Rabbi Harcsztark Allows Two Girls to Lay Tefillin At SAR

In Women's Tefillah, two girls don Tefillin each morning

In Women’s Tefillah, Marans (’16) prays while wearing Tefillin and a Tallit

by Hilla Katz

On December 8th, the SAR faculty received an email from Rabbi Harcsztark alerting them that as of the next day, Ronit Morris (‘15) and Yael Marans (‘16) would be putting on tefillin every day in SAR’s Women’s Tefillah.

“These girls came to me and said that they put on tefillin every morning, that’s the way that they have been raised,” Rabbi Harcsztark recounts. “It’s not a flippant attitude; it’s serious. It’s not like somebody coming to me and saying that they get close to G-d by breaking Shabbat. It’s a practice that has a halakhic basis and there’s been a really strong commitment (from Ronit and Yael) to making that happen.”

In the subsequent weeks, Rabbi Harcsztark proceeded to meet with every grade during advisory periods to explain exactly what the halakhic basis for this decision was (see Halakhot of Women and Tefillin: A Brief Summary, below).

He explained that it seemed to him that there was a stronger halakhic argument to be made as to why women should be allowed wear tefillin rather than why they shouldn’t. Thus, after many long months of bargaining and campaigning, Rabbi Harcsztark agreed to let these two girls lay tefillin.

The other main factor behind this decision was the commitment that Ronit and Yael showed to this mitzvah.

“(This mitzvah) has been very important to me for a very long time and I’m really glad to be doing it at SAR,” says Morris (‘15). “I started putting on tefillin after my bat mitzvah. I lay tefillin for three years straight at [Solomon] Schechter every morning, and then I came to SAR and it did not seem like that was a thing that the school was going to go for at the time, and we put it off for a while.”

Marans (‘16) shares a similar story, “Just before my bat mitzvah, I began putting on tefillin. It was just what my mom did, and, of course, what my brothers did. But I was one of a few girls in my grade that did. It made me think a lot about individuality, and eventually, when I wasn’t so overwhelmed by this new ritual, I realized it was making me think about God. I’m not going to say that every time I lay tefillin I feel a renewed awe of God, but sometimes it really makes me think. It’s just something in my day that makes me really concious and  concentrated.”

Upon entering the high school, Marans repeatedly told Rabbi Harcsztark that “I didn’t know how much I would miss davening without tefillin during the week.” Rabbi Harcsztark pushed off the issue until he felt it was the right time to finally raise the issue with both the SAR High School and Academy administration and get their approval.

Because the idea of women wearing tefillin at SAR is very politically charged, it is unclear whether the administration’s decision to allow it extends beyond the specific situation in which it is currently happening. That is, it is unclear as to whether any other girls will be allowed to lay tefillin or if Ronit and Yael will be able to continue laying tefillin if and when they return to a regular minyan.

“When you change then it causes machloket,” says Rabbi Harcsztark. “And I feel like this has caused enough machloket for right now.”

Unsurprisingly, there has been a wide range of reactions to this decision. Those who oppose Rabbi Harcsztark’s decision feel that way for a number of reasons. Some feel that it lacks proper halakhic foundation. Others feel that since the practice of women wearing tefillin is associated with the Conservative movement, a Modern Orthodox institution should steer away from it. And for many, the ideas of halakhic consensus and denominational affiliation are intertwined, and the source of their discomfort is some combination of those two issues.

“(Laying tefillin) is regarded as a purely Conservative act, and therefore SAR shouldn’t allow it in their buildings,” says Tamar David (‘16). “If a non-shomer shabbos Conservative student was to break the Orthodox standards of shabbat on a school shabbaton, and claim ‘I am Conservative; this is how I was taught,’ should he be allowed? Like the non-shomer shabbos student only breaks shabbos at home, the Conservative girls who have opted into wrapping tefillin should do so in their own homes.”

An anonymous student agrees, “My understanding was that the Rama said that it’s not okay, but because in some cases we don’t listen to the Rama, Rabbi Harcsztark just decided that we (or, SAR rather) wouldn’t follow his opinion in this case.  I think that allowing something to go on which is against Orthodox halakha is damaging to the integrity of SAR as an orthodox school. However people decide to act in the comfort of their home is their business alone.  But to break Orthodox halakha in an Orthodox school is everyone’s business.”

However, the opinions in favor of women laying tefillin are just as strong. In the spirit of acceptance, many students believe that the school should encourage those with different religious practices to do what they find religiously fulfilling. Others feel that as a Modern Orthodox institution committed to increasing the role of women in religious life, the school should allow students to choose to lay tefillin as a matter of principle.

“If you aren’t a girl who wears tefillin then this shouldn’t affect you,” says Noam Lindenbaum (‘16). “It does nothing to your tefillah whatsoever and I don’t understand how people are being annoying about it. If you feel uncomfortable and are religiously unsure of the idea, then do your research and see that halakhically, it’s completely fine.”

Shai Katz (‘14) agrees: “I think that it’s amazing that the school is doing it and that they can recognize and help people who want a chance to do more.”

Morris reasserts, “My wearing tefillin doesn’t affect the minyan and the minyan doesn’t affect my wearing tefillin.”

SAR is not the only school to have been faced with this question. Several years ago, a girl at Ramaz asked if she could wear tefillin there, and the administration, though it did not permit her to do so, excused her from tefillah in school so that she could lay tefillin at a nearby shul.

And this year, the question came up at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, California, when a prospective student asked whether she would be allowed to lay tefillin at school. Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s Head of School, said that although he would not let women lay tefillin within the walls of Shalhevet, he would follow Ramaz’s example and excuse the girls from davening so that they could lay tefillin at a nearby synagogue or at home. The eighth grader, after this decision, chose not to apply to Shalhevet.

“While there certainly exist legitimate halakhic and rabbinic sources that suggest permitting the practice of women wearing tefillin (hence my willingness and desire to discuss the issue publicly and my encouraging her to wear tefillin at a synagogue), Shalhevet is a school that draws from a broad spectrum,” Rabbi Segal wrote in his e-mail to the parent body addressing the issue.  “In order to maintain that diversity, there will be times when something might be technically permitted but not wise to allow.” See more at: http://www.shalhevetboilingpoint.com/torah/2013/11/16/girls-will-not-wear-tefillin-at-shalhevet-rabbi-segal-decides/#sthash.kPU8vneS.dpuf

Both Ramaz and Shalhevet made their decision on the premise that women wearing tefillin is not something that the Modern Orthodox community can condone at this time. Rabbi Harcsztark chose differently, perhaps because he sensed that the SAR population would be more open to women wearing tefillin than those of Shalhevet or Ramaz. But more importantly, his decision came from a firm belief that SAR is committed not only to serving the school community, but to shaping it as well.

Halakhot of Women and Tefillin: A Brief Summary

Women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot, or mitzvot asei shehazman grama, a category into which the mitzvah of tefillin falls. However, women are allowed to voluntarily perform these mitzvot, and the Ashkenazi practice is that they can make berachot on these mitzvot. Thus, many rishonim conclude, logic would dictate that women can volunteer to put on tefillin, as it is a time-bound mitzvah.

The Maharam of Rutenberg decreed that women shouldn’t put on tefillin because one needs a “guf naki” or “clean body” to put on tefillin. In the gemara, a “guf naki” is discussed in the context of having proper physical and spiritual concentration around a sefer Torah. For example, one cannot fall asleep or pass gas in the presence of a sefer Torah. It seems only logical that these rules should also apply to males who put on tefillin. So why should women be forbidden from putting on tefillin because one needs a guf naki to do so? There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer to this question.

“Historically women’s bodies were viewed as repulsive, since nobody really knew how they worked,” Rabbi Harcsztark explains. “Contemporarily, what that has been interpreted to mean is that you should be really holy when you wear tefillin. So although men should really be wearing tefillin all day, they don’t and we just hold them responsible for being very holy when they do. So the logic is that because tefillin is such a holy mitzvah, women, who don’t need to wear them, shouldn’t volunteer for it at all.”

When dealing with the issue of women wearing tefillin in the Shulchan Aruch, Rav Yosef Karo simply states that tefillin is a time bound mitzvah like any other; thus, women are allowed to volunteer to wear them. The main voice of opposition of that time period comes from the Rama, who quotes and agrees with the Maharam Merutenberg. The Rama agrees that women should be discouraged from laying tefillin based on the guf naki idea.

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2 Responses to Rabbi Harcsztark Allows Two Girls to Lay Tefillin At SAR

  1. Mark Reply

    January 21, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Sadly, these restrictions on women always find their source in a view that women’s bodies are repulsive or unclean, or that women should not be allowed in the public sphere, or that women should defer, because their public activities might make men uncomfortable. We claim that our tradition is holy and sacred and honors women, but the views of the Rabbis throughout history clearly were shaded by misogyny.

  2. An SAR Parent Reply

    January 22, 2014 at 5:20 am

    It would nice if Rabbi Harcszark gave the parents the same respect he gave the faculty and students and let them know his reasoning as to why he gave permission to these 2 girls to put on tefillin.

    From what I understand (and please correct me if I am wrong) the 2 girls who are putting on tefillin are from Conservative homes. Additionally of the 2 positive comments in this article one is from the son of the Rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue in Riverdale. It’s interesting to me that it was not students from Orthodox homes who were interested in changing the status quo.

    I think this raises many interesting questions including is SAR still Modern Orthodox? Does Rabbi Harcszark consider the school to be part of the Open Orthodox movement or perhaps it’s now Non Denominational?

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