Not so long ago, I felt my first stirrings of tallis envy.
It struck me not as a deep-seated jealousy, but more as a growing curiosity, a desire to learn more. Then, just a day or so after I’d begun to imagine what it might feel like to drape that silky fabric around my shoulders, enveloping me in prayer, just as I’d begun to consider which of the many possible designs would be suitable, the tallit (or tallis in Yiddish) was once again dragged into the media spotlight.
The news wasn’t pretty. Once again last month, women were arrested at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, at Judaism’s holiest site, for wearing what The New York Times called, “traditionally male garb.”
Ha! I thought.
Here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a woman who attends a morning minyan at a liberal congregation without a prayer shawl may find herself far outnumbered by females wrapped in the flowing cloth of a tallit, its four corners dangling with the soft fringes of tzittzit. Here, the rare woman who chooses not to wear one may wonder if she’s being inappropriate, impious or, at the very least, underdressed.
To be sure, in many American Orthodox synagogues, a woman who dons a tallit risks stigma and shame. “It is clearly formulated in the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law] that women are not permitted,” says Rabbi Meir Fund, an Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn. A woman who does so is considered a “yuhara,” or arrogant, adopting the mitzvah just to make a statement, says the rabbi.
And yet, some left-leaning Orthodox rabbis interpret the text differently, and the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is currently discussing whether women should be not only be permitted, but obligated, to wear a tallit during those prayer services when men do so. The conversation about women and tzittzit dates back to Talmudic times, when at least one prominent rabbi encouraged the women in his home to attach fringes to their clothing. Several medieval sages apparently sanctioned this practice for women.
Wendy Zierler, who is Orthodox, says, “I don’t wear it to be provocative.” Unlike other ritual garments, the tallit seems familiar and feminine — a type of shawl. Zierler purchased a white tallit with golden stripes in time for her daughter’s bat mitzvah five years ago, and appreciates the sense of serenity that it often provides.
“It’s very hard as an adult, as a mother, to ever feel a moment of quiet, to get into a different mode,” says Zierler, who is a professor of modern Jewish literature and feminist studies at HUC-JIR. The tallit helps her to shift gears. “It’s a good aid in separating the moment from the many tasks I have to dispatch.”
Bat Sheva Marcus, an Orthodox woman who adopted the practice about 10 years ago, and is a member of Zierler’s synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, credits the tallit with helping her make the commitment to pray every day. “It’s a physical manifestation,” says Marcus. “There’s no question it helped.”
Other women also extol the tallit’s transformative powers.
“It feels so much like the hands of God are around me,” says Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, rabbi-in-residence at the San Francisco-based Be’chol Lashon.
Rabbi Sharon Brous, who is the spiritual leader of IKAR in Los Angeles, says that “The most meaningful moment of davening [prayer] is often/ always when I put the tallit over my head and can experience the power of community and solitude simultaneously — singing with all of my heart and hearing my individual voice mingle with the voices of hundreds of people in the room.”
The first time Rabbi Naomi Levy put on a tallit, she says, “it felt like I had come home.”
When I was in my early 20s and new to office culture, a friend urged me to “dress the part.” I was intrigued by this idea — that what you wear strongly affects how others perceive you. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the converse, how “what you wear changes how you feel about yourself,” as Rabbi Levy says. Rabbi Levy, the founder and spiritual leader of Los Angeles-based Nashuva, says, “If you spend the day in your pajamas, it changes your mindset. Putting on a tallis has an effect on your state of mind.” Under its wings, the rabbi prays more deeply, protected by an ancient and sacred shelter.
“All of these years I had been praying naked,” she observes.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.