A debate about whether female students should be allowed to pray wearing tefillin at school — one that straddles feminism and Jewish law — has been sweeping the Modern Orthodox world.

In December, the SAR Academy in Riverdale gave permission to a pair of girls to wear tefillin in their women’s prayer group, and in January, the head of Manhattan’s Ramaz School told The Jewish Week that, should anyone make the request, girls would be allowed to wear tefillin even during coed prayer.

This week, the executive director of Yeshivah of Flatbush, another prominent Modern Orthodox institution, told The Jewish Week that his school is currently debating the issue but has not reached a decision. Rabbi Seth Linfield said he would not comment further.

Debate over the issue centers around the question of why, when Orthodox women are breaking gender norms by studying Talmud, reading from the Torah and becoming maharats (in some ways the female equivalent of a rabbi), very few Orthodox women are demanding to wear tefillin or even tallit, prayer shawls.

Even at Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale, where Modern Orthodox women study to become spiritual leaders, not a single one of the school’s current students or graduates wears tefillin, said Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the school’s dean.

For men it’s mandatory to wear tefillin — two small black leather boxes on leather straps that hold the Shema prayer and other biblical excerpts that are attached to the forehead and arm. But, like all “time-bound” requirements, the morning ritual is optional for women, and rarely done in Orthodox circles.

In Conservative communities, women have increasingly adopted the practice — the two SAR students, in fact, come from Conservative homes.

Not so in Orthodox communities.

“I think everyone understands that it is halachically permissible, but many of the [Yeshivat Maharat] women are traditional … so there are not a lot of models,” Rabba Hurwitz told The Jewish Week in an interview after the SAR news broke.

But Orthodox women’s general disinterest in taking on this practice is caused by more than a respect for tradition and lack of role models: there are also a number of cultural beliefs that make wearing tefillin and tallit particularly difficult taboos to break.

“I think most of us believe that when we take on something that is seen by and large as unusual by the community, we really feel like you can’t do it,” said Bat Sheva Marcus, a founding member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

Marcus doesn’t wear tefillin, but about a dozen years ago she began wearing tallit.

“For years I wanted to buy a tallit, but I felt like I wasn’t worthy because I wasn’t davening [praying] every day,” she said. “For Orthodox women, you don’t think you have the right to take on something that the Orthodox community looks at askance unless you’re going to take it incredibly seriously.”

However, the requirement to be committed to daily prayer before wearing tefillin is something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum: many women say it’s the act of wearing tallit and tefillin that enables them to pray every day.

“For me, having something tangible to put on every day somehow made the commitment more real,” said Marcus. “The concreteness of it made me take the obligation on more regularly, it was doing something every day.”

Liore Milgrom-Gartner, who wore tefillin at SAR’s middle school from 1994 to 1996, found that the act of performing the mitzvah, the ritual, deepened her prayer experience.

“It’s pretty beautiful in its intimacy and Jewish connection,” she said. “It was far more meaningful to be wrapped in tallit and tefillin. It’s really quite powerful, literally you’re wrapping yourself in tradition.”

Therein lies the first obstacle: women feeling they’re not spiritual enough to put on tefillin and tallit.

“It’s a bit of a Catch-22 we often find ourselves in because [for women] the standards are so much higher,” said Marcus.

According to observers, most Orthodox women say they have no desire to wear tefillin or tallit, either because they see it as a masculine domain, or because it’s so contrary to accepted tradition that it feels outright wrong, even horrifying. As one Orthodox Jew said, it’s like lighting all eight candles on the first night of Chanukah. It’s not forbidden, but you just don’t do it.

“The first time I saw a woman wearing a tallit, 27 years ago, I felt like throwing up,” said Marcus. “I was 25. I went to the first Jewish women’s conference, and literally I had to go to the bathroom because I was shaking. It was just so weird to me.”

Today, the sight of a Modern Orthodox woman wearing a prayer shawl is extremely rare, but usually not scandalous. For tefillin, however, things haven’t changed all that much since 1987.

“To many people, seeing a girl wearing tefillin is somewhat shocking,” said Miriam Lichtenberg, a SAR senior who helped create the daily women’s prayer group at the school where the two students now don tefillin.

Lichtenberg said she’d like to try the ritual. But she’s not going to.

“I think these girls putting it on are more brave than I am. I am more concerned about the way it looks,” she said.

Even Marcus is concerned about how she will be perceived. Every time she goes to a new synagogue, she has to consider carefully whether or not to use her prayer shawl. “Just for a tallit I have to think three times before I pull it out,” she said. Bar mitzvahs are even worse: for those she worries people will think she’s trying to upstage the honoree, even when she’s gotten the family’s ok in advance.

“It’s absurd,” she said.

Appearances were also a concern for Shifra Mincer, an Orthodox Jew who discovered while studying Jewish law as a student at Ramaz that she wanted to try wearing tefillin. She approached the school’s principal and a compromise was reached: she could skip school services and instead pray with tefillin at a nearby shul.

“Honestly, it was kind of relieving to not have to put on the tefillin in front of everyone,” she said. “So many of my rabbis thought I was trying to make a statement, but I really wasn’t.”

Like Marcus, Mincer found that the act of performing the mitzvah deepened her commitment to daily prayer.

“At Ramaz on the women’s side of the mechitza [partition], it was not spiritual at all,” she said. Praying at the synagogue instead was a turning point. “It totally changed my experience because I wasn’t in Ramaz. I took a lot more personal ownership of my davening. I davened on Sundays, all the time. I was definitely a lot more committed in general.”

But Orthodox women like Marcus and Mincer are the exception.

For the vast majority, it appears that wearing tefillin or tallit is either not appealing or not worth the trouble.

“Any religious expression involves commitment and work, and there has to be a payoff of some kind,” said Marcus. “Not only is it a huge undertaking, but there is so much cultural animosity towards it, why would you do it?”

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