I tried a new spiritual practice yesterday. I wore a tallit katan. It is commonly worn by Orthodox, Hasidic and other Ultra Orthodox men and boys from the age of 3 onward and usually not worn by women within these communities. Occasionally, one can see Jews (mostly men) from Conservative shuls wearing these garments and rarely from Reform congregations. They seem to be a marker of a more observant Jewish practice that reads much of the Torah literally. One is commanded to wear fringes (tzitziyot) when wearing four-cornered garments as reminders of the covenant between G-d and the Jews and more specifically of the 613 commandments.
There are a number of reasons women and men from Orthodox and ultra Orthodox communities give for discouraging women from the wearing of tallit katan and tallit gadol. First, women are said to be exempt from time-bound mitzvot, or commandments . Wearing tzitziyot are considered time-bound because the Torah says one should be able to see them which has been interpreted to mean that they be worn during the day. The reason given that women are not held to time-sensitive mitzvot has to do primarily with their childcare responsibilities. Children and fulfilling their needs often requires much time and may not allow one to complete a task within a given time frame. A related ideology says that women are often generally thought to be more spiritually attuned, and therefore do not need such physical reminders to follow the mitzvot.
Personally, I do not buy either of these arguments for why and how women are exempt. The average woman in the past and even today may be more attuned to moral decision-making within communities because women have been and are socialized to value relationships, connections and community to a higher degree than men. However, this argument about women’s natural or inherent moral purity and spirituality sounds very much like the early days of first-wave feminism. Early feminists realized the danger of such an argument because arguments from nature and biological essentialism often reduce women’s worth and contributions to having and raising children, and there are a myriad of reasons why the overvaluing of motherhood is problematic.
However, as a feminist, I also support those women who choose to stay at home and raise children. In these cases, some time-sensitive mitzvot such as prayers may be difficult to complete within the given window. However, I feel like the obvious must be said: the tallit katan is a piece of clothing, and women (even those with children) find the time to get dressed in the morning and undressed in the evening. The tallit katan hardly seems time sensitive in the same way other aspects of observance are.
So, back to wearing the tallit katan. I was inspired to try it because of an experience I had last week at the Institute of the National Havurah Committee. It is a week of Jewish enrichment involving learning, discussion, community and prayer held every year at Franklin Pierce University. The Committee as an umbrella organization supports Jews of all backgrounds in grassroots organization and is unwavering in its commitment to egalitarianism between men and women. At the Institute, I saw many younger women wearing tallit katan. One woman I met who wore the tallit katan daily grew up on an Orthodox kibbutz in Israel. I was fascinated by their claiming it as their own spiritual practice. In fact, of the Jews there wearing the tallit katan, I saw more women than men doing so. This inspired me to try it.
I have also been thinking about it as a spiritual practice that supports my genderqueer identity. Just as I do not claim a kippah as women’s clothing specifically, I have been curious about the tallit katan in this fashion as well. This curiosity is why I bought one months ago, but it has only been worn by the hook on the back of the bathroom door until now. There are little to no Jewish resources relating to genderqueer religious practice within Judaism even though there is much out there relating to transgender practices. (It is interesting to note that because women (who I assume would not claim genderqueer identities) were claiming it for themselves at the Institute that I too felt comfortable enough to try it. There are probably a number of reasons for this that I am not going to dive into here).
In my reflections on researching the practice, I like the traditional reason of the tallit katan as a physical reminder of my spiritual connection to the Holy One. I would add to this traditional reminder that it also establishes a visual connection for myself and others of my connection to the Jewish people and my commitment to follow the mitzvot. In a certain way, it identifies me with a specific kind of observant Judaism and I am becoming more observant in my practice these days.
I want to return to something I mentioned at the beginning and still troubles me about wearing the tallit katan: its connection to more literal interpretations of Torah. As a feminist I believe in the equality of men and women and do not support oppressive ideologies or communities structures, so I am uncomfortable with the tallit katan’s connection to a more observant Jewish practice that is marked by literalism in its prohibitions against same-sex sexual relationships, restricting of women’s roles and adherence to gender complementarity. When one starts reading the Torah literally, where does that reading stop? The tallit katan, kosher dietary practices and the prohibition against same-sex sexual relationships all come from literal readings. Why would I observe some and disregard others? Isn’t it an all or nothing proposition? I think some Jews would have you believe that.
I believe that as a Jew I can shape my own spiritual practices and that I am responsible for my relationship to the Source of Life. If wearing the tallit katan as a personal reminder of my Judaism helps me do just that I see no reason to stop. In addition, as a feminist, I know that I can claim, reclaim or reject practices that do not uphold notions of equality, personhood, freedom, choice and self-determination. So as a Jew and as a feminist, I must be careful how much literalism I embrace. Likewise, I think I have to be cognizant of why I am choosing to follow certain practices and wholeheartedly disagreeing with others. Wearing the tallit katan is a commandment I do not follow blindly.