How literal is too literal? My Experience with Tallit Katan. By Ivy Helman


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.

A self portrait of my tzitzit.



Categories: Bible, Community, Feminism, Identity Construction, Judaism, LGBTQ, Spirituality, Textual Interpretation, Women and Community

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. Wild thought, wondering if a reason women have not traditionally worn the tallit katan is tied to cleanness and her menstruation?

    Enjoy how you are defining for yourself how and what you take from your tradition as a means of faithful observance between you and G-d. I thought about my own wearing of a cross or metal of The Blessed Virgin Mary as reminder of her care and love with the wearing of the tallit katan, both can be demonstrations and symbol pointing to something greater. “The symbol gives rise to thought.” Thank you!

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  2. This is very interesting! I’m glad to see that you’re not taking every word in the Bible literally as so many people do. It seems to me that all those fringes might get in the way of daily activities, and that’s why men who do nothing but pray and study all day can comfortably wear them…….and made so-called laws about who should wear them. Can you wear your fringes as you go about your day? The fringes would certainly get in the way when you’re raising a whole crop of small children without their father’s practical help, but how about single women? Are you physically comfortable with your fringes swinging around your body as you move through your day?

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  3. I don’t think it is gender essentialism to say that women, what women actually do on planet earth is far more peaceful and life affirming that what men collectively have done to the earth.
    You have to look at actual DEEDS, what is it that men do? They come up with all kinds of religious restrictions, and reasons for enforcing them. I’ve heard the argument that Orthodox Rabbis think it is men who need all these rules, women being more spiritually attuned than men do not. But you have to pay attention to who is creating the rules in the first place.

    Women can go into ancient traditions and be much more creative. I know I like to create saints, for example. I have noticed that at gay and lesbian temples, many lesbians wear a yaulika, or a prayer shawl— lesbians classically bend the clothing rules all the time.

    I know I favor wearing a top hat at formal events, and when I am reading poetry in public. I take my heritage from lesbians of the 18th and 19th century, the saint creation from my idea of what makes a heroic spiritually powerful woman, but I also keep in mind that men indeed COLLECTIVELY have done more damage to the world than any woman we know of. It is not essentialism, it is to ask the basic question: What the hell is wrong with men? Always name the agent!

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  4. Beautiful article; love how you covered the topic so well in such a short piece.

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  5. Thank you for this, Ivy! As a Jewish feminist myself, I have had very similar internal and external debates about gendered practices, biblical literalism, etc. If nothing else, I felt left out growing up in my conservative Jewish community not wearing tallit or tfillin. I wore a kippah to synagogue in high school, but I felt people’s eyes on my constantly. I’m inspired by your dedication to really embracing/thinking about this particular garment. I also don’t buy the purity argument, and especially the argument I hear all the time about Jewish women being “closer to God” and therefore not having to do certain rituals. For me, rituals are what bring me spiritual experiences.

    I also many times mourn the lack of certain Jewish rituals that my male friends took part in growing up. I never owned a tallit, and during my year in Israel I told myself I would buy a beautiful, big, colorful tallit to wrap myself in at shul. But it never happened – for some reason I felt uncomfortable doing it. I still want one. I think we have to create our own communities that we feel comfortable practicing these rituals. It’s so compelling that a piece of clothing can either foster a closeness to a Divine source or make us feel alienated at the same time. Thanks again for this!!

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  6. http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=women%27s+talit&FORM=HDRSC2#x0y1040

    It looks like there is a lot of creativity going into this practice for women, as well as an industry developing…

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  7. I’m sorry I have not been on to respond to these thoughtful comments until now. First, to address Barbara’s comment about the practicalities of wearing fringes. to be honest, my worry was my cat thinking they were play toys. Luckily, she doesn’t bother them at all. I am quite surprised because she likes all and any string. Do not try and crochet or knit in my house! I was a little surprised at the way the move when you walk and that was honest not something I had thought about before I wore them. I imagine that living with them on a full-time basis requires some getting used to like so that you don’t end up attached to the dishwasher or stuck in a door that closed to quickly. But in my experience with them, they were so ever-present that one was mindful of where they were at all times.

    This leads to Amy’s comments about kippot and tallitot. Yes, for a long time, I felt like everyone was staring at me, like I had a big target on my head or piece of food stuck in between my teeth, like there was something wrong with me. However, the more I thought about it the more I realized a few things about people when it comes to appearances. First, I was probably over sensitive to stares because I felt self-conscious. A similar thing happened to me when I first came out. I purposely wore a rainbow patch on my backpack for months to get over how uncomfortable I was about being out in public. I only took it off my backpack when it didn’t phase me anymore and wasn’t worried about what other people thought. Our own self-consciousness and concern with other peoples opinions can be so detrimental to how we live our lives.

    Second, people may look because they are curious. I wear a kippah everyday and the number of people who ask questions about why I wear it or what it symbolizes is amazing. The most popular question by far is: don’t men only wear yarmulkes (kippot)? Why are you wearing one? Oddly enough, it is non-Jewish men who nine times out of ten ask this particular question. An answer I would feel completely comfortable with is too complicated to give for so many reasons including gender identity, but the simplest and best answer that I think I can give is to say “No, many women wear them too.” I think this creates space for women to claim a religious article within the tradition. It also destabilizes basic gendered assumptions the general public has about Judaism. (This person will not ask the next woman he sees about their kippah, but will assume it is as natural for them as it is for me). Finally, it provides a clear concise answer for someone who was brave enough to ask questions. I’d rather someone ask me than just continue to stare at me although I’d also like to not always have to play the role of educator. I would say to you Amy. Wear the kippah/tallit loud and proud! When you feel like everyone is staring and all else fails, you could always stare back. (It may seem crass, but it is often effect since people sometimes also don’t realize they are staring.)

    Finally, to Carol…Yes, there is an amazing industry of creating tallit and kippot by women for women. Another good website is diasporagirl.com if you are interested.

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  8. As an Orthodox (well, maybe unOrthodox) man, my feelings about this are pretty simple: If it brings you closer to G-d, makes you a better Jew, and helps you to heal the world, I’m all for it.

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  9. Nice article. You may be interested to know that Karaite Judaism has always taught that the commandment of fringes applies to all Yisrael, regardless of gender. Rashi’s daughters wore tallitot so there is certainly precedent in Rabbinic practice as well.

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  10. There is a bit of room within traditional Orthodox Judaism to permit a woman to wear tzitzit. But this type of move should be carefully considered from all angles before taking action. One angle is a responsum written by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, which can be found here: http://tzitzit.tallit-shop.com/rabbi-moshe-feinstein-women-tallit/.

    In my opinion, it makes sense to first try the mitzvah of tzitzit in private for a month or two to ensure you are undertaking it for the right reasons. Making a political statement is not a valid reason (though some people, I imagine, would argue otherwise). Mitzvahs and politics don’t mix.

    – Ben (Ben’s Tallit Shop)

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  11. I believe you do not buy the arguments for women not being obligated to time bound mitzvahs due to a misunderstanding of Traditional Observant Jewish practice. First of all. Orthodox Jews do not take the Torah more literally than other denominations. Not taking the Torah literally has distinguished Observant Jews for millenia. Many ancient denominations like the sadducees took the Torah literally. Secondly, Jewish women are not obligated to time bound mitzvot because they have an “internal clock” that men to not have. Women are not forbidden to follow these mitzvot.

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