To lay tefillin or not to lay tefillin?

OK, this is what it’s like to be a traditional-leaning liberal rabbi … who is a woman. A male rabbi — for that matter, any knowledgeable enough male Jew — however liberal his leanings, whatever his level of personal practice, can “pass” as a more observant Jew if he likes. He can participate completely in public expressions of Judaism whenever he wants. Not so for me, despite entering my 10th year as a rabbi.

A congregant’s father died. The family is sitting shiva this week. They’re also affiliated with another, more traditionally-observant congregation locally, and they’ve asked that rabbi to be in charge of the shiva minyan for the first 3 days. So a couple of days ago, I get up early to go to minyan.

For a morning minyan it’s my custom to wear tefillin, so I scramble around looking for the right clothes to wear. We Picture of arm tefillah being worn, sleeve rolled upmoved this summer and clothes are largely still in boxes and odd closets. Why the fuss about the clothes? I know from experience that not all my shirt sleeves will roll up far enough to lay tefillat ha-yad (the arm tefillin box) on my bare arm. I don’t think men have to worry about this with their shirts.

I don’t get up and lay tefillin every morning at this point in my life. There’s a predictable twinge of guilt, then the remembrance that one reason women are exempted by the Talmud from the necessity of observing mitzvot asey sheh-ha-z’man grama (“Thou shalt” mitzvot that must be performed at a specific time — such as laying tefillin) is to avoid conflict between the duties of observing mitzvot and the duties of being a mother. Which I am. Irony: how traditional of me, to consider claiming this woman’s exemption in order to assuage my guilt that I’m not more observant of mitzvot that traditional women wouldn’t observe anyway…

But if I’m going to show up at a traditional morning minyan, where Young boy wearing tefillin from Danish? websitethe men are going to lay tefillin, then I am going to too. It means something to me.

And I guess — no, I know — that I have something to prove: I don’t want people thinking that Reform rabbis are all non-observant. Being a Reform Jew means making choices, which can include choices to observe traditional mitzvot. I like making those choices.

Then I start to wonder: I’ve been given to understand that at least one brother is fairly observant, even Orthodox. Will my presence, as a woman wearing tefillin, be uncomfortable for him? It’s not my intention to cause distress to a mourner.

And then I’m paralyzed. The feeling is familiar.

As Rabbi, I’m supposed to be marat d’atra, the teacher and decision-maker for my own community. As rabbi, I should be a leader and exemplar in Jewish practice. As a rabbi, I should be able to have my own personal level of Jewish observance without having to justify it!

But I know perfectly well that over the course of the last 2,000 years, “exempt” has mostly come to mean “prohibited.” (But take a look at this essay by Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen.) And if there are Orthodox family members, then my concern for their feelings is legitimate and compassionate: When you visit a shiva home, you are there to bring the mourners comfort, not distress them.

But I’m not happy about this. I don’t know what to do.

And then finally it hits me: All this internal fuss, and I couldn’t, wouldn’t, even be counted for the minyan. Not when it’s led by this particular rabbi (with whom I have a good working relationship, just for the record). Sure, there are other reasons to pay a shiva call, even at 7:45 in the morning — to show up, to be there for the family, to express sympathy and to make sure the community is present and represented. But one of the reasons I’d been planning to go today as opposed to yesterday is that I know that as the week of shiva goes on, it’s harder and harder to get a minyan.

But they wouldn’t count me anyway. That takes away a lot of the motivation to go. It’s really a wonderful feeling to know that they need you to make ten.

By now there’s no way I can get there on time, so I get the children up and ready for school and resolve that I WILL go in the evening.

I care passionately about ritual observance, and I love being in observant communities. And sometimes, like I was afraid it would this time, my love of observance itself puts a barrier between me and some of those very communities. Because I’m a woman and I won’t stay inside the traditional woman’s role. Because I expect to have the right to participate fully.

But I’m not observant enough to make this my day-to-day Rosie the Riveterfight, either. So it catches me off-guard, broadsides me unexpectedly.

In my own community, the fact that I’m a woman isn’t ritually relevant. But it’s important to me to be part of the bigger Jewish community, to make and maintain connections with more observant colleagues and communities. I won’t live in a “Reform ghetto.”

And so here I am again, wondering how I fit in, wondering how to stand up for one set of my principles when they clash with another set.

In the evening, when I finally get to talk with the observant brother, it turns out that he and his wife belong to an egalitarian synagogue. The whole thing was moot: I could have gone, not been counted, but worn my tefillin anyway.

PS. Two of these pictures are clickable – one takes you to a discussion of the picture, another to a similar and very funny photograph.