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May 24, 2012 / Rabbi Laura

Talit: Prohibition, Permission, or Obligation?

Yesterday was Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the beginning of the new month of Sivan in the Hebrew calendar. As they have been doing since 1988, the Women of the Wall – Jewish Israeli woman and Jewish women from around the world – gathered at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem to “come together to form a women’s prayer group. They completed the shacharit service and Hallel in front of the Wall and then moved to Robinson’s Arch in order to read Torah and conclude the service.”

Yesterday’s service was interrupted when 3 American female rabbinic students were detained for questioning by Kotel security officers when the women were seen wearing their talitot in the manner of a “prayer shawl” rather than as a “scarf”.  You can read more about this incident on the Women of the Wall website or by watching this brief video interview of these brave young women.

I share many of the sentiments of these women in that I too do not feel the Kotel is a place that is welcoming for me to pray in the manner that I would like. There have even been occasions in which I have been in Jerusalem and not gone to the Kotel at all during my visit.  It is incredibly sad for me to know that this is a holy place for my people and when I go there I feel judged, watched, restricted from my own personal expression of prayer. I honor, admire and support the Women of the Wall for taking a stand and fighting this ongoing battle for religious freedom.

I was particularly moved by yesterday’s incident because it was yet another example  of the assumptions that continue to be promulgated and legalized in Israel that according to traditional Jewish law women are not allowed to wear a talit during prayer.

As a teen, as a curious Reform Jew and as a budding feminist, I was (and continue to be) a passionate learner of Torah and Jewish text. It was in my high school years that I had my first opportunity to learn about the many ways that Jews understand and interpret Jewish texts and laws.  I was blessed to be part of a study group that was led by an orthodox yeshiva student and attended by mostly orthodox teens my own age.  Together we studied, dialogued, challenged and questioned the texts.  This orthodox man was one of the first people to teach me about the traditional laws regarding the wearing of a talit for prayer.  I had been given a talit on the occasion of becoming bat mitzvah and I was eager to learn more about it.

In that very memorable study session, I took away this lesson: While the talit is considered a “time bound mitzvah” – Jews are required to wear it during morning prayers – and women are not obligated to observe all of the “time bound” mitzvot, women are not prohibited from doing so either.  If I, as a Jewish woman, want to wear a talit, I must commit to doing so regularly. If I am going to take on the “obligation” of wearing the talit, I should not do so lightly and must make the commitment to doing so seriously.

The Women of the Wall, and thousands of supporters, are women such as myself who take seriously the commitment to prayer and praying with kavannah (intention and focus).  For years we have been fighting for the simple right to pray at the Kotel and to pray with our talitot wrapped around our shoulders. That simple act of wearing a talit is currently illegal in Israel and those violating it could be imprisoned for seven years.

I love Israel. I love being in Israel.  I love our worldwide Jewish community and all of its diversity of practice and interpretation of Jewish tradition. I pray that some time soon – God willing, even in our lifetime – we can figure out a way to accept our different interpretations of Torah and Jewish law and allow for religious freedom for all – men and women, Jews, Christians and Muslims, young and old – in Israel.

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