Tefillin are small, black boxes made of leather with black leather straps. They're wrapped around the arm and rest on the forehead. They're heavily symbolic, and within the boxes are several pieces of writing from the Torah.
I love tefillin. I love their warmth. I love the idea of wrapping myself in the word of God. I love that they look bizarre. I love forming the word "Shadai"* with the straps, within my firmly Jewish home. I love kissing the boxes during the Ashrei and Sh'ma prayers. I love the fading marks on my arm that persist for a couple of hours after I remove the tefillin. People on the bus may not know why they're there, but I do, and they're a reminder of the holiness of God and God's word.
My wearing of tefillin is highly controversial.
Women are historically not obligated to wear tefillin, since it is a positive, time-bound mitzvah (commandment), and women were not historically obligated in positive, time-bound mitzvot. Although many women throughout history still wore tefillin, it is strongly discouraged today within Orthodox practice, because somewhere along the line, a lot of these exemptions morphed into prohibitions. Which is one of my big problems with Orthodox Judaism. But this post isn't about that. It's about why I wear tefillin.
Frequently, when I mention that I wear tefillin, people ask me if I'm doing it just because men do it. If I'm diligent in the "women's" mitzvot like lighting candles before Shabbat and immersing in a mikvah.
For what it's worth, I also love lighting candles and immersing in a mikvah.
But I also love tefillin.
I've pretty much always loved tefillin.
When I first started wearing tefillin, I admit that there was a bit of rebellion that threaded through my practice. Although my school claimed to be egalitarian, in 6th grade, I was one of two girls in my grade who wore tefillin. Then my friend, Shira, moved away, and I was the only one. And, although the boys got an extra five minutes after prayers for putting away their tefillin, I was yelled at for being late to class. As girls in my class were getting more invested in clothes and makeup and performing femininity, tefillin was this apparently masculine, unfeminine ritual that I was determined to keep. I did not have to always look pretty. I did not have to always look feminine.
An though they did not appear feminine or pretty, or perhaps because they did not, I loved tefillin.
As I grew older, my approach to Jewish theology developed. I became convinced that the prior exemptions for women did not hold in a society where men and women share equally in maintenance of the household. I further could not understand why I, as a teenage girl who couldn't imagine even dating someone for a year, no less marrying someone and having children, was not just as obligated in commandments as my teenage boy counterparts.
Then I went to college. I found a strong, committed, feminist Jewish community. I was no longer the only woman to wear tefillin. People did not look at me suspiciously, as though my tefillin were only a way of showing off, a pitiful cry for attention. And, through this beautiful, loving, safe, community, my rebelliousness softened. When I wrapped the warm leather around my arms, and adjusted the soft box against my forehead, I didn't feel self conscious. I didn't feel rebellious, hah, look at me, yeah I know you don't like what I'm doing, too bad 'cause I'm gonna do it anyways. I just felt comfort and love and the tefillin wrapped around me, just like my community and just like God. Tradition says that the tefillin are an ultimate expression of love between God and people, wrapped around the fingers like an engagement ring.
Wrapped in this love, I didn't want to be a man. I didn't feel like a man. I was just a woman wearing tefillin and preparing myself for the morning prayers.
* An acronym for "shomer delatot yisrael," the protector of the doors of Israel. Israel being the Jewish nation, not Israel the state.