My seven year old walked in on my morning prayers for the first time this week. She observed my prayer shawl (tallit) and fringes (tzitzit), and stopped at the phylacteries (tefillin) and asked me, “What are you doing?” while giggling and wiggling about. I told her that some Jews wear the tefillin when they pray. Though she had seen the items before, she hadn’t seen my new tallit and she had never seen me wear the tefillin.
I had tied the tzitzit the day before, and I had my new rainbow fringes on a tallit which I had tie died something like three years ago. It was a sight for my over imaginative 2nd grader, I am sure. What made me pause the prayer service was this: I didn’t want her to think that these ritual items were only for adult men. She was holding the ritual garb as if they were some precious items that she might not be allowed to try on, so I stopped praying and talked to her.
I brought her mother’s tallit and let her put it on, we said the blessing together, and then she wanted to try on the tefillin, and I showed her the intricate way of the Ashkenazic tradition. I placed the strap across first the middle finger creating a dalet and yud and then the back of the hand creating the shin for the word Shaddai – appreciating this “simple” act of l’dor v’dor (generation to generation). I was teaching her how to do something that her grandfather had done, and her great grandfather, and her distant ancestors in Poland, and some Jewish people do to this day all over the world.
Ashkenazi, Sephardi and other communities have created different traditions surrounding the wearing of tallit and tefillin. To me, these variations show my daughter a plethora of options which highlight the array of interdenominational Jewish pluralism practiced in her world. New traditions (minhagim) are created everyday by individuals, families, congregations,and communities.
I study with a mixed-gender and ethnically diverse group of Queer Jews online, which debates, among other topics, the Halacha around women singing in public, and women saying the blessings over the study of Torah. Which brings me back to the little giggly girl in front of me who has never known a time when women couldn’t be rabbis, sing in public, or when only men could officially be minhag-creators.
And, I do mean only men, because that was the way things were for the Sages of the 1st and 2nd Century C.E., and it was that way for many centuries until recently. Just like traditions change over time, the traditions around women have eased, and the voices of Jewish women who had been speaking all along were heard. This is a good thing for Jewish Feminists like myself, of the male variety, who have daughters in love with our traditions and ready to start making new ones.
Enter the multi-denominational Women of the Wall, a group of women who bring the traditional Rosh Hodesh, literally translated as “the head of the month,” women’s prayer service to the Western Wall (Kotel ha-Ma’aravi), “wearing Tallit (prayer shall), Tefilin (phylacteries) and reading from Torah, if they choose,” according to their website. These women have been praying at the Western Wall for nearly 25 years, and definitely not without controversy.
There are men in the wider Jewish community who feel threatened by the idea of women praying at the wall at all, much less out loud for their voices to be heard by all. Theirs is a culture of spitting on girls my daughters age because they do not think that they are dressed modestly enough. These men often cite a ruling from the Talmud (Berachot 24a) that is derived from Song of Solomon 2:14: “Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet (“arev”) and your face is beautiful.” Arev can literally mean naked, which is the excuse these men use to defend why they are so harsh on the Women of the Wall.
The space given the women at the wall says much. Theirs is about a third of the size of the men’s side and it is cramped and behind a mechitza, the traditional gender division in a synagogue that physically separates men from women. When the Women of the Wall wear the ritual items that some men have claimed for their own, you end up with a controversy and resulting gender-discrimination that my child of the American Diaspora has a hard time grasping. Including arrests for just wearing the items described above.
These women like my daughter have felt the call to prayer, that sacred holy space when one pours out their heart to G!d. Yes, I just used an exclamation point. Because, G!d is an action in my life, an exclamation of a little girl wanting to know more about her traditions, passed from her father, mother, aunts and uncles, and all of her Jewish mischpacha (family).
Over the next few weeks I will be asking LGBT Jewish leaders to give their reflections on the Wall.