism, horrid though it may be, continue to shut out concern for the present and future well-being, whether in education or in divine service, of men? Is this simply a taboo that a liberal Jew can’t touch without hemorrhaging street cred?

    1. Victor writes:
      I’m asking seriously. Is the notion of carving out a male-exclusive spiritual space beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse in the non-Orthodox Jewish community?
      It’s totally within the discourse. Many of us think it’s still a bad idea, but those supporting it will have to do better than claiming their views can’t be heard.

  3. @EWH Good question. In a practical sense, spirituality is the inner life of my inner life; the medium through which my deeply held need to connect with the sacred is actualized. But I agree the terms have become somewhat axiomatic. I’ll think about it. If I have something worthwhile to contribute I’ll post back.
    @J1 I missed you. Still mad at me?

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