Women and Tallit

Today the news broke that again a woman has been detained at the Kotel (The Western Wall in Jerusalem) for donning a tallit. There’s a wider discussion to be had about the role of Women of the Wall and the need to ensure Progressive, Conservative and Secular Israelis do not cede authority for religious sites to the Ultra-Orthodox, but that’s for another time.

Here is something I wrote 2.5 years ago about this subject:

In November 2009, I welcomed Anat Hoffman Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC) and also Chairwoman of Women of the Wall (WOW) to the synagogue in which I was then working.  It was a timely visit, because one of the members of WOW had, days before, been arrested for wearing a tallit at the Kotel in Jerusalem.  WOW campaign for the rights of women to hold women’s prayer groups at the Kotel, including the reading of the Torah and wearing of a tallit. This arrest prompted a flurry of articles and blogs across the internet to explore the motivations, the legal implications and Jewish tradition concerning women wearing a tallit.

A few weeks before, I received the following question in my inbox: “Why are so many ladies now wearing tallit and yarmulkes in shul?”

Therefore, I wrote the following answer:

I would like to restrict my answer, initially, to the question of women wearing a tallit in the synagogue.  Before I answer, let us first clarify our terms.

A tallit is a four cornered garment and attached to the four corners are ‘tassels’, known in Hebrew as tzitzit.  The commandment to wear tassels on the corners of one’s four cornered garment is derived from the verses in the Torah which state:

“Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages…That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all of God’s commandments and observe them…” (Numbers 15:38-39)

“You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” (Deuteronomy 22:12)

As you could read in the Jewish Study Bible, the origins of this custom may be derived from the common dress of the Ancient Near East (in Canaan and Mesopotamia).  “Prophets from the Babylonian city of Mari legitimated their oracles before the king by sending a fringe from their garment, which is a symbolic way of sending part of themselves, like a signature.  The imprinting of fringes on clay tablets, like the touching of the fringe of the prayer shawl to the Torah today when one is called to the Torah during its reading, is a way of verifying or endorsing the written document.” (Jewish Study Bible, p.315)

With the changing styles of dress, it was no longer customary to wear a garment with four corners.  This meant that it was no longer necessary to wear the tzitzit – as the instruction in Deuteronomy specifically refers to four corners.  As a result, the prayer shawl, which we know as the tallit, was developed to enable Jews to observe the commandment.  It is worn in the morning service over one’s clothes.  Some Jews also wear the tallit katan (small tallit), which is a smaller undergarment (though not worn against the skin) which has four corners and is worn all day.  Since the commandment includes the instruction to ‘look at it’, it was concluded that it only applied during the day time, when the light enabled the tassels to be seen.  Therefore, the tallit is not worn in the night-time (with the exception of Yom Kippur).

A second area of clarification pertains to the role of women and commandments.  In the classical rabbinic literature, which dates from the first six centuries of the common era, we find the following statement (which comes from the Mishnah, a collection of legal teachings redacted in approximately 200 CE):

“All positive commandments that are time-bound, men are obligated but women are exempt.  And all positive commandments that are not time-bound, the same holds for men and women, they are both obligated.  And all negative commandments, whether or not time-bound, the same holds for men and for women, they are obligated.” (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7)

Let us first explain what this means: A positive commandment is a ‘thou shalt’, a negative commandment is ‘thou shalt not’.  A commandment that is time-bound is one that must be performed at a specific time.  This text tells us that women are exempt from performing commandments which are positive and pertain to a specific time.  There are exceptions to the category of ‘positive, time-bound commandments’ from which women are exempt, but that is not our subject here.

One often hears the traditional justification for women’s exemption in the following terms – women had many domestic responsibilities and therefore making them obligated to fulfil other duties would be unduly harsh.  Rabbi Professor Judith Hauptman, a world renowned scholar of rabbinic literature, makes the point in her book “Rereading the Rabbis” (paraphrased from p. 225-226) that the assumption that the time-bound nature was so specific and that no-one else could share in the domestic duties is false.  Rather, she suggests the exemption relates to a woman’s subordinate status to her husband – action which suggested other than this status would be impermissible.

Rabbi Hauptman continues, “Women were exempted from the essential ritual acts of Judaism, those that year in and year out mark Jewish time, in order to restrict their performance to men, to heads of household; only people of the highest social standing, according to the rabbis, does God consider most fit to honour or worship Him in this important way.” (p.227)

As it happens, Rabbi Hauptman notes that the exemption is far less severe than it would be were women actually prohibited (not just exempt).  However, this all adds to a belief, held amongst some scholars of Judaism today (myself included), that the rabbis of late antiquity, who were men, felt threatened by the presence of women.  Women were not only second-class citizens in their society; they posed a radical threat to the stability and order of the patriarchal world.  One could go so far as to suggest that in the world view of the rabbis, women were understood to be a necessary part of life (needed to maintain a home, for procreation, and for structuring civil society around the family), however they were a danger to men if they went beyond these roles.  Therefore, the rabbis legislated to restrict their roles, in particular excluding them from the public observance of Judaism – from the study hall and the house of prayer.

This is an immensely problematic aspect of rabbinic literature, making its translation into our Liberal Jewish way of life extremely difficult.  Liberal Judaism upholds the equality of women and men in religious life, within all areas of the Synagogue and home.  Therefore, texts which exclude women from the ritual practices of Judaism are inapplicable to our Liberal Jewish ways.  In Liberal Judaism, the texts – whether the Torah or rabbinic literature – do not have decisive authority for how we should live our lives as Jews.  The responsibility for deciding how to act and what to believe rests firmly with the individual, informed by their community, history, values of their own time, modern scientific understandings and the textual traditions of Judaism.  In other words, the texts might help in informing us, but ultimately we may choose to accept, adapt or reject what they have to say.  Moreover, the decision may not be a decision for all time – Liberal Judaism is not a static entity, it grows with time, it is constantly becoming.

So, now we can refer back to our original question regarding women wearing a tallit in Synagogue.  In the development of the traditional texts it is generally held that women may choose to perform a commandment, from which they are exempt.  The tallit is a positive time-bound commandment and therefore, though women are exempt, they may choose to fulfil it.  This ruling is found in many of the major codes of Jewish law, such as the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Joseph Karo (15th-16th century) and the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides in 12th century (though he prohibits women from reciting the blessing).  Of course, the necessity to repeatedly answer the question probably suggests that women have always sought to wear a tallit, perhaps only in the 20th and 21st Century have they been able to do it publicly and proudly.

In a typically misogynistic rhetorical move, some legal decisors on this matter have argued that women who do wear a tallit are being overly ostentatious in their piety and draw attention to themselves (see for example, Moses Isserles gloss on the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 17:2).  In the 20th Century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:39) suggests that, to avoid confusion with men’s clothes, women should wear a differently coloured tallit and then they may say the blessing.  Then he cautions that women should still be aware they are not obligated to perform the commandment and should not do it as an act of protest, which is strictly prohibited.  Even more strongly and in a vile and offensive manner, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, allegedly said in November 2009, according to reports,

“There are stupid women who come to the Western Wall, put on a tallit (prayer shawl), and pray.  These are deviants who serve equality, not Heaven. They must be condemned and warned of.”

Fortunately, we (Liberal Jews) can argue for equality and heaven, unlike the anti-modern, anachronistic and repressive statements of an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi.

The patriarchal tone of rabbinic literature became normative for Judaism through the last 2000 years (and still is in some communities as seen by Rabbi Yosef’s comments) and it is only progressive Judaism which has sought to begin to overturn the hold of rabbinic texts which secluded women, supposedly for men’s own safety, out of sight and earshot.  In Liberal Judaism men and women are equal – in theory if not in reality.

Gradually, as moves for equality have taken hold, other sections of the Jewish world have adopted them.  In the Conservative and Masorti movement women have a far greater role and in their move to begin ordaining women they adopted the view that accepting upon oneself the obligation to perform commandments is equally applicable to men and women.  In Israel, the Women of the Wall is a group of Orthodox, Conservative and Progressive Jews who all desire an equal and authentic place at the Kotel for their public prayer services.

Therefore, the practice we now see, is for some women in our Synagogue to wear a tallit.  Liberal Jews have very mixed views about how they regard the commandments – some have a sense that they are indeed commandments from a commanding God, whereas others may view the whole idea of command as the antithesis to Liberal Judaism.  Nonetheless, women, like men, find in the donning of a tallit a connection to tradition, a spiritual practice which enables them to focus on the prayers and a sense of God’s presence enwrapping them at the time of the morning service and a way of demonstrating one’s full presence within the community and accepting the concomitant responsibilities.  Often their tallitot (plural of tallit) are of different colours – not because Rabbi Feinstein required it, but because the tallit for so long was a man’s garment, it came to represent the hegemony of men in the Synagogue.  In colouring the tallit differently, women were able to claim the ritual for themselves.

That said, there are women who feel that the tallit was for so long a man’s garment it could never be appropriated for themselves and feel distinctly uncomfortable wearing one.

The donning of a tallit reflects a general return to ritual as a means to approach spirituality and in a public setting – where women have traditionally been excluded.  Ritual has a complex and very personal role in one’s life and, at the same time, Liberal Judaism still regards one’s thoughts and ethical actions as more important than religious rituals.  However, I think a return to ritual is a healthy reintegration of an aspect of religious life which has occasionally been sidelined.

In Liberal Judaism we have rejected the values of those texts which are patently misogynistic, patriarchal and unethical, though they are still studied.  Some rituals we have also rejected, whereas the meanings of others have been reconstructed, re-appropriated or continue to be followed as they have done for many years.  Women wearing a tallit must be seen within this context and with the background described above and is something that I am delighted to see happen at our Synagogue.

Arriving in Israel – a slightly belated post

I wrote this post some months ago and, at the time, certain issues were at the fore of my mind. I am aware that now international politics and the lack of peace process with the Palestinians are in my thoughts more than the religious issues that are central to this post. Nonetheless, I wanted to post it because the issues are still relevant and significant.


When we arrived in Israel, we participated in a special ceremony to receive our identity documents. This ceremony captured nearly everything about the State of Israel that is complex, enthralling and challenging. On our way up to the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem), our bus drove by the edge of an area known as Silwan. Our tour guide explained we were going past a mixed neighbourhood of Jerusalem, symbolic of the whole of Israel. ‘Mixed’ is a delightful euphemism to describe a neighbourhood in which Jews and, in this case, Palestinians live. Moreover, our guide neglected to mention that Silwan had been the subject of an ongoing dispute and was just that week in the news as a result of a violent incident.

Things got even more complicated when we arrived at the Kotel. Michelle and I decided not to go on the guided tour, since we needed to feed our daughter, and instead I ran up the steps at the back of the plaza to buy a couple of things for our journey to Haifa that evening. There is something very odd about being in Jerusalem in the 21st Century and hearing the busking fiddler play melodies from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. The nostalgic world of Jewish life in the Shtetl is almost the antithesis of what the new capital of the State of Israel was ‘supposed’ to represent, but here in the Old City the worlds collide. On my return to the Kotel Plaza, I was accosted by the obligatory number of beggars and couldn’t help eavesdrop on a conversation between a member of a group of Israelis visiting as part of their art club and a charedi beggar. The beggar shouted at her when she gave money to an Arab, ‘Don’t give money to him, he’s an Arab!’ To which she promptly replied, ‘What, he doesn’t need to eat too?’. I briefly went down to the wall itself and was asked by someone if I would make a minyan (quorum of 10 required in some communities for certain prayers) for afternoon prayers. Time did not permit me to help, but I was struck by the almost total absence of anyone other than Charedim (Ultra-Orthodox) praying by the wall. I don’t know if he ever got together enough people for his service.

Our ceremony itself took place at the back of the plaza in the site of an archaeological excavation of Roman period Jerusalem. The organiser told us that we were walking on paving slabs that it was quite possible Jews also walked upon and that should send a shiver up our spine. He then handed over to various other speakers, including a Christian Zionist who donates significant amounts of money to the State of Israel to support the absorption of new Jewish immigrants. Leaving aside the issue of whether it is right to accept the money, I found it rather strange having him speak to us. His ideology was contra to a Zionist narrative proclaiming independence from non-Jews determining the Jewish people’s future (whether malevolent or benevolent) and his theology was so categorically opposed to mine we would be hard pushed to agree on anything and certainly not our expectations for the end-of-days. When the ceremony finally finished we were told we were going to stand beneath the Israeli flag in the centre of the plaza and sing Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem). Just as we began climbing the steps our leader called us back – he had been told we weren’t permitted to sing Hatikvah beneath the flag because we were a mixed group. There’s that euphemism again, only mixed in this context means men and women. So Hatikvah was sung out of sight and sound of the easily offended charedim who control the Kotel area. That did not stop the Western Wall Foundation (the charedi non-governmental organisation which administers the kotel area) providing us with a copy of Rabbi Judah Halevi’s poem ‘My heart is in the East‘ – which some claim to represent a sort of medieval proto-zionism. How strange – the charedim who, whilst shifting in their stance on Zionism, have historically been anti-zionist, control the plaza at the heart of the capital city of the State of Israel. This control is to such an extent that the national anthem of the State cannot be sung by a mixed group in a location under their control. I rather think that instead of handing out Judah Halevi’s poem, the organisers might better have distributed ‘The City of Slaughter‘ by Bialik, in which he lambasts the fervently Orthodox for their concern with the minutiae of Jewish law over saving their family and themselves from a pogrom. But perhaps that would have been just a little too counter cultural.

Israel is a complex place to live. There are competing claims to land, religion, history, identity and authority. It is far from perfect. It is also a work in progress and that’s what makes it exciting – where nearly 6 million Jews are living and trying to understand alongside their fellow citizens what it means to live in a Jewish and democratic State. If an hour at the Kotel can refract so much of current issues in Israel, think what day to day life is like?