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When the Orthodox World Mocks Women Who Wear Tefillin, We All Lose

Every year in the lead-up to Purim, the Jewish media produces joke articles which satirize the major issues of the day. It’s just one of the ways we enact the Purim spirit of “v’nahafochu,” which celebrates the reversal of power dynamics in Esther and Mordechai’s rescue of the Jewish people from Haman’s decree of extermination. This year’s Purim section in The Jewish Week joked that “a whopping 92 percent of American Jews are so disconnected from their traditional roots that they are unaware of the report issued last year that indicated that American Jews are increasingly disconnected from their traditional roots.”

Communal leaders dress in silly outfits, normally serious rabbis let their hair down, and, amidst the revelry, we loosen our standards of decorum. Purim costumes, too, often poke fun at Jewish and secular news stories and personalities—a few years ago I dressed up as Sarah Palin, which should tell you something about my political views.

Often, this is a good thing. Venerated media institutions show a lighter side; we see our leaders as more human. But satire is most effective when we mock the powerful, not those with less power. What happens when the principle of v’nahafochu pokes fun at those without the privilege of power in our community? This Purim, I experienced that firsthand.

I have had both the benefit and the misfortune of being at the center of one of the major Jewish news stories of the year—I am a teenage girl in an Orthodox environment (though I don’t identify as Orthodox, a fact often glossed over by eager reporters) who lays tefillin. I’ve written extensively about this, and consequently, have exposed myself to significant vitriol from those who consider me to be “simply ignorant of Torah Judaism,” and “on a very stupid path that will prevent them from becoming good Jewish mothers.” I’ve also received positive comments and messages, from women and girls inspired by the voice of a tefillin-laying woman in the public sphere. These messages spur me to continue my activism.

Not surprisingly, the phenomenon has been satirized in several places. The first Purim article I encountered about my female tefillin-laying peers was in the YU Observer, the official student newspaper of Yeshiva University’s Stern College for women. The piece, entitled “How to Buy Tefillin: A Woman’s Guide,” begins with the statement, “Buying tefillin for your first time is a scary experience.” The writer then goes on to provide tips to help “a girl feel good about her newest toy.” These include purchasing Tefillin Barbie (how absurd, for a woman to want to see representations of herself in popular culture!), advice for married women about head-coverings that accommodate tefillin (this is an issue that married women have struggled with, and one that I am likely to deal with in the future as well), and what sort of shirt to wear to accommodate the arm-tefillin (the trials I have had in finding appropriate outfits are too extensive to list here).

The primary failure of this satirical article (written by someone who has clearly never been a tefillin-laying woman) is its accidental honesty. Getting tefillin as a woman is scary, people do stare at you and whisper behind your back, and the feeling of your “shidduch points plummeting” is very real. My anxiety over my future place in the Jewish community arises directly from this sort of derision. There is no humor in this advice. The condescending tone and lack of understanding of women who observe this mitzvah serves only to further stigmatize us, to make us a curiosity or a joke.

A few days after Purim, a photograph was shared by a friend of mine on Facebook, and later tweeted by the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It depicted a grinning woman in a long skirt, a striped cape that looked like a tallit, and a head-tefillin perched atop a sheitel; behind this woman stood Rabbi Hershel Schachter. The woman in the picture is Shoshana Schachter, his wife. Rabbi Schachter is the man who recently stated that permitting women to don tefillin “remains a matter of Yehareg v’al yaavor—where one should be killed rather than violate it.” After weeks of trying to laugh off cruel internet comments, Rabbi Schachter’s words pained me so deeply I cried.

Rabbi Schachter is a venerated figure in many segments of Orthodoxy, and I have teachers I like and respect who are his students. As the Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, he carries significant clout, and his halakhic rulings are widely respected. To see Rabbi Schachter amused by and seemingly condoning the teasing of woman who wear tefillin is insulting beyond words. It is already incredibly painful to me to have experienced outright rejection and condemnation for my beliefs; as a person who is committed to halakhic practice, statements that place me outside the halakhic community cut even deeper. By mocking the religious commitment of women who wear tefillin (a commitment which I would expect a man who has dedicated his life to Torah study to understand intimately), Rabbi Schachter further reinforces the marginalization of my peers and myself.

Satire is designed to provoke questions and to weaken disproportionate authority, and Purim is the perfect time for this brand of humor. But to use the holiday as an excuse to deride a small group of girls and women—people who have already been on the receiving end of much censure—is unconscionable. It goes against everything that Purim stands for. Like all groups, the Jewish community benefits from sincere and frequent critiques of power, and from using humor to facilitate those critiques. We are bettered by the yearly opportunity to examine the people and institutions we look to for leadership. It is my hope that next year, we can use Purim as an opportunity to do just that.

Avigayil Halpern is a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England. She is a Bronfman Youth Fellow for 2013, a Rising Voices Fellow through the Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor, and an alumna of Drisha’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. She maintains a personal blog at Follow her on Twitter at @avigayiln.


(Image: Girl With Tefillin by Michal Patelle)

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