Opinions Vary on Women and Tefillin Question

By: Shalva Ginsparg  |  February 17, 2014

RosietheTefillinWearerAfter SAR, a Modern Orthodox high school in Riverdale, New York, announced its decision to allow female students to lay Tefillin during school prayer services, the question of whether women should wear Tefillin has taken center stage within and beyond the Orthodox Jewish community.

In a January letter to SAR’s parent body, Principal Tully Harcsztark explained his rationale for the policy change.

“At its core, women donning Tefillin is a discretionary act in Jewish law,” he wrote. “While our community has adopted as normative the view that women refrain from this act, I see the range of rishonim who allow women to don tefillin as support to give space to that practice within our community.”

In addition, Rabbi Harcztark argued that the policy change would serve as a lesson to students to “not be afraid of different forms of Avodat Hashem when there is halakhic argument to support it.”

Rabbi Harcsztark also stressed the sincerity of the two students who requested the right to lay tefillin, Yael Marans (‘16) and Ronit Morris (‘15), noting that the students have both been putting on Tefillin since their Bat Mitzvah, in accordance with their families’ practice, and, prior to the policy change, had been waking up early in order to lay Tefillin at home, because they were not permitted to do so at school.

In an article published by SAR’s student newspaper, The Buzz, Marans described her own reasons for wanting to lay Tefillin: “I’m not going to say that every time I lay tefillin I feel a renewed awe of God, but sometimes it really makes me think. It’s just something in my day that makes me really conscious and concentrated.”

Following SAR’s December announcement, Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox high school in the Upper East Side, declared that it too would permit female students to lay Tefillin. Though Ramaz students were denied permission to put on Tefillin at school when the issue was raised in the early 1990s, Principal Rabbi Haskel Lookstein told the Jewish Week that if asked the question today, “we are in agreement that if a young woman wanted to put on tefillin and tallit, she could daven with us in our school minyan.”

When faced with this issue in November 2013, Rabbi Ari Segal, principal of Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox high school in LA, did not side with the position now held by SAR and Ramaz.

“While there certainly exist legitimate halakhic 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 her to wear tefilin at a synagogue), Shalhevet is a school that draws from a broad spectrum,” Rabbi Segal wrote in an e-mail to the community.  “In order to maintain that diversity, there will be times when something might be technically permitted but not wise to allow.”

In a striking testament to the power of social media, the article which, after circulating around Facebook, first garnered national attention for SAR’s policy change was published by Shalhevet’s student newspaper, the Boiling Point.

The issue was then quickly taken up by other Jewish publications, including Haaretz, the Forward, and the Jewish Week.

Especially relevant to the YU community is a response composed by Rav Hershel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva of YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary (RIETS).  The response, which was distributed to the YU Beit Medrash in early February, delineates the halakhic missteps of those advocating for women to lay Tefillin, and, more broadly, objects to the process through which this halakhic conclusion was both reached and disseminated.

In exploring the halakhic background of the issue, Rav Schachter cites the view of Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rama) in the Shulchan Arukh that Tefillin should be worn as minimally as possible, because of the difficulty of maintaining the lofty spiritual state that is required while one wears Tefillin.  It was based on this position of the Rama, Rav Schachter points out, that about 40 years ago the Rav ruled that a female student at Frisch should not lay Tefillin. Though some time has elapsed since that ruling, Rav Schachter questions whether we have so advanced spiritually in these past 40 years that the concern raised by the Rama would no longer apply.

But even beyond the halakhic intricacies of the issue, Rav Schachter emphasizes the dangerous ideological implication of deviating from a centuries-old tradition without consulting first with the great Torah scholars of our day.

In what Rav Schachter perceives as an echo of the anti-authority, anti-tradition mentality of the Conservative movement, today’s Tefillin issue has spawned a Halakhic “free-for-all,” with Rabbis of limited background and authority, (some emboldened, he suggests, by the ability to google and read up on the topic on Otzar HaHochma), publicly proclaiming their viewpoint on the Internet and choosing not to defer to the halakhic experts. This abrogation of halakhic authority, Rav Schachter writes, is anathema to Orthodoxy.   As he illustrates through a series of historical examples, including a conversation between the Rav and Ben Gurion, that which is halakhically acceptable may still be forbidden or resisted if it represents a push to undermine the halakhic process.

As such, Rav Schachter urges the YU community to see what is “right under its nose,” namely, that the women and Tefillin issue is not limited to the here and now, but as a symptom of a crooked ideology, threatens to unravel the fabric of Orthodoxy’s halakhic system.

Rav Schachter concludes by insisting that the women who wish to wear Tefillin have noble intentions and are not at fault; rather they are being led astray by those who believe that this issue is a simple matter that can be solved without the guidance of this generation’s most eminent Halakhic authorities.