Judging a Book by Its Cover: On Valuing the External Dimensions of Tefillah

by Eden Farber

When I was a young girl, I would stand next to my father while he was davening and mimic him. I would wrap myself in a blanket, trying to emulate his tallit, hold a Dr. Seuss story book close to my face in the manner that he held his siddur, and shuckle beside him. That is what davening meant to me. I understood Jewish prayer to be more than just reciting the “right” words, more than a meditative experience. To me, it was a set of customs and motions made clear and fresh through vivid physical rituals.

At age seventeen, this understanding reverberated to me when I took on the mitzvah of tefillin. It was a step in my life for which I had spent a lot of time preparing; I spent years saving money to buy my pair of tefillin and years finding a sofer who would make tefillin shel shlil, tefillin from an animal that had died naturally, as I am very concerned about tza’ar baalei haim, inflicting pain on animals. Finally, having saved my funds and found a pair I was comfortable purchasing, the day came that I was able to bring this mitzvah into my daily life.

Since taking on the practice of davening regularly, I had made my makom kavua (the place I pray regularly) the family living room. I wanted my younger siblings to see how I expressed my commitment to mitzvot as a young Jewish woman. I thought it would be good for them, my brothers as well as my sisters, to live in a world where women wearing tefillin seemed natural. A woman wearing tefillin would become as unexceptional an image as a woman eating breakfast or watching television. 

One of my sisters was about two years old when I started this practice. Being young, she liked to describe things as they were happening: “Eden is sleeping!” “Eden is eating!” and, of course, “Eden is reading!” Reading was her description of Eden holding a siddur close to her and whispering the words inside. To be clear, it’s not that reading was her choice of word because she didn’t know what davening was. She had grown up in a house where a man davens every day with tefillin and tallit. “Abba is doing a daven!” she would exclaim, using the household colloquialism, when she saw him rocking back and forth, his tallit wrapped around his shoulders and tefillin hanging down along his chest. 

On the second day I davened with tefillin, still adjusting to the wrapping business and how the act influenced my prayer, my baby sister waddled into the room. She looked at me for a second and then ran into the other room and exclaimed to my mom, “Eden is doing a daven!”

It was amazing; suddenly, she understood. I don’t know what davening could mean to a two-year-old, but the actions and accoutrements defined the act in a way that even a two-year-old could feel. Whatever “doing a daven” might be, it came with identifiable trappings.

Reactions Encountered

Although I come from a home that is supportive of my views about creating a more egalitarian approach to mitzvah observance in the Orthodox world, support is certainly not the only reaction I have received in response to my wearing tefillin. In fact, I often encounter reactions that are suspicious of my behavior. “Do you really need tefillin?” they ask. “Women aren’t supposed to need tefillin to connect to davening.” “Oh, you’re doing that only because you’re trying to be like men.” Nevertheless, these aggressive comments—and that is what they are—simply don’t speak to the issues as I experience them.

The idea that women should wear tefillin on a needonly basis is sexism. Wearing tefillin is a Jewish ritual, not a gender ritual. We do not ask men if they really need this mitzvah. We do not question their motives or agendas for wearing tefillin. Women’s motivations and religiosity should be treated with the same courtesy.

Sometimes it’s the smallest moments that mean the most. A two-year-old’s less-than-thought-out words might seem trivial, yet their innocence and simplicity give us a window into what we all see when we notice something at first glance.

This first-glance impression was something I have suddenly become very aware of this month, as I have begun studying in a midrashah in Israel. I’m one of two women who pray with tefillin there, and being that we pray individually throughout the morning, I’m often the only one doing so. Suddenly, taken out of my safe living-room space and thrown into a room full of inquisitive faces and unconscious judgments, I feel that my identity has become that of “the girl who wears tefillin every morning.” Although it is a strange image for some, I believe the image of a woman in tefillin is, at its core, a truly Jewish image, so I’m proud to be one of the models.

We have a first impression when we think of tefillah—and more often than not, it is about the accoutrements. Whether these are the way we stand and sit, the direction we face, or what we wear, the external dimensions of tefillah are just as dear to our hearts as the internal ones. The significance of not barring women from performing these rituals is that women, too, need to be able to be a part of Jewish culture in this significant way. We cannot seal away access to rituals that, for many, are core to Jewish practice and identity. Tefillah is my mitzvah, and tefillin is a vital part of it.


Eden Farber recently made aliyah and is living on Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv, where she is preparing to join the Israeli Defense Forces. She blogs for The Torch, Fresh Ink for Teens, and the Times of Israel.

 

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