I found feminism long before I realized its principles could and should be applied to Judaism. After I discovered the Jewish feminist blogosphere and read Blu Greenberg’s On Women and Judaism, I began to identify as an Orthodox feminist. That is, I am a feminist with a foot in both the secular and Jewish worlds: I advocate for equality in the workplace as well as the synagogue. I believe that God loves all creations and wants all of them, regardless of gender or sex, to have an active role in the world and actualize their potential.
The more Orthodox feminists I meet, the more I am awed by their true dedication to connect to their Creator through following halakha (Jewish law), improve the Orthodox and Jewish communities, and make God accessible to every Jew. Meeting women and men like this, whose religious feminist acts come from their hearts, make me feel blessed to be part of the Jewish feminist community.
A few weeks ago, I got into a conversation with a friend at my right-wing high school about women laying tefillin (phylacteries). Traditionally, only men lay tefillin, but there is no reason why women cannot. This friend couldn’t quite understand why a woman would want to lay tefillin. “But only men are obligated to wear them!” she said, extraordinarily frustrated. “Any woman who wears tefillin is just doing it to make a statement!”
It is undeniable that there are some women out there who do things like laying tefillin solely as feminist protest. I take ginormous issue with these women, and to be honest, they seriously piss me off. I believe that doing a mitzvah (commandment) just to make a statement is a perversion of God’s Torah. It’s using Judaism to further you own personal agenda, and the concept makes me sick. Someone who does that ruins tefillin for those women who lay it for legitimate reasons. Nobody has a right to do that.
However, I have yet to personally meet or so much as hear of a woman who lays tefillin as a form of feminist protest. The only women I know who lay tefillin do so from their hearts. As of the moment, I can think of two legitimate reasons a woman would lay tefillin: because she believes that the nature of women’s status in halakha has changed and they are indeed obligated to lay tefillin, or because she feels it genuinely brings an additional layer to her avodat Hashem (worship of God) and tefillah (prayer). While I take issue with someone who does a mitzvah like tefillin solely to make a statement, as long as there is some element of doing the mitzvah for the mitzvah’s sake in it, I don’t have a problem with it.
So are there women out there who lay tefillin and perform other traditionally-male mitzvot just to make waves? Unfortunately, yes. But these women do not define Orthodox or Jewish feminism in the slightest. I am happy to say that they are by far the minority. So next time you meet a woman who lays tefillin, don’t just assume she’s making a statement. Ask her why she does it. You may be surprised to hear her response.