Women wearing tallitot
Until the early 1970’s a woman wearing a tallit was a rare thing indeed. One heard that Beruria in the Talmud or Rashi’s brilliant daughters wore tallitot, but generally it was not done.
The 1970’s , which of course actually began in 1968, were an interesting confluence of ideas re thinking our world. One piece of that re thinking was the re-emergence of feminism after it lay dormant in the post WWII years. That sort of re thinking of the fundamentals was also going on in various corners of the Jewish world. One of those places was Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Massachusetts. Havurat Shalom began as an alternative, Hippie influenced if you like, Rabbinical school. Part of the motive for starting it was to keep young men out of the Vietnam war.
The institution evolved and for a whole was less a Rabbinical school and more a community ( not a commune) that also served as a kind of laboratory for experimental Judaism.
Feminism was in the air and was a powerful force for many of the women who were part of that community. Ritual egalitarianism which had small seedlings in other corners of the Jewish world took root there. If we continue the plant metaphors, shoots emerged from Havuat Shalom and helped to transform mainstream Judaism not just in Somerville, and in the Boson Jewish community but also transformed much of non- Orthodox practice all over North America. All of you who are members of participatory egalitarian congregations are the progeny of Havvurat Shalom.
During the 1970’s these issues of women taking on religious obligations were being discussed seriously by Conservative Jews. Both Paula Hyman and Judith Hauptman wrote articles that appeared in the journal Conservative Judaism. I was spending a whole lot of my free time reading essays by feminist writers from the time of the Civil War through the 1920’s. I also was in love with Talmud. I read their essays in Conservative Judaism really, really carefully.
I was a geeky kid who got into topics and then explored them. The needle work books were stored close to the 1930’s etiquette books which led me into the early feminist writings. It wasn’t a scientific way to approach a topic but all of it has ended up being useful.
In 1974 my sister began her freshman year at Brandies. When she came home for winter break she asked my parents for a tallit. Not long after that, I began wearing a tallit at my father’s Conservative synagogue.
I was attending an Orthodox day school. After I had been regularly wearing a tallit for over a year, my school changed it’s morning schedule and all students were required to attend morning services. Before the school year started, I spoke to the Judaic studies principal and told him that I wore a tallit and planned to wear my tallit at morning services.
I had researched the halachic /Jewish legal issues and knew that I stood on firm ground. I was wearing a non traditional tallit which made many of my teachers more comfortable with the idea of my wearing a tallit. My teachers understood that while I was not obligated to wear a tallit, I could choose to take on the obligation. I wore a tallit at my school until I graduated.
Interestingly, in the past 20 years or so the desire for women wear a tallit has made itself ore generally felt in the Orthodox world as well.
An opinion voiced by Rabbi Moses Feinstein, the great 20th century arbiter of Halacha, in 1975 was that there was no reason women could not wear a tallitot as long as it was clearly a feminine tallit and not the traditional male tallit. His caveat relates to the biblical prohibition against cross-dressing. ( Yes, this is the reason that many Orthodox women do not wear pants. Others feel that as long as you are not trying to pass yourself off as a cross dresser then men in Utili-kilts and women in pink spandex leggings are all dressing appropriately according to Jewish law)
Feinstein’s opinion though was the impetus behind my making arba kanfot for women based on a silk camisole. Because my arba kanfot are sexy and girly, they are exactly NOT men’s wear, so are permissible according to halacha. I like playing at the edges of halacha but ultimately staying on the correct side of it. I find that that sort of play keeps me very aware of what the laws are and what their intentions are. For me personally, it keeps the observance of mitzvah fresh and thoughtful rather than it being a rote practice.
All of which brings me to the following article
that was brought to my attention by my friend Allan.
A word of warning for my readers who are not Jewish. The article is written in English, that is the vocabulary is mostly English. The internal grammar and logic structure is not. This is the hybrid language used when studying Jewish texts in the Orthodox world. It may or may not fully make sense to you. If you can’t make head or tail of it, it isn’t you it’s the language.
It’s interesting for me to see which issues the author and the sources he quotes finds problematic.What I do find reallyinteresting is that the ultimate discomfort with women wearing tallitot is not halachic/legal but rather sociological. I would also point out, there is one strain of argument quoted that states that women are wearing tallitot to prove a point, because they are angry. Truth be told, in the early 1970’s lots of feminists were really angry.
Using that as an argument in 2012 is just plain silly. I have found in my experience that the women who choose to wear tallitot and even more arba kanfot do so out of a desire to come closer to the divine rather than out of any anger. You also may want to read this Rebecca Shulman article to get the perspective of some Washington DC area women who wear tallitot.