By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
The controversy du jour deals with the high school girls and their tefillin, and it has prompted the usual litany of responses. Once again, what passes for p’sak in the Modern Orthodox world is little more than cherry-picking the sources to find the single, even strained, interpretation of a rabbinic opinion in order to permit what it wants to permit or prohibit what it wants to prohibit. The preponderance of poskim or the consensus in the Torah world matters little; fables – like Rashi’s daughters wearing tefillin – carry more weight.
No honest reading of the sources could ever give rise to a statement such as “Ramaz would be happy to allow any female student who wants to observe the mitzvah of tefillin to do so.” Happy? Tell it to the Rema or to the Aruch Hashulchan. And what about the prohibition of lo titgodedu - of not having contradictory practices in the same minyan (e.g., some girls wearing tefillin and others not)? And what of the statement being made to the traditional girls – that their service of G-d must somehow be inferior to that of their peers who are on a “higher” level, or the statement being made to all of them – women’s spirituality can only reach its peak when it mimics the religious practices of men? I would not want my daughters to be exposed to either sentiment.
Frankly, it is unsurprising that many young students in high schools text on Shabbat, observe half-Shabbat, and the like. If the Mesorah can be manipulated to permit girls to do what they want, why can’t it be manipulated to permit what boys want? Clearly, the subtleties are being lost in translation. Would that the schools focused on enhancing the commitment of the boys and their tefillin than broadening it to include others who are not within the purview of the mitzvah.
And, like night follows day, the secular Jewish press – besides praising the courage of the administrators – have trumpeted this story as another sign of the feminization of Orthodoxy – a triumph of women’s rights in an age when those are considered some of society’s most cherished values. They perceive it as another sign that Orthodoxy is modernizing, getting with the times, and catching up with the non-Orthodox movements, to the chagrin of the troglodytes on the right who insist on impeding progress.
But what if that is not the story? It is quite possible that we – and especially the media – might have missed the essence of this unfolding tale.
One question needs to be asked: do the girls here even define themselves as “Orthodox Jews?” Upon information and belief, they do not, and I do not write this to impugn them in the least. The fact is that in these day schools, anywhere from 10-30% of the student population consists of children from non-Orthodox homes. These families are proud members of non-Orthodox temples, and are certainly among the more dedicated. After all, they are sending their children to day schools under nominally Orthodox auspices. Some may even be the children of non-Orthodox rabbis, both males and females. When one girl explained that she has been wearing tefillin since her Bat Mitzvah, she is likely telling the truth. She has been wearing tefillin because that is part of the egalitarianism that is the most dominant value in the non-Orthodox world. If these girls – as it seems – are from non-Orthodox families, then the narrative has nothing at all to do with the so-called modernizing tendencies in Orthodoxy, but something else entirely.
The real story is not that Orthodox girls are wearing or want to wear tefillin, but that non-Orthodox children (or their parents) are essentially dictating to day schools how they want non-Orthodox practices incorporated – in school – in their children’s education. It is as if Conservative Judaism and its customs must be acknowledged much like schools have been known (and properly so) to allow children of the Edot Hamizrach to have their own minyanim and adhere to their own customs. And the schools are willing accomplices. Will they next remove their mechitzot to allow an egalitarian minyan, or is that too great a departure from the Orthodox brand?
There was a time when non-Orthodox Jews were thankful that yeshivot accepted their children, but correctly assumed that the curriculum, standards, practices and ideology taught would conform to Torah. They knew it would differ from what they were being taught at home – but they wanted that.
There was a time when a yeshiva administration had the authority and the courage to insist on those standards. Times have changed. In the competition for the tuition dollar of the non-Orthodox – and the fact is that SAR and Ramaz are competing for the same students – accommodations have to be made. And that is a travesty. Masquerading under the convenient narrative that this is a war for the soul of Modern Orthodoxy is the inconvenient reality: the inmates are running the asylum. The administrators are either unable or unwilling to maintain a complete fidelity to Jewish tradition, for at least some of their constituents are demanding otherwise.
Does a boy in such a school then have the right to say: “I do not feel that my divine service requires me to wear a kippa. My father doesn’t, not even in the house. I am against your religious coercion”? Should a school tolerate that? Or, an even better question: could a boy say that he rejects wearing tefillin until all the girls do? I.e., he is such an advocate of egalitarianism that it would be unconscionable for him, coming from his background, to continue to propagate the school’s antiquated, misogynistic, patriarchal attitudes that discriminate between males and females. I can hear it now: “There is only one G-d. He created all of us, and so there should be one law for all of us!” I wonder how the administrators would respond to that; probably, quite uncharitably, but on what grounds?
As one male SAR student asked me this week: if girls can be obligated when they are really exempt, why can’t he be exempt when he is really obligated? The logic is not impeccable – he is only 16 years old – but begs the question: if the Mesorah is so ephemeral that it can change on a whim, why can’t any rabbi make any change that he wants to make? Why can’t a layman?
Add to this one other point. I personally have met a number of graduates of these schools who are children of non-Orthodox female converts who were never informed by the administrators that the conversions were not acceptable according to halacha. In effect, they went through high school thinking they were Jews like all their classmates only to discover – years later and often on the verge of marriage – that they were not considered Jewish. The tragedy is heart-wrenching, because these young men and women are pure innocents. But there are halachic ramifications as well even while they are in school: Did the son of such a female convert lein in school? Was he motzi the audience with his Chazarat Hashatz? Did he count for the minyan?
Take a more tragic example: what if a young girl, child of a non-Orthodox converted mother, meets and falls in love with a male classmate (perhaps, her chavruta in Gemara class), and that young man is a kohen? What would have been a beautiful relationship is now marred forever and their life plans have to be altered. Perhaps, G-d forbid, the couple might then even turn away from Torah observance entirely because the young woman in question also needs to convert according to halacha, but now cannot marry this young kohen. Is the unequivocal acceptance of non-Orthodox converts and their children the norm in these schools? Is any attempt made to have them – if possible – convert according to halacha? I wonder.
On some level, the policy makes internal sense. For a day school appealing for non-Orthodox students in a very competitive climate, questioning the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions would be a turn-off to parents – just like denying these girls their tefillin would displease future applicants as well. We can debate whether these policies are l’shem shamayim or l’shem mammon; it is probably a bit of both.
But the bottom line is that the story here might not be at all about “Orthodox” girls wearing tefillin but about non-Orthodox children seeking an accommodation of their religious practices, and about day school principals reluctant to insist on adherence to Torah standards. And that is the opposite of courage.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the morah d’asra of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, NJ, and a former practicing attorney.