A prominent Modern Orthodox high school announced this week that girls who want to wear tefillin during davening at school would be permitted to do so. Not to be outdone, a second school quickly proclaimed that they, too, would allow it. News spread like wildfire and the headlines quickly went from, “Modern Orthodox Girls Fight for the Right to Don Tefillin," to an editorial entitled, "Why Women Can and Must Lay Tefillin."
Predictably, the reaction has been mixed with traditionalists rejecting the change and the more progressive segment of orthodoxy celebrating the welcome change. Noticeably absent from the conversation, at least from my perspective, is an argument about the halachic merits or challenges of the decision. Instead, the reaction has been largely driven by emotion, ideology and agenda, in both directions.
Many responded by wondering what’s the big deal, after all didn’t Rashi’s daughters wear tefillin. In an excellent article in Jewish Action, Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky compellingly dispels this historical “fact” as a misconception and myth, though he does point out that Michal, the daughter of King Shaul, did in fact wear tefillin. Regardless, it is clearly not the prevalent custom for Orthodox women to wear tefillin and so these policy announcements represent a significant shift and change.
The Shulchan Aruch (o.c. 38:3) is clear that as a time-bound mitzvah, women are exempt from tefillin. Unlike other time-bound mitzvos such as sukkah, lulav and shofar, the Rama, Rav Moshe Isserless, the authority of Ashkenazic Jewry, discourages women from volunteering when it comes to tefillin and in fact says that if they choose to wear tefillin, mochin b’yadam, we should object. The Gra, also known as the Vilna Gaon, goes even further and says women are outright forbidden from wearing tefillin.
Their positions stem from an unusual requirement when wearing tefillin. As sacred objects similar to a mezuzah or Sefer Torah, tefillin require a high level of concentration and a pristine physical state. Maintaining those levels has been determined to be exceedingly difficult today and, therefore, though in previous generations men wore tefillin most of the day, now we wear them for a minimal amount of time. The authorities that discourage and disapprove of women wearing tefillin do so on the grounds that they are exempt and therefore, should not put themselves in a position to potentially dishonor the tefillin by losing concentration or the proper physical state.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan advances a more mystical argument for women’s exemption from tefillin. He explains that the tefillin box is called bayis, home. Kabbalah describes the tefillin as symbolic of the womb and the retzuos, the straps, as representing the umbilical cord. The tefillin bind us to God by reminding us of our obligation to create and to nurture with compassion. Men need external symbols to remind them, but women, he argues, create and nurture with their bodies and therefore don’t need them.
To be honest, my personal discomfort with the policy decision announced this week has less to do with strict halachic objection for which there are counterarguments, and more to do with an often neglected halachic value called mechzei k’yuhara.
Forget women and tefillin for a moment. If a man wanted to wear tefillin the whole day as they did in the past, would we encourage him or frown upon the practice? The Shulchan Aruch Ha’Rav written by the R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, says that since today the custom is not to wear tefillin other than during davening, to do so publicly is mechzei k’yuhara, smacks of arrogance and hubris.
There was once a student at YU who would walk through Washington Heights wearing his tallis and tefillin while going to daven. A concerned individual asked Rav Schachter to intercede and encourage the young man to stop this practice that was drawing negative attention. Rav Schachter related to us that he didn't want to embarrass the young man so he told him a story with the hope he would understand. A man once asked a prominent posek if a particular practice was mechzei k'yuhara, appeared arrogant. "No," said the posek, "it is yuhara mamesh, it is actually arrogant." Unfortunately, the young man did not get the message.
Mechzei k’yuhara, refraining from unusual and radical practices even though they are otherwise virtuous, is a meta-halachic consideration in many areas. A simple search for mechzei k’yuhara in the Bar-Ilan responsa project yields dozens and dozens of results in which halachic authorities throughout the ages have rejected halachickly acceptable behavior on the grounds that it is a departure from accepted practice and therefore, mechzei k’yuhara, divisive and promoting superiority.
The mechzei k’yuhara consideration doesn’t judge or question motivation. Even if the man or woman is purely motivated, if the behavior is an outlier to what is customary, even when it is stricter, it is inappropriate because it smacks of religious superiority. What everyone else does is not good enough for the individual taking on a practice outside of the norms. I believe the philosophy of mechzei k’yuhara is that we should embrace and excel at what we are obligated in and what is customary, rather than spiritually one-up those around us. Mechzei k’yuhara teaches us that the truly pious person doesn’t try to stand out in his religious fervor, creativity or scrupulousness.
Quite the opposite; the truly righteous person blends in and is loyal to the local customs and norms. Mechzei k’yehura means we don’t seek to be creative, distinctive or unique in the way we observe halacha. We seek to fit in and conform to the traditions and customs of the community without needing to make a personal statement through our superior practice. Of course we should strive to grow in our religious experience, level of observance and commitment to Jewish values, but all within the communal religious norms and customs and not outside or above them.
I was talking to a teenage girl and mentioned the new policy at these schools. Her response was, “Cool, I didn’t know girls can wear tefillin. I wonder what that is like, I would try that.” Shouldn’t we encourage our young women to embrace and excel at the laws and customs that are incumbent on them before inviting them to experiment with new spiritual experiences? Shouldn’t we help them find meaning and inspiration in the traditional observant lifestyle, rather than reinforce the notion that spirituality is found in that which is radical, revolutionary or innovative? Shouldn’t we be confident that our young men and women are committed to vigilantly observe halacha before granting them license to take on behaviors that their parents and grandparents didn’t feel worthy to perform?
Rather than discuss women wearing tefillin, we should be discussing ways to inspire our young men to maintain a commitment to never miss a day of putting on tefillin, even if they struggle to find it meaningful or uplifting. Rather than encouraging our young women to wear tefillin, we should be encouraging them to find expression and inspiration in the Torah’s prescription for femininity and womanhood.
Our young people don’t need radical change leaving them as outliers from communal norms; they need to be taught radical commitment to halacha and tradition with fervor, enthusiasm and meaning.