Davening shacharit with a minyan — that is, praying and participating in traditional Jewish morning prayers with a community — has become a more regular part of my Jewish practice the past several years. It’s a way to start my day with a moment of connection, or, to borrow a metaphor from prominent 19th and 20th century Rabbi Rav Kook, to flush away any lingering emotional battering-stones that have gathered around my heart overnight. It’s something cathartic, something I’ve come to value. Something that enables me to check in with myself every morning and ask: How do I feel today? What’s the state of my emotional, spiritual, and communal life this morning?
And yet, every day, it carries the same dilemma, which I face again, anew, each time: whether or not to put on — or lay — my tefillin.
To the average mitzvah-observant Jew — that is, to the average mitzvah-observant Jewish man — this doesn’t prove that challenging of a quandary. One lays tefillin every weekday because that is simply the commandment. “Bind these words as a sign upon your hand,” the Torah says, “and as a symbol between your eyes.” And as early as the first century, the Rabbis extrapolated these verses into a common, concrete practice: Four passages of Torah text from Exodus and Deuteronomy are written on two separate pieces of parchment, then inserted into two specially made leather boxes, painted black. These boxes are likewise attached to leather straps, and every day — most often during group morning prayers — Jews who observe this practice don them on their arm and on the crown of their head.
This appeals to me. While I’m still wrestling with the idea of religious obligation, as I have been since I started to become more observant a few years ago, when I lay tefillin, I feel connected to the Torah — and to the Jewish people of the past, present, and future — because I literally wear these Torah verses on my body.
But the tradition is very specific about how, precisely, the tefillin are meant to sit on one’s head and arms and how they’re supposed to look. And this is where my first moment of hesitation creeps in. I live with a developmental coordination disorder called Dyspraxia, which generally affects my life in ever-present but manageable ways: I’ve never been much good at sports; I often trip when I walk; I’ve learned to live with a bit of unkemptness in my spaces and my appearance.
Naturally, it also affects how my tefillin, which require fine motor skills and coordination to don, sit on my body. Frequently, the arm strap is loose, doesn’t stay in place, the way it wraps around my hand resembles a bunchy knot more than the Hebrew letters it’s supposed to, and my head tefillin slips too far down my forehead.
Ordinarily this wouldn’t bother me; I’ve learned to embrace some untidiness in my life. But more than anything else, there’s a gender component that makes this dilemma particularly poignant. In contrast to, for instance, a tallit (fringed prayer shawl) which, while still traditionally reserved for men, is increasingly worn by Jews of all genders, tefillin remains a predominantly male practice. Even more, there is a feeling in large swaths of the Jewish world that women shouldn’t be wearing tefillin —some even go so far as to take and share photos, mostly on social media, of women wearing them incorrectly as “proof” we shouldn’t be allowed to access this ritual at all.
While I am certainly a feminist, I’m not trying to make a grand feminist statement with my private religious practice. And yet, my personal becomes political. As a woman who does engage in this practice, I become a symbol; I’m not just me, I am every Jewish woman who is interested or might ever be interested in participating in this mitzvah. For those women — to prove their legitimacy to have this spiritual experience, or to model it for them in a positive way — I must wear mine perfectly.
But, of course, I can’t.
Or at least, I can’t always. And most mornings, I don’t know whether or not my brain and hands and fine motor skills will cooperate until I make the attempt.
If I were a man, it would be easier. If I were a man, I could decide to put them on — whether or not I felt it was a religious obligation or simply an opportunity for spiritual connection — or not, and if they were unkempt, there would be no one’s spirituality at stake but my own. Optics, positive or otherwise, would be of no consequence. I might feel slightly embarrassed if my tefillin were as lopsided as mine usually are, but if I could live with the imperfection — and I know that I can — I wouldn’t have a problem putting them on. But I’m not a man, so, hypotheticals aside, what do I do?
It depends. First of all, it depends on the community with whom I am praying on that day. Am I with my regular minyan (prayer group) who knows me, or am I somewhere where I’m more anonymous? If I am with my regular group, are there any guests in our group that day who might not know me? And more than that, how do I feel today? What’s the state of my relationship with my body and brain this morning? How ready do I feel to balance my own needs and obligations with other people’s perceived legitimacy?
If shacharit is an opportunity to check in with myself about my emotional and spiritual needs, the decision whether or not to lay tefillin every weekday morning is an opportunity to check in with myself about my relationship to my disability, my gender, and how they smash together with expressions of my Jewish identity.
This might sound like something to be embraced. And that might be true. Or it might be a sort of apologetics, me trying to find meaning in an unideal situation. Regardless, I would like to see the day when tefillin doesn’t become an existential crisis, when they don’t by necessity pose all of these questions for me. I long for the day when I can put on my tefillin — lopsided though they might be — without becoming a symbol or a role model for anyone else’s spirituality, and simply pray as the person I am.
Header image via Gali Tibbon/Stringer/Getty Images