Tuesday, March 07, 2006

"Thus I will come to the King though it is unlawful; and if I perish, I perish."

The title of this post is from the Scroll of Esther (read during Purim), and was spoken by Esther, the heroine, herself. What is Purim? Yes, it is the struggle of the Jewish people in exile and our miraculous salvation by the King of Kings. But it is also a story of the empowerment of women. The whole opening episode of the Scroll of Esther centers on King Achashveros' embarrassment at his Queen Vashti's defiance of his will, and his fear that it will start a feminist revolution throughout his kingdom.

But this post is not about Purim, it is about a woman in our times, who, if I can refer back to the title of this post, is developing a relationship with G-d (the King (of Kings)). In fact, she wants to come closer to G-d through the mitzvah of tzit-tzit, but has been challenged by her peers and told that it is unlawful, al pi HaHalacha. Sasha Perry has, like many of the youth of our generation, been trying to find her own spiritual path which has led her to the world of halacha (Jewish law), and during the course of her Jewish studies, she has come to feel especially connected to the mitzvah of tzit-tzit, which is regarded by many as a male-specific mitzvah.

She wrote down her experiences and her own views on the topic of women wearing tzit-tzit, and, after a bit of prodding on my part, she agreed to let me publish it on the Jewnification Project. We discussed what she wrote, and although Sasha knows that the two of us don't agree on every point, I think it's important for her to share her story, and hopefully it is something that we can all benefit from.

Keep in mind that Sasha is not (and does not pretend to be) a halachic scholar, but is a person trying to find her place in halacha like the rest of us; she is trying to approach the King (of Kings) without getting burned, like Queen Esther of yore. I hope that by publishing this paper here, it will encourage Jewish women and men from various backgrounds to discuss these issues in an open, respectful, and helpful way. The following are a number of excerpts from her text, and the full essay is available here. Excerpts here:

"I have started this paper four times in five different ways. While I thought I had chosen a topic that was self-explanatory and more or less simple, what I have discovered is that writing about women's issues in Judaism is anything but. My main purpose in writing this paper was to explore the positive time-bound mitzvot that have been traditionally observed by men only, despite there being no Torah-based reason for women not to join in observance. While studying for this specific topic, I have introduced myself to an entirely new world of Jewish feminism (and, yes, I know, even I have a hard time understanding how the two words fit together)."[...]

"I come from a privileged generation. One where it was a given that if I chose to be a Bat Mitzvah, I would be allowed; if I chose to be a Rabbi, I would be allowed; and if I chose to move to Eretz Yisrael and become part of the political life there, I would be allowed. With so many opportunities open to me religiously, spiritually, and politically, it really never occurred to me that it was ever any different than this. Granted, I was aware of women's roles in the Biblical era, but surely we have risen to much higher status since then, and of course it was without any fuss from the men, right? Not so much."[...]

"As a senior in high school I realized I had been robbed of my Jewish heritage; and I wanted it back. I secretly bought all sorts of books on prayer, kashrut, Jewish history, Hebrew; whatever I could get my hands on. Before I left for college I asked my father for his tallis. In my search for Judaism I had seen his pride grow more with each step I took to becoming my own Jewess (regardless of how strange some of the views I held were). When I asked for his tallis, which he had kept from his Bar mitzvah, and almost certainly had never touched it since then, I saw what it meant to him. I thought it would make him proud that I wanted it. Instead I was met with "What are you gonna do with it?" He had obviously hoped my older brother would one day want it."[...]

"Unlike many rituals in Judaism, tzitzit had no grounding in the Temple, a specific time of history, or anything that would prevent it from being followed to this day. Besides the fringes being a sign of separation from the non-Israelite community, they were more importantly a sign of the covenant with G-d to follow and obey the 613 mitzvot given to them. It was a physical reminder of G-d's will and G-d’s presence in your life. It is hard to go throughout your day without looking down and seeing the fringes, reminding you of the obligations and the privilege you have."[...]

"So why only men? Do women not need the same reminder, the physical representation of their covenant and connection to G-d? Well, actually, according to some scholars, no. It has been said that women are exempt from this mitzvah as a demonstration that due to their "heightened spiritual awareness" they do not require a constant reminder to observe the mitzvot. Ah, sweet ain't it?"[...]

"And yes, in case you were wondering (because I know you were) there have always been exceptions to this "men only" mitzvot club. According to the Talmud (Mas. Menachoth 43a) "Our Rabbis taught: All must observe the law of tzitzit, priests, Levites, and Israelites, proselytes, women, and slaves." While it doesn't say much about women's status to be named just before slaves, the point is that not everyone was down for the exclusion of women from time-bound mitzvot. Rabbenu Tam (1100-1171 CE), R. Zerahia haLevi (12 century CE), and R. Moshe Isserles all stated that not only could women wear tefillin and tallis, but that they could also say the blessing that preceded it that uses the words "commanding us," which includes the women in the obligation of the rituals."[...]

"It all comes down to the intention (see, I promised we'd get to it). If, like in the beginning of the women's movement 30 years ago, you are taking on responsibilities, traditions, clothing, or whatever, of a man only to prove that you are equal to him, then this is something much different than taking it on because it is right for you. If a woman was to put on tefillin with the intention in her mind that it will make her equal to men, then she has gone against everything the mitzvot is about and would have been better off not doing it at all."[...]

"The Torah says it, yes, but are you doing everything else it says for you to do also? Are you picking this one because it is heavily laden with feminist ideals? If so, you are doing it for the wrong reasons. Or, are you doing it because you seek nothing but the closest relationship one can have with G-d, and in wrapping the tefillin you bind yourself to G-d, and in the covering of yourself with the tallis you are blocking out all distractions in order to focus yourself on the Creator, and in wearing of the tallit katan are you doing it so that no matter where you are during the day, you can look down and remember what and who it is you stand for, and why you are here. Then, and only then, can a woman take on these responsibilities as a G-d loving and G-d fearing Jewess."[...]

"I do not wish to be seen as a frontrunner of the Jewish feminist movement by taking on any of these responsibilities. What I do want, is to be part of the tradition, my religion, and seek to be closer to G-d everyday."

Click here for Sasha's essay in its entirety. Click here for Sasha's personal blog, and here to view her myspace.


Anonymous theOGmikeC said...

Kind of ironic that the only thing holding me back from ever commenting was really finding an article that relates to me. Ironic in the sense that I'm commenting on this and I’m not only a male, but also not yet "worthy" for the lack of a better word to wear tzitzit.
I’m not going to get into detail because if I did, I might as well start up my own blog and have this be the first article.
I will say that tzitzit is a symbol with many different meanings to many different Jews. For a conservative and reform Jew, tzitzit brings comments like "wow you must be religious". For orthodox Jews it means you follow the good ol 613.
I would love to wear tzitzit. As unkosh as it sounds nothing is cooler than a Jew skating in a pool with a kippot and tzitzit flying in the wind. To get to that point there is much more to do. It’s kind of like trying to drive a car you built before you put on the wheels. Sure you have the engine to power you (Hashem) sure you have the steering (your determination to be more observant) but till you have the wheels (the way to get to that level of observance) you shouldn’t wear the "gear". Kind of like when I learned the hard way that the stylish velvet kippot I was wearing meant I considered myself a chabadnik which at this point I also am not worthy of claiming. I hope this isn’t too much for just a comment, and i hope even more that it actually made sense.

Ps. Amazing articles from both my friend Uri and Sasha.



Wed Mar 08, 08:37:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Fedora Black said...


Hold it with the stereotypes for a while. "The Guide to Jewish Religious Practice" by Isaac Klein, which is a Conservative Movement handbook and the closest thing the conservative movement has to a Kitzur Shulchan Aruch or a Sefer HaMinhagim, actually says that Conservative Jews should wear tzitzis. The fact that most don't is a whole other matter...

As for the black velvet kippah, that's not really a Chabad thing at all. Traditional Orthodox, yes; exclusively Chabad, no. In fact, my understanding is that some Chabadniks consider it "litvish", and would rather wear a black tyrelene kippah, as that was the kind they say the Lubavitcher Rebbe wore himself. Yes, kippah does have a way of signaling what kind of Jew one is in the Orthodox world. Large, conservative (with a little c), black kippahs tends to suggets a more traditional, yeshivah based approach, while the smaller/flatter, knitted ones suggest a more religious Zionist approach. However, this need not always be the case.

By the way mike, get some tzitzis...they are very cool when they fly in the wind...

Wed Mar 08, 09:50:00 AM 2006  
Blogger G-D SQUAD said...

Mordy, thanks for your response. One thing I want to say: Yes, people usually do assume that someone who sports tzit-tzit are holding by the big 6 one 3, but the truth is, that's not true.

Each person has to take steps in their awareness of and relation to the Creator of the universe. If that relationship is through the 613 mitzvot, then it's hard to say which mitzvah is bigger or better than any other (in the context of coming from a point of non-observance of any mitzvot) and it would make sense, to me at least, that a person should take on the mitzvot in the order that their comfortable with.

Now, I was hoping people would discuss the concept of why we have different mitzvot for men and women here, when Sasha makes a very convincing arguement for why some mitzvot that are considered gender-specific actually should not be.

A couple things: We have in Judaism the concept of gilgul (reincarnation), and it is assumed that if you are a woman in this life, you were a man in a previous or future life and were able or will be able to fulfill the mitzvot of the opposite gender.

We also have the concept of a marriage, where two people become one. It's understood that in a marriage, the man and woman are benefitting from each other's fulfillment of the mitzvahs which the other one can't do.

There, you made me say it. Now I hope other people have something to say on the topic.

Wed Mar 08, 11:58:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous theOGmikeC said...

Im actually not making any stereotypes what so ever. I am stating observations, however I understand what you are saying. In my experience for someone to identify as reform or conservative and then wear tzitzit is an oxymoron. These factions of Judaism came about because they decided to dissect the torah and decide what is important, what isn’t, and to try to explain that Hashem meant something different then than in today’s society. They did this so they could assimilate into American Society and not be looked at differently than Joe Shmoe. If they want to get more religious, than they move up the ladder. Im in the process as we type. You mention that conservatives must wear tzitzit as well. Well its not just conservative, its all jews. Just like all jews should follow the six one three. So picking and chosing especially in this case doesnt really work. Although no mitzvot is held higher than another, as Uri mentioned, I still believe that one should have a slight order to how they embark on their road of observance. In my opinion (and that’s all it is, so take it with a grain of salt and a cup of coffee) observing the shabbos, studying torah and Talmud, and keeping kosher should be at the beginning not tzitzit. For someone to wear tzitzit and then drive on Saturday to In n Out, even if they are genuine is something I don’t agree with. Now if someone wants to do that, it is fine. Their actions do not reflect me, or my relationship with Hashem. As to the topic at hand of woman wearing tzitzit and putting on teffilian, it is not my place to pass judgment. I am no rabbi, no scholar, and certainly not observant enough myself (YET) to judge anyone’s actions positive or negative. Now I feel like I need to start my own blog. LoL.

Wed Mar 08, 12:49:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Fedora Black said...


I actually disagree with you about not staring with tzitzis. I have a good friend, who is well-known to all the young partying folk in SC, who took on tzitzis as one of the fisrt mitzvas when he started becoming observant. Why? Because it was easy. He could put on the tallis koton when he got dressed in the morning and wear it all day, getting credit for doing a mitzvah the whole time. Also, it's a mitzvah that can be done without making big changes in ones social or family life, unlike mitzvahs like shabbos and kashrus. According to many opinions, the tallis koton should be totally covered by the clothes, including the tzitzis strings themselves (as far as I know, this is how the Sfardim understand the Arizal on this issue). As such, one can wear them all day without anyone knowing!

In addition, it gets one in habit of doing daily rituals. Getting used to putting on tzitzis everyday gets one primed for putting on tefillin everyday, which gets one ready to do a full shachris and so on.

By the way, of course all jews (the men that is!) should wear tzitzis. I was just stating what the big-wigs of the Concervative movement think...

Wed Mar 08, 03:02:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Julie Ross said...

Women in tzis-tzis, hmmm...I've heard of crazier things.

I totally support mitzvot. I think it's great when men light Shabbos candles, non-Jews say "L'chaim," and women feel comfortable performing a mitzva like wearing tzis-tzis or wrapping tefillin for that matter. I think it's better for a woman to do tzis-tzis and light Shabbos candles rather than doing neither.

The main problem, however, is that my humble opinion is not the only one in the world. When women wear tzis-tzis, it may offend those Judaic scholars we honor and respect so much. Jews are supposed to support one another (ie jewnification!) and the basis of support is respect.

Of course, America is a free country, B"H, and people can choose to express themselves however they please. I believe it is essential, though, to the survival of the Jewish nation that we respect each other as much as possible while finding that balance where we don't make ourselves feel suppressed for the sake of others.

So, to all my fellow Jewesses out there, I say "do your thing!" As long as you feel comfortable wearing performing traditionally male mitzvot, I don't think Hashem minds. But, it is important to keep in mind the opinions of others and to ask yourself, "is this really the way I want to try to connect to Hashem, considering the open beliefs of my fellow Jews?"

Wed Mar 08, 06:27:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Sarah Belman said...


Sasha –

About two years ago, I was applying to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to become a Conservative Rabbi. I wanted to daven three times a day, wear tefillin, and read Torah in front of a mixed crow. Fast forward to today, I have been learning at an orthodox midrasha in Jerusalem – I’ve been growing closer to Hashem in ways I never could imagine. I do not look back with regret for the choices I’ve made. G-d willing I will get married, cover my hair and “shep nachas” as from the women’s side I watch my husband get an aliyah. (my story is not the point of my response).

I see you struggeling with 3 issues:
1. The “apparent” gender issues in Judaism
2. Possible misunderstanding of the importance of the Oral Torah
3. How do you relate to Hashem in a “male dominated” religion

The first point I feel is probably less important but I will address is briefly. I find it difficult to swallow when people say that the idea that “women are spiritually higher” is a cop-out. Why is this so hard to believe? Why is that a problem? Most frum men have a higher respect for women (especially their wives) than other men. Why is it so hard to believe?

Why are men require to wear all these things? Because they need a constant reminder – there’s no disagreement. According to Rabbi Lam in the book “Hedge of Roses” women have an internal clock that men lack – because of our menstral cycle, we are constantly aware of Hashem and what we are doing in this physical world – especially once we get married and follow the laws of niddah. But because men do not have an internal cycle, they need to be constantly inundated with constant external reminders of who they are and why they were put on this earth.

At times this idea can be very frustrating – the closer we get to Hashem, the more we want to do. During my personal journey, I spoke with Rabbis about the issues pertaining to tzit tzit and tefillin. They all acknowledged that according to the Torah, as you pointed out, we all should be wearing doing these things. But what the written Torah does not include is the hundreds of years of Rabbinic traditions which we must follow. When Hashem gave the written Torah to Moshe at Mount Sinai he also gave us the Oral Torah – without this we would not be able to follow the Torah. For example Deuteronomy 6:8 tells us, “you shall tie them as a sign on your arm and for totafos between your eyes.” What is this? Thanks to the Oral Torah, we know that they are tefillin. Right after the destruction of the second temple, the stability of the Jewish community was threatened – so Rabbi Yehuda Hannesi wrote down the Oral Laws – the bare basics – in what is called the Mishna. After further persecution, the Babylonian rabbis realized that we were forgetting our traditions and needed even more detail of what to do – this is recorded in the Talmud. We must follow what the Rabbis tell us. Over and over, the Torah tells us that there is one Torah for us – for the Jew and the convert. The written and oral Torah are just that. It is not up to us to stray from them – we must listen to our rabbis. The men who wrote our holy books have a much better understanding of Torah and are on a higher level than we are – who are we to say we are any better than them?

We must seek our individuality within the context of the laws of the Torah – written and oral. When I first thought about laying tefillin, a rabbi told me that maybe I should concentrate on other ways to connect with Hashem first – things that affected my day more than the ½ hour it takes to daven in the morning. So I started to say brachot before I ate – then I started to say brachot after I ate. Then I worked on davening at least twice a day. Then I worked on tzniut. I find it hard to keep all the mitzvoth that are commanded of us women. I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. I don’t want to have to find a minyan three times a day.

I spoke to a rabbi about Rashi’s daughters and Mikhal – it’s important to take them into context. These women were fulfilling all the other mitzvoth first THEN they took on the extra things. You’re right when you say women can take on mitzvoth. Women are not obligated to hear the shofar, except for Rosh HaShanah. How did this come about? The Jewish women as a community took this on – we are not obligated. So maybe the goal is for all of us to do the mitzvoth Hashem asked of us and then as a collective, we can take on the wearing of tefillin and tallis katan.

Tue Mar 14, 05:45:00 AM 2006  

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