|Dear Shalhevet Community:The debate and discussion generated surrounding the issue of a woman putting on tefillin at Shalhevet has created some great dialogue (and actual shiurim) throughout our community over the last couple weeks. Though many of us have shared and expressed our thoughts, on Sunday night at 8 PM there will be a perfect opportunity to study and learn about these types of issues along with Shalhevet’s general approach to Judaic Studies. The “It’s Not in the Heavens” series will provide an insight into our Judaic ideology and educational strategy in a format that has been shaped to be highly collaborative and interactive. We will begin an important conversation that should engages fundamental aspects of Jewish observance, identity, and practice. This promises to be a very enlightening evening. Seats are filling up quickly, please RSVP to [email protected]
As most of you know, I recently shared with the Shalhevet community a question presented to me by a prospective student; a young woman inquired as to whether she would be allowed to continue her personal practice of donning tefillin each morning at school. My email has elicited an array of articulate and passionate responses, and I feel both grateful and inspired to see such passionate responses from the many stakeholders invested in this inimitable school. Some of those replies, though, evince a possible misunderstanding of my initial motivation for sharing this delicate issue with our broader constituency, a misunderstanding I intend to address here.
My objective in sharing this young woman’s question was not to solicit a popular vote on the halachic parameters or permissibility of women choosing to perform the mitzvot of tallit and tefillin. Rather, I provided a broad snapshot of scholarly research on this matter in the hopes of demonstrating the broad nature of the debate on this issue amongst a constellation of respected halachik authorities. To be sure – this issue is a complex one, encompassing a diverse range of opinions.
Before delving into the outcome of this matter, I first want to express how encouraging seeing this sort of debate is for me, and how healthy I believe this type of discourse is for our school community at large and our students in particular. Our school’s bedrock lies in the notion that irreverence resides not in asking difficult questions about Judaism, but rather in not asking them. No matter the eventual outcome of any particular debate, we must create a safe space for our children to probe and to challenge, not with destructive cynicism but with healthy skepticism. I get excited every time I see our students debating a topic at town hall, with an intellectual rigor and honesty well beyond their years.
And indeed, at last week’s Town Hall the students themselves debated the particulars of this difficult decision; they did so in a passionate, challenging and respectful manner. Frankly, I believe their collective demeanor over the course of debate should serve as a model for the community as it engages in dialogue in resolving communal matters.
The responses I have received via email have generally fallen into one or more of the following categories:
- While accepting this student into Shalhevet would be wonderful, it simply would not be wise to do so now that our school has become an ideal option within the Modern Orthodox community.
- We must accept the student regardless of the impact it might have on admissions numbers.
- Engaging in these discussions publicly is a vital manifestation of the Shalhevet way of encouraging and facilitating open dialogue.
- Engaging in this dialogue at all was a mistake, as the discussion gives “ammunition to those who seek to harm Shalhevet” and puts others on the defensive who “don’t want to have to defend Shalhevet at Shabbat tables.”
Frankly – I feel torn. I believe that raising this topic in the weekly email – thereby encouraging dynamic dialogue on the matter -not only was acceptable but of paramount importance; we must maintain our commitment to open interchange if Shalhevet is to retain its qualitative edge in Los Angeles. If there are people who would eschew Shalhevet as an option for their children on the grounds of such discourse, then Shalhevet may not be the place for them.
On the other hand, there are people I care about and respect deeply who feel that I should not have brought this issue to the community because they are “concerned that this issue could be seized upon…to discourage students from even considering Shalhevet” and that the debate will provide “low hanging fruit for critics of Shalhevet and could jeopardize the clear inroads the school has made, and continues to make.”
I have spent many hours deliberating on this issue. I have familiarized myself with the relevant literature and mulled over the ramifications with the guidance of trusted mentors and rabbis. Ultimately, I have made the difficult decision not to allow this young woman to wear her tefilin at a Shalhevet tefilah group. I would make the same offer that Rabbi Lookstein once made in a similar case at Ramaz and offer her the opportunity to put them on at a nearby synagogue or to put them on at home and then come to school to receive the best Judaic education in Los Angeles.
While there certainly exist legitimate halachik and rabbinic sources that suggest permitting the practice of women wearing tefilin (hence my willingness and desire to discuss the issue publicly and my encouraging her to wear tefilin at a synagogue), Shalhevet is a school that draws from a broad spectrum. In order to maintain that diversity, there will be times when something might be technically permitted but not wise to allow.
I conclude these prefatory remarks by sharing the email that gave me the greatest pause but also had emboldened me:
I think the question is ‘what do you want Shalhevet to be? Do you want it to be a viable option for the orthodox community in Los Angeles or are you trying to change the way the community views Orthodox Judaism? Unfortunately I don’t think you can do both.
While I am open to considering the author’s position, I believe strongly that we can, and will, build a serious yet diverse and tolerant Modern Orthodox school while teaching the community that we should be able to debate issues – even when those issues make us uncomfortable. In doing this, we will demonstrate for our children that the Torah is profound and timeless and should continue to be our moral beacon in an increasingly complex modern world.
I would like to strongly encourage each of you to read the comments/feedback that I have received. Granted, the comments run long, and some are critical of me. Overall, though, I believe the thrust is incredibly constructive and positive. My apologies if I inadvertently left any comments out:
- You wrote beautiful thoughts regarding the issue of a young woman wearing tefilin during davening at Shalhevet, showing incredible insight and love/care of Jews who are on many different religious levels (a reminder of how fortunate my children are to have such a special institution). I agree with your conclusions.
- I like the way you explained the issue and completely agree that though in theory it would be great to allow this girl to express her Judaism the way she would like to. However, in reality it would alienate many more of the exact families we need to continue to strengthen shalhevet as the successful modern orthodox high school that it is. If it that important to her, hopefully she will see the bigger picture and find a way to be comfortable putting on tefillin before school.
- Regardless of the ultimate decision, one of the great things about Shalhevet is that these issues can be discussed, and the request of a student like this can be taken seriously, no matter what her denominational affiliation is. Saying no would be easy; after all, she’s just one prospective student, and who says she would end up choosing Shalhevet, right? If the answer is no, however, I hope that she and her family will appreciate that Shalhevet has so much to offer her, that she will not have to hide or be ashamed of her practices, that she will not be forced to abandon her practices, and that even if she may have to find time to put on her tefillin at home before heading out in the morning (I can relate), she will gain so much from the critical analysis and respectful debate that Shalhevet fosters. Maybe she can even write about this for The Boiling Point.
- I believe that the one parent had it right – it will doom the school. Shalhevet bills itself as a modern orthodox school and, as such, it needs to follow the current norms of the modern orthodox culture. Right now, that does not include women wearing Tallis and Tefllin
- There’s an objective reason in year 2013 to discourage women from putting on tefillin…..as the Aruch Hashulchan and the Rav both explained, volunteering to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin is discouraged nowadays because of the sacredness of tefillin. Centuries ago men volunteered to put tefillin on the entire day and women like Rashi’s daughters and Michal bat Shaul volunteered to fulfill the mitzvah. Nowadays, the strong custom is not to volunteer which means that a man shouldn’t wear tefillin more than for Shacharit and women shouldn’t wear it at all.
- I am proud to be part of a school with a leader who is not afraid to have this discussion. Shalhevet is defined by the fact that WE do have those discussions…. Personally I [believe] the ‘tent’ may be large but making it too large will hurt the school.
- After a lot of thought on this issue I think it was a mistake to take this discussion to the community. The intention is absolutely correct, but I am afraid in this instance Shalhevet can be defined by the discussion. I know that part of what makes this school special is the openness to discourse, but as a modern orthodox school the practice of a girl putting on tefillin in a minyan is just not an accepted norm, regardless of whether it can be considered permitted by Halacha. Rabbi Segal and the staff have done such a great job with the message to the community that Shalhevet is in fact a Modern Orthodox school and shouldn’t be considered any less religious than[another Los Angeles modern orthodox high school].
- Let me ask you a question: If an Orthodox shul decides to install a giant 62″ TV above the [aron kodesh], and have the TV pre-programmed to automatically turn on every Shabbat morning at 10:00 am in order to display the parasha of the week on the giant screen, has there been any violation of Halacha? Can that shul call itself Orthodox? You get my point. There are customs in the Orthodox community that define the nature of our practices. Many of these customs are not necessarily based on Halacha, but they define who we are. Over a period of time, these customs may change, and that is fine. But until they do, we need to be mindful of their impact.
- Yashar koach for a thoughtful discussion on the issue at hand….There is an undeniable value in Pluralism, a concept that I believe critical to offer to our students. My question is will Shalhevet limit this exposure to be within a Halachik context? If you determine that there is Halachik context to support this young lady to wear tefilin, kol hakavod because I can appreciate how courageous that decision would need to be. My fear is cowardly. It does not revolve around this young woman or her religious needs…I applaud your efforts and those of [others that have turned] Shalhevet into a school that is a viable option for our family. Please consider those collective/communal efforts as strongly as you consider this young lady’s need for religious ritual. One does not supersede the other – this is not a matter of which is more valid – both are and your right; the Shalhevet community will lose here, one way or another.
- Good morning from Israel.. Once again I find myself intrigued by one of the questions posed…..Exemption is not a prohibition…What truly motivates people to do what they are exempt from doing is something only an individual could ever know. If this young lady feels that her way to strengthen her bond to Judaism and GD is through the ritual of talit and tfillin then who are we to discount that? After all if not for anything else, life is the ultimate opportunity to gravitate closer to hashem in hopes of a deeper understanding of that which cannot be seen…..I’m not saying she should or should not be allowed to wear the items I’m simply saying perhaps there should be a discussion…
- We have made incredible strides within the traditional orthodox community to have students appropriately select Shalhevet instead of YULA…..[The school has] worked extremely hard to become a school-of-choice for students who for the prior 5+ years would not consider Shalhevet. It would be extremely disappointing if we rashly made a decision that would undermine those efforts.
- Thank you for your thoughtful presentation of the women/tefillin issue. It is unfortunate that it is an issue at all, and it is ironic that in the same Weekly Report in which we are encouraging our community to learn about the Yoetzet Halacha, we are still arguing with ourselves about whether a woman should be able to don tefillin. I would strongly urge that we as the Shalhevet community welcome any female student who would like to wear tefillin and encourage her to enroll in the school with a promise that she would not be prohibited from wearing tefillin and indeed will be congratulated upon taking on a time-bound mitzvah from which she is legally exempt. Would that more of our students take upon themselves the observance of mitzvot for which they are not exempt……………And, have you noticed the characteristics of those young women who choose to wear tefillin? They tend to be among the best and brightest in the community. We should be so lucky to get more of such students to come to Shalhevet, for reasons having nothing to do with tefillin…..Let us welcome her with open arms.
- My wife and I always have this argument. I believe that in order to move the community to a more inclusive, progressive place, you need to take small steps. There is no use in being so far out ahead that no one is following you. For example, I don’t agree with Avi Weiss’s decision to ordinate a rabbah right now — I think a smarter move would have been to create a flock of Maharats, send them to communities across the country, and after a few years, when all these communities see first-hand the benefit of a female clergy member, then you have a constituency to ordain women. My wife hates this argument, and always says, “Would you make that same argument to black people during the civil rights era? Just wait a few years to gain the right to vote or be treated equally.” So in some ways maybe I’m more okay with this instrumentalist, strategic approach because it doesnt impact me directly. I might feel differently if/when I have a daughter, to which I will have a difficult time explaining the baseless, culturally- (rather than halachikly-) based distinctions made between men and women in Orthodox Judaism. The specific question you are facing now seems to boil down to picking your battles. I do think the school needs to stand for something. You spend so much time building your credibility on the Right, you need to use that credibility at some point. Not sure this is the best issue for that, but there is only so long that we can keep being bullied by conservative forces in the Orthodox community to stop us from doing things that have halachik backing and express our values.
- …..While I strongly favor allowing the student to wear a tallit, t’fillin and kippah, a compromise position with certain halachic advantages would be to say yes, but at least for now, only in a woman’s service. I don’t know Shalhevet’s present posture on women’s only services, but all serious discussion of a woman wearing men’s clothing would seem to vanish in a women’s only scenario. ….
- Thanks for another thoughtful, thought-provoking email. Not sure I am qualified to weigh in, as a prospective rather than current parent, but I am going to anyway…..Any thoughtful community can discuss Halacha citing sources. Any such community can then fully understand and accept the various sources and the merits of both sides of the discussion. Having had a two-sided debate with both sides making arguments based on Halacha L’Shem Shamayim, whichever argument ‘wins’ the day will be accepted by all as the result of a considered, appropriate and very Jewish debate. Unfortunately, we do not always live in a thoughtful community….. You are doing so much that is so important at Shalhevet that you must constantly be aware of being simply ‘written off’ by those who oppose some or all of what you are doing. For some reason, the subject of women and women’s worship has become a flashpoint for some in our wider community. If you were to allow this girl to worship in her way within the confines of Shalhevet, it becomes way too easy for others to sum up everything you are doing with the accusation that Shalhevet is not an Orthodox school “forget about them – they have girls put on Talit and Teffilin – no further discussion is required on anything they do”………And before you know it, your ability to challenge and force our community to ask the hard questions is greatly diminished………Thanks again for making me think (a tough thing to do)
- Though my first thought on the girl who wants to know if she would be allowed to wear a talis and tefilin was a resounding no, on deeper thought I think you should say yes. Practicing Judaism is a very personal thing and I don’t think anyone had the right to stand in judgment of how this girl and her family wants to practice it. If you wrote and said it was strictly forbidden by a group of Rabbis it would be different. I would encourage you, the faculty and students to be accepting of this or any other uncommon but not forbidden practice. We are people not judges and really have no right to say no.
- Shalhevet is a modern orthodox high school which fosters a far larger tent than the other choices available…As such it has a mission unlike the other high schools to maintain within its walls a diverse demographic of mutual respect; achdut. However, if the tent is stretched too significantly it will be torn asunder…..If a young man was applying to Shalhevet who felt strongly that women shouldn’t learn gemara (an equally valid halachik question with responsa from similarly famous and great Torah scholars who oppose the practice), we would suggest the alternative Jewish high schools of LA as a better fit…The same barometer must be used for both “left” and “right”…..Forgive me for quoting from pop culture, but the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, and Shalhevet must be viewed as a viable choice for the largest swath as possible of the LA modern orthodox Jewish community, even if we must lose the outliers, for it to remain sustainable and grow to its potential.