Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Commandment or Political Statement?- Thoughts on the unfortunate current state of Orthodoxy

If I am successful in conveying in words that which I am thinking, many of you, if not most of you, will find something with which to disagree about what  follows. I do not seek to convince anyone that I am correct, but rather to convey an issue with which I am struggling, as well as to spur some thoughtful conversation.

I love the mitzvah of tallis. For me, it is a mitzvah which feels chassidic in a way that tefillin does not. Each day, as I am about to put on my tallis, I joyously say the beracha, ready for the Divine hug which comes as I wrap the tallis around my body. I also love to have the tallis over my head as I say the Shemoneh Esrei, as it creates a more intimate feeling as I speak to God. It was therefore with a level of joy that I felt when I recently saw a meme, which contained a quote about tallis, that I wanted to share on Facebook.

The quote, whose words I can’t fully recall, was said by a well-known rabbi. It went something like this; ‘Sometimes you need to learn to be alone with HaShem under your tallis’. The quote, and the accompanying picture, very much spoke to me, and I was about to share the meme, when a thought suddenly came to me. What about the vast majority of Orthodox women,  who don’t wear a tallis? I decided not to share the meme. I must admit that, at first, my concern was that the post, despite my positive intention, would turn into a fight and/or a bash-fest, neither of which interested me.

Later, however, I started to think more about the issue of women and mitzvos in which they are not commanded (excluding tefillin which is halachically complex). What would happen if a student, or one of my daughters, heard me speak about my love for the mitzvah of tallis, and would ask my thoughts on performing the mitzvah, so that they too could experience the intimacy of this mitzvah?

It is here, of course, that things get complicated. Not on a halachic level, unless my ignorance is causing me to forget some halachic issue. [Edit: It was. Rabbi Mordechai Harris reminds me that the Rema in OC 71:2 says that women would not perform this mitzvah as it looks like arrogance (mechzi k'yuhara), which complicates this discussion somewhat]. Women may be exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzis, but they are still allowed to perform the mitzvah. In fact, it is known that a certain chassidic rebbitzen wore a tallis kattan beneath her clothes. Rather, the complication comes from the current situation in which Orthodoxy finds itself. At both extremes, there are those whose position makes me uncomfortable. On one pole are those who see egalitarian feminism as so important that they try to push it as far as they can into Orthodoxy. On the other extreme, are those who think that they, and only they, own Torah and mitzvos, and thus, can decide who gets to use them and how. So now what?

It is here that I come to an imperfect answer to the above-mentioned theoretical question. I would encourage my student or daughter to wear a tallis during davening, if they so wished, but only when davening at home. The current fight over Orthodoxy, Torah, and mitzvos (where does God come in?) makes me uncomfortable to suggest that they put on tallis in public. Both sides have made the idea of women voluntarily taking on a mitzvah which might not have been traditionally done by women, into a political issue rather than a religious one. Thus, a woman who seeks closeness to God is put in a tough spot. “So you are one those?” she might be asked by one side, while the other might tell her “Right on sister. Don’t let men tell you what to do”. She would be used as an idea, when all she wants to do is develop closeness with HaShem.

Is the current climate the best we can do? Are we so busy trying to save and define orthodoxy, that we have stopped thinking about God? We can, and indeed, must, do better.

"If I am successful in conveying in words that which I am thinking, many of you, if not most of you, will find something...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Wednesday, March 9, 2016


  1. Would you also advise a man that wants to increase observance in a way that outwardly identified him with an ultra orthodox sect to keep it private or is it only agreeing with the left that makes you uncomfortable?

    1. There is no mitzvah-observance involved in becoming Ultra-Orthodox.