Monday, February 3, 2014

Of Daughters and Tefillin

Each week, my Beit Midrash sends out an email advertising upcoming programs, and I generally include a note about something that's on my mind. This past week's note was on the "Women and Tefillin" conversation catalyzed by announcements about Orthodox schools Ramaz and SAR permitting female students to wear tefillin at school.

The gist of my note (full text here) was this: I don't believe women should wear tefillin, but I wonder what I would do if my daughter came to me, as a teenager, and said she intended to put on tefillin. The question is not whether she should wear tefillin, but whether I should try to stop her from wearing tefillin.

I asked the following questions, which relate to the parenting issue in different ways:
  • How much emphasis should religion place upon personal meaning, and how much upon prescribed ritual?
  • How do we preserve the holiness of our sacred objects?
  • Where does this fit into my relationship with my daughter?
  • If spirituality is "that which I find meaningful", is it still spirituality?
  • How important is it that we conform, if the price is religious meaning?
  • Might we gain by letting teenagers try outlying behaviour in a safe environment?
  • If I raise a child who practices halachah but without a personal connection to Torah, have I fulfilled my mission or committed a crime?

I heard from a few parents who said they would prohibit their daughters from wearing tefillin, and I thought this was remarkable.

There are so many areas in which parents of high schoolers say nothing: 
  • Boys on school vacation oversleep and miss minyan as well as zman krias shema [the latest time for Shema], a biblical commandment, and their parents say nothing. 
  • Boys go to movies and see unclothed women, violating a biblical prohibition [ונשמרת מכל דבר רע, per Igros Moshe Even haEzer 1:56], and their parents say nothing. 
  • Boys and girls hang out together and can be seen on their Facebook pages and Instagram accounts in each other's arms, violation of a biblical prohibition as well, and their parents say nothing.

Now a girl wants to put on tefillin, and the parents wake up?

Where do we draw our lines, as parents, in deciding when to speak up regarding our children's conduct? And why?


  1. kach mkublani mbeit avi abba: two wrongs make two wrongs.
    Joel Rich

    1. Two wrongs don't make a right but three lefts do.

  2. In the question of how do we choose our battles, the theoretical importance of the issue is only one factor.

    Teenagers have a hard time waking up. (Studies of teenagers in settings that lack windows have shown that are their own, they will tend to a circadian rhythm, of around 27 hours. Thus the tendency to stay up late and not wake up on time.) Regardless of the importance of minyan or of zemanei tefillah, it requires a higher level of commitment compared to, say, catching Maariv. And it's a challenge they grow out of. It depends on the son, but for many of them it's not a significant sign of anything that needs addressing in the long term.

    Parents might feel the same about immature sexuality. In that case, I'm less inclined to agree, because we could be laying destructive groundwork that sticks with them rather than something they leave behind. But I could see parents deciding it's not a battle worth fighting because "it's normal" and "they'll outgrow it".

    On the other hand, what parent wants an authority figure to stand in the way of their daughter's search for meaning? The drive here is one that -- if overly squashed -- might turn the teen off of the quest altogether.

  3. Taking it as a given that sleeping in and females putting on tefillin are both assur, an intellectual mareeda is more egregious than one provoked by the natural temptations of the yetzer harah. Thus, the desire of a parent to stop such deviant practices in their tracks while being less inclined to tell off their teenage son who sleeps in is understandable.

  4. R' Joel-
    But sometimes a wrong is justified - not by the other wrong, but by a separate logic...

    R' Micha -
    Exactly. (re: your closing point)

    Anonymous -
    But perhaps her desire for tefillin is not intellectual?

  5. I think you’re looking at it from a halakhic perspective: if A is forbidden and B is equally forbidden, why do we penalize A more than B? I suspect other people are looking at it politically: which halakhic infringements are perceived to threaten the Orthodox way of life? Rightly or wrongly feminism (or at least certain feminist perspectives) are seen as posing a threat to Orthodoxy, whereas teenagers oversleeping and missing minyan is not seen as a threat. Hence one is penalized more than the other to draw the proverbial line in the sand.

    1. Focus on the thread to the continuity of O life that is also needed for the transmission of halakhah, and your political threat has halachic meaning. Although I assume you meant as much.

      Personally, though, I was looking at it as a parent. (Since 5 of my children are currently teenagers, and a 6th was a teen not all that long ego, that's kind of natural.) Developmentally, some issues cause more concern about the child's future. We wish all our children seek spirituality, but we dream for them to do so in halaachic ways. A teenage boy who expresses imperfections common to teenagers is less indicative of heading in a non-Orthodox direction than a teenage idealist who is expressing ideals we fear are non-O. (Even if the expression itself is mutar.)

    2. Daniel-
      I suspect I would think first about my daughter's religious equilibrium...

  6. We are all asking the wrong question.
    The right question is: Until now, young lady, you haven't needed to put on tefillin to pray or connect to God. What's changed that you now feel the need? What are you looking for that you think tefillin will provide?

    1. You could say the same to a boy turning 13. As for the "young lady", if she thought she had no choice but not to wear them, of course she tried to pray and connect as best as she could.

    2. No, it's not the same. A boy turning 13 is now obliged to wear tefillin. If the entire mitzvah does nothing for him, even if it annoys him he has no choice. The girl does. By davening without tefillin she has completely fulfilled her actual obligations. Why then does she need extra? What is she looking for?
      (By the way, I don't mean to sound sarcastic. She's clearly looking for something so is there a better way she can be helped to find it?)

    3. I think you're intervening at the wrong point.

      The drive here is positive -- we have a girl who wants spirituality and is willing to non-conform to get it. "Why then does she need extra?" could be asked of a girl who joins NCSY and gets something out of kumzitzen.

      The problem is why they're choosing the expression they are. The drive is fine, the context assumed worldview is what needs work. There is a confusion of limelight and importance, a misunderstanding of the balance between halakhah and personal expression, and an underestimation of rabbinic empathy for women. Someone bought into the gender political worldview, where men couldn't possibly have found a good halachic balance for others -- it has to be a power issue.

      (BTW, this doesn't apply to the girls at SAR, who were from feminist non-O homes and wore tefillin since each turned bat mitzvah.)

    4. Garnel-
      That's a fine conversation to have, but should it come with a "No"? Or a "let's talk first"? Or a "While you are doing this..."?

    5. It should start with "Let's talk about this first."
      Look, if there's one thing the failed war on drugs has taught us it's that going after the problem without looking at the root causes and correcting them leads to failure.
      Yes, people who do drugs (and NO I'm not implying an moral equivalence with the issue under discussion) against the law need to face the consequences but why did they start doing drugs for in the first place if it's wrong?
      Here we have to ask: what are you looking for? What does putting on tefillin give you? Pushing back and saying "no", especially to teenagers is exactly what you don't want to do.