TORONTO — A decision by two New York Orthodox high schools to allow female students to pray wearing tfillin has grabbed the attention of the Jewish media in the United States and Israel, and now Orthodox leaders in Canada are weighing in on the issue.
Earlier this month, SAR High School, a modern Orthodox school in Riverdale, N.Y., and Ramaz High School, a modern Orthodox school in Manhattan, announced within weeks of each other that girls are permitted to don tfillin during prayer services if they choose.
“Our school sees the role of women in Orthodox practice very positively and I think this is an inevitable outcome of increased Jewish education for girls and changing roles for women in every area of society,” Paul Shaviv, head of school at Ramaz and former director of education of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, told The CJN last week.
“There are some Orthodox circles that will welcome it and some who will vigorously resist it. We welcome it,” he added.
Current TanenbaumCHAT head of school Rabbi Lee Buckman, feels that this is a hot-button issue, not because it’s halachically impermissible for women to wear tfillin, but because it’s a practice that many Orthodox community members deem unacceptable.
“Acceptable religious practice is not determined exclusively by what halachic sources dictate. Communities also determine what is acceptable,” Rabbi Buckman explained.
“For example, standards of conversion and kashrut vary from community to community, even when each asserts that its position is halachically defensible. Similarly, the decision about women wearing tfillin, while halachically defensible, will be unacceptable to some communities.”
But Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin, senior rabbi at Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation, said that it’s inaccurate to say that women donning tfillin is not a halachic violation.
He referred to a quote by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in Chapter 38, section 3 of the Shulchan Aruch, where he states that “when it comes to time-bound commandments, women are exempt, but allowed to participate… But Rabbi Isserles states unequivocally that if a women wishes to be stringent and to wear the tfillin, we are supposed to protest, and say that is not an appropriate thing to do,” Rabbi Korobkin said.
“Not only should it not be encouraged, but it should be actively discouraged.”
He said if a woman came to him privately and she had displayed a “unique level of spiritual devotion… and she really felt tfillin was going to bring her to the next level, then only on an individual basis would I allow a woman to don the tfillin, but it would be done in absolute secrecy… I might tell her… do it privately, because we don’t want to set an example for other people who have not risen to that level.”
Goldie Plotkin, wife of Rabbi Avraham Plotkin, spiritual leader of Chabad of Markham, said she believes that women who want to wear tfillin are suffering from an inferiority complex.
“To me, when a woman takes [this] mitzvah, she has some kind of an inferiority complex by saying I need to be a man,” Plotkin said.
“That’s my personal feeling. I know that when a woman understands… what her essence is, what God needs from her, not what she wants for herself and what she wants to gain from religion… when she does it with all her essence, she won’t need that tfillin to reach that level.
“There are so many mitzvahs that we know are ours, that we have to perfect. We’re not on the level of grabbing at other mitzvahs that we don't know well… There are so many mitzvahs that we have to perfect before we can star jumping on a bandwagon and saying, ‘But I also want to do tfillin.’ That’s not your mitzvah!”
Rabbi Buckman said that currently no girls put on tfillin at TanenbaumCHAT, but if anyone expressed interest in doing so, they would be allowed to.
“I would support her and applaud her courage. If she requested to learn more deeply about women and halachah or women wearing tfillin, I would connect her with a teacher who would gladly study with her.”
In a statement, SAR High School principal Rabbi Tully Harcsztark wrote that “this is not the common practice in our community… [but] I felt it appropriate to create a space at SAR for tefilah that is meaningful to them.”
Shaviv, who feels that too many “newspaper inches are being spent on what is not really a very high-profile issue,” said this isn’t a new trend.
“Contrary to what was reported in the press, there have been a small number of girls at Ramaz putting on tfillin without anyone making any fuss about it whatsoever. And I think if you look carefully in other Orthodox circles, [you’d see] discreetly, individual women have made that choice,” Shaviv said.
“Over the years, we have looked at the wonderfully positive achievements of our female students in the school. We are otherwise a totally egalitarian school – the girls and boys are in co-ed classes in every subject. We have girls who are outstanding Talmud scholars… We encourage our girls to take their Judaism very seriously.”
Shaviv believes that the role of women in Jewish ritual and practice will continue to be “one of the dividing lines between… modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Orthodoxy.