by Bat Sheva Marcus
Author’s note: This article has been updated and expanded from a piece I wrote nearly a decade ago.
I will never forget the first time I saw a woman wearing a tallit. I was twenty-seven years old, living in Israel, and attending the first International Conference on Women and Judaism. I came early, stumbled into the “wrong” room, and came upon a room full of women praying. Many had on tallitot, tefillin, and kippot.
I thought I was going to throw up.
To me, it looked awful. It looked like a mockery of everything I loved. It seemed to me a caricature of the pictures I held close to my heart of my father standing in a faintly lit room in the early morning, wrapped in tallit and tefillin. I backed out of the room and went into the ladies’ room to calm down. Even then, I was rational enough to be annoyed at myself for my violent overreaction.
So here I am, twenty-five years later, a tallit wearer. I often marvel at the transitions we go through in our lives.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when my feelings began to change. When my sense of disgust transformed itself into an indefinable longing. When I began to look over the mehitzah at my husband wrapped in his white tallit and find that I too wished I could be wrapped in white, feeling cool cotton transport my existence into a space of holiness. But somewhere and somehow my feelings had changed.
Maybe it was partly that as I got older, the “right way” to do something often seemed less clear. Meeting different people, discussing issues openly, somehow I found out that in so many areas of my life, right and wrong were not quite as black and white as I had originally assumed them to be.
Maybe it was also that I couldn’t “seem to get myself into a good space” for tefillah. I grew up in the day school system, praying daily. I grew up in a home where tefillah was expected to be a part of my daily life, even on vacation days. But I never really davened. Usually I daydreamed. Often I moved my lips to mimic the prayers. And then I found myself an adult, no longer praying to fulfill someone else’s expectations, and unable to sustain regular, daily, ongoing prayer.
The agonizing fact was that, philosophically, I believe prayer to be critically important in our lives. It’s a chance, amid the chaos and the self-centeredness of our generation, to stop and thank God for all of the everyday miracles: for our children, our community, and our health. So there I was, thirty-five years old, still struggling with daily prayer and full of frustration and guilt because of it.
A Turning Point: Birth of a Daughter
And then my daughter was born. If I knew one thing as a parent, it was that if she didn’t see me davening daily, it would be hard, if not ridiculous, to expect her to do so. In my heart of hearts, I knew that if I didn’t want her to grow up with the same struggle, it was time for me to resolve the issue once and for all.
A few years later, when my oldest son celebrated his bar mitzvah, I watched, with growing wonder and no small sense of envy, the excitement with which he approached the tangible elements of becoming an adult in prayer. The day his tefillin arrived from Israel, he ran to our neighbor to pick them up. He tried them on. He was in love with his tefillin. He went with my husband to buy a tallit. He tried it on. He looked at himself in the mirror. He tried it on again. I watched and my sense of amazement grew.
On the day of his school bar mitzvah, I went to his yeshiva. The pride and excitement of the boys, newly wearing tefillin, was tangible. They felt grown up. Much like a married couple wearing wedding rings, you could tell that they felt a sense of responsibility and a sense of commitment. And the girls? They sat, as they always had, on their side of the mehitzah, some davening quietly, some just moving their lips. I felt a sense of loss and sadness for my then three-year-old daughter. And I decided then and there that, at her bat mitzvah, my daughter too must have a tangible expression of her commitment to prayer and a transitional object that would allow her to feel like an adult in her relationship to tefillah.
I spent a great deal of time mulling over the issue. Somehow, tefillin seemed less obvious. For me, personally, there was always something decidedly masculine about tefillin. Furthermore, tefillin carried with it potentially so many more halakhic concerns. But tallit—that seemed almost perfect. White cotton, white silk, soft cloth, wrapping yourself in gentleness, in holiness—all tied to the tzitzit, to which so many prayers refer. And this garment carried with it negligible, if any, halakhic concerns. The Rambam (Hilkhot Tzitzit, III, 9) states that a woman may wear a tallit. And although the Rama, in the Shulhan Arukh, disputes this position, the only reason given is yuhara, or religious arrogance.
So I made the decision that I would wear a tallit.
That was thirteen years ago. From that day to this, I have rarely missed a day of davening, at home or at shul. I love the soft feel of the tallit as I wrap it around me. Whenever possible, I daven outside, on the porch, so that the sun can shine through on me, and in my fantasy, I am wrapping myself in the warmth of the Shekhinah.
So that’s where you might think the story would end. But the transition to wearing the tallit publicly was a complicated one, and it is one that I have struggled with often and still struggle with today, thirteen years later.
First, there was the question of wearing the tallit in shul. Blessedly, I live in a community where one of the local Orthodox shuls (the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale) is supportive of women wearing tallitot. Even though I am still one of only a handful of women who wear a tallit, I wasn’t the first. But I still struggled with wearing the tallit in public. I didn’t want to be seen as “holierthan-thou.” I didn’t want anyone else to think I thought as myself as “special” with regard to prayer. And even if others didn’t suspect me of arrogance, I was ambivalent about others potentially seeing me as a role model for tefillah—because tefillah is something that doesn’t come naturally to me; it’s something I continually struggle with. It’s an area in which I truly do not see myself as a role model.
But then I had an epiphany. As an Orthodox feminist, I had long since decided that I wouldn’t change my behavior if I thought it was right just because others would think less of me. I had always stuck to my guns in the face of ridicule and criticism. I did what I thought was right, even if often others judged me badly for it. I would be damned now if I would change my behavior in the fear that others would think too much of me!
So I wrapped up my tallit in my beautiful new tallit bag and I started taking it to shul. And usually that works out for me. But sometimes it doesn’t.
When I move out of the lovely comfort zone of my own shul, I face an ongoing dilemma. I know that wearing the tallit makes other people uncomfortable. And I feel bad about that. I also know that the only way to make people more comfortable is to see Orthodox women wearing tallitot more often. So which should win out here: the part of me that is an activist/feminist, not afraid of acting for change? Or the part of me that seriously cares about her community and does not want to make people uncomfortable in the places they pray?
I wish I had a simple answer for all of these questions. I don’t.
The guidelines I generally use now when I go away to a place that isn’t “tallit friendly” are these: How does my host feel? Will the fuss that is created really affect anyone besides me? Do I think the good that will be done will outweigh the bad? If I am going to an aufruf or a bar mitzvah, the last thing I want is to deflect attention to me. And it is only when my hosts truly feel that it is fine for me to wear the tallit that I take it out of its bag. But if my hosts are cool with it, then I certainly don’t mind the whispers or comments. They are just par for the course, and they are just one more stone laid in the path of change.
I would be lying, though, if I said it doesn’t bother me that something that has become such an important part of tefillah for me is questioned, doubted, or makes me agonize on certain days. And I wish the critics understood that. Because of all the things they might think about me, I doubt that “Wow. This must be hard, but it must mean a lot to her” is the conclusion they come to.
On the whole, I’d say it’s worth it. Do I concentrate on tefillah every day, or even most days? Certainly not all the time. Is my davening where I’d like it to be? No. But it is so much better than before. And my daughter? Shalhevet received a tallit on the day of her bat mitzvah and, whenever she davens from the amud or leyns with a minyan (which is—lucky for all of us—quite often), she wears her tallit. For the moment, she has chosen not to wear it every day. But perhaps even more important to me is that my daughter seems to struggle not a whit with this. She davens three times a day, in shul whenever possible. Davening is as essential a part of her life as it is of my sons’.
Am I seeing the tallit as a magical solution? For me it was. Well, perhaps not magical. Maybe mystical. But somehow it manages to serve for me as both an expression of serious and deep commitment and a tactile experience with which I can connect daily.
And, like many other things in my life, it is a work in progress.
Bat Sheva Marcus is a founding member of JOFA and a past chair of the International Women’s Tefillah Network. She serves as both the chief operating officer of M.A.Z.E. Fertility Laboratories and clinical director of the Medical Center for Female Sexuality.