The knotty road to getting girls to assume rituals once reserved for men
by Rachel Pomerance Berl
Whenever I drape my tallit over my shoulders, I feel like God is over me,” says Talia Shapiro, 13, of Bethesda, Maryland. But wearing the ritual garment to synagogue is a tricky matter for Talia. It’s not so much that she’s breaking with her Hebrew school peers at Congregation Beth El, where her bat mitzvah was held last fall. She can understand the hesitation she sees among both boys and girls to wear a tallit, even if she feels differently. “It’s a big statement that you’re making to God,” she says, one she defines as: “I’m going to put this garment on to show my love and respect toward You.”
But while Talia feels comfortable sending that message, she’s less sure of the mechanics of donning her tallit so she tends to wear it to bar and bat mitzvah services of friends at Reform synagogues, which seem more lenient in case she makes a mistake. As for covering her head? Talia struggles to understand why kippot are required for boys at her congregation, but not for the girls. She opts for a doily at services.
If this all sounds a bit complicated, it may be a good example of the mash-up of mixed messages and cultural pressures around Jewish ritual garb that face girls coming of age in the Conservative movement.
Despite the movement’s talk of equal opportunity and obligation for both men and women to uphold these mitzvot, the language shifts in practice, says Rabbi Danielle Upbin of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater, Florida. At that point, “boys are expected; girls are encour-aged or allowed,” she says, resulting in a “subtle message of non-egalitari-anism or non-equality.”
Additionally, girls have few examples of female teachers or camp counselors wearing tallit or tefillin, says Upbin. And although many bat mitzvah girls approach wearing a tallit with a sense of excitement, the feeling can fade fast amid peer pressure. “They don’t see other women and girls doing it,” says Upbin.
At stake is not only the state of egalitarianism in the movement but the spiritual experience that these mitzvot afford. “To take that tallit and put it over your head and open it up is like being in an altered state, as if you’re entering the day in a different way,” says Dr. Anne Lapidus Lerner, assistant professor emerita of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A tallit was the first ritual garb Lerner adopted, followed by tefillin, “an incredibly powerful metaphor,” she says. “You’re tying God to you.” Wearing a kippah, which she does all day long, came last. For herself and many women, hair is so connected to feminine identity that covering it can create resistance. So with each of these items, and especially with kippot, Lerner had to personally recast them “from male Jewish to general Jewish.”
Like Lerner, many women activists in the movement have not only sought to reclaim ritual garb on a personal level but also fought to widen access to these rituals for other Jewish women. Their efforts were bolstered by a major ruling of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, in April 2014, that could create a seismic shift in our communal approach to this subject. The responsum (decision of the law committee) was written by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, of Washington University, and approved with 15 in favor, three opposed and three abstaining. It states: “We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of mitzvot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.”
Still, interviews with several in the movement suggest that the use of ritual garb among women remains highly varied; where it is in prac-tice appears more common among adult women than girls, for whom the ritual has had little traction.
Whether this is a problem depends on whom you ask. “I’m not looking for sameness between men and women,” says Rabbi Michael Gold of Temple Beth Torah Sha’aray Tzedek, in Tamarac, Florida.
Gold notes that determining what’s feminine and what’s masculine gets into tricky territory – “all of us have a little of both in us,” he says – but maintains that there are differences that play out at his congregation. So, for example, in teaching bar and bat mitzvah students, Gold requires boys to put on tefillin, but keeps it optional for girls, most of whom don’t test out the ritual. And while boys are required to wear a tallit at 13, about half of the girls choose to wear one on their bat mitzvah. Gold encourages their continued practice. “I believe that we need opportunities for women to participate in the rituals of Judaism,” Gold says. “I don’t believe that requires a unisex” approach to Judaism, or “that we erase all differences between males and females.”
Others believe more efforts could and should bring women and girls into the proverbial fold of wearing ritual garb.
For her part, Lerner calls Rabbi Barmash’s ruling a “landmark deci-sion” that warrants a movement-wide educational program to study the law and put it into practice. And in the meantime, she suggests a buddy system for women to gain support as they embark on these practices.
If adult women need a buddy to try out ritual garb, teen girls seem to need a lot more.
It will take a female role model plus a critical mass of followers to en-courage adoption of head coverings and tallit, according to Dr. Shira Epstein, who coordinates the JTS student teacher program at day schools. “Let’s not even touch tefillin, because very few wear tefillin,” she says. “You need a mass of people to show it’s a cool thing to do, and it’s not going to be considered masculinizing.” Toward that end, Epstein recom-mends a culture of encouragement and experimentation, which is precise-ly what’s happening in so many Conservative schools and synagogues.
At the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, tallit and tefillin workshops take place in middle school, but only a handful of the girls wear them in prayer, says Rabbi Miriam Greenblatt-Weidberg, chair of Middle School Judaic Studies. “It’s such a strong time of wanting to fit in and needing to fit in that it’s very, very difficult for girls,” says Greenblatt-Weidberg, who believes she’s the only woman at the school who dons both and covers her head. Moving from the current practice – requiring ritual garb for boys and encouraging it for girls – to equal obligation for both would mean a “complete cultural shift,” she says. “We’re moving in a certain direction. We’re not yet ready to take that step.”
Promoting the commandment of ritual garb and the range of styles available to the girls – at least in terms of kippot and tallit – is a tough sell without a culture of women and girls already on board, said Rabbi Upbin of her congregation in Clearwater. Perhaps, after the post-bat mitzvah lull, they’ll rekindle their interest in these items, Upbin muses. Or maybe, “our best bet is to pick it up when they’re older, when they’re modeling Jewish practice for their own daughters,” she adds.
“That’s a long time to wait.”
Rachel Pomerance Berl is a freelance writer and editor based in Bethesda, Maryland.