On my bat mitzvah morning, a September Sunday some 30 years ago, I recall feeling an intense need to suppress a fit of giggles. Not only were my ordinarily garrulous relatives gazing up at me in respectful silence; a few men seemed to be outfitted as aliens for a costume party rather than attired for a bat mitzvah ceremony.
What I didn’t realize then is that these men, with their arms wrapped in black leather bands, their foreheads and forearms adorned by small black boxes, were actually wearing the most appropriate garb in the room. As a regular attendant of my Conservative synagogue on Shabbat, but not on other days, I was only vaguely familiar with tefillin, sometimes called phylacteries in English, and donned by Jewish men for centuries for morning weekday prayers.
In recent weeks, left-leaning Orthodox Jews have been “wrapped” up in a debate as to whether to permit women to wear this ritual garb. The conversations began after the news last month that two Jewish high schools in New York City, SAR Academy and The Ramaz School, would be offering more latitude for girls interested in the ritual. But what struck me most was a line I stumbled across twice, noting that the practice has been growing among Conservative women.
I don’t doubt there’s a small increase, especially given the emergence of a generation of female rabbis, but for the vast majority of Jewish women of any stripe, the garb remains decidedly outside the box. The numbers may rise more dramatically soon, as the Conservative movement has begun discussions on whether to obligate women to wear ritual garb, although such a ruling “will most likely include some form of “grandmother’ clause to allow for generational shift,” according to Rabbi Susan Grossman.
But for now, to take Ramah camps (important centers for observant Conservative Jewry) for example, post-bat mitzvah females are encouraged to wear tefillin, but not required to do so. In practice, the numbers of girls who take on this obligation hover somewhere between “5 and 10 percent, and in some camps even lower,” says Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of National Ramah.
One middle-aged Conservative rabbi tells me that “there are hardly any women in my circles who wear them. It still feels like a gender crossing thing to do.” Still, she can’t help marveling over how the ritual resembles a “daily marriage ceremony with God.” The tradition entails winding the straps around one’s middle finger like a ring while reciting, “And I will betroth thee unto me forever.”
I’m struck by the symbolism too. For some worshipers who wear tefillin, the physicality of strapping on the black leather boxes helps to mark a transition between the mundane and the sacred, as the individual shifts into the state of prayer. A few adherents speak of how the bands tie them to Jewish life. “There’s a sense of being clothed in signs of proximity to God,” says Joy Ladin, a professor of English literature at Stern College, who transitioned to a woman in midlife, and wore the tefillin as a young man.
Alison Kellner, who is 49 and has been wrapping tefillin for 11 years, says that she sometimes considers the days of the week as she wraps her left arm the seven required times. Meanwhile, Ella Tav, a recent graduate of Solomon Schechter Manhattan, and a current sophomore at Beacon High School, says, “I am literally wrapping myself in the culture I want to uphold.”
On the other hand, many of the half-dozen young women I reached out to for this column say they don tefillin before prayer simply because it is the appropriate garb. Four passages in the Torah exhort Jews to bind these words “as a sign upon your hands” and also to bind them “like jewelry between your eyes” (the latter translation by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin).
Sarit Horwitz, 28, a rabbinic fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, says that when she first considered taking on the observance, a male friend countered, “Will you grow a penis too?” Six years later, she’s moved far beyond these questions, and offers me a lesson in tefillin wrapping. It’s more complicated than setting up a cat’s cradle, less comfortable than a blood pressure cuff.
When I’m done, the straps leave a lingering imprint..
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. Email: email@example.com.