As a woman, it took me many years to embrace the mitzvah of wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). Having been schooled in the Modern Orthodox world, I viewed a tallit as men's garb and I accepted the injunction against women wearing men's clothing and vice versa. Over time and through Torah study, I came to understand that neither the Torah nor rabbinic law prohibits women from this mitzvah. In fact, there is some evidence that the daughter of Rashi - the great eleventh century rabbinic sage who wrote comprehensive commentaries on Bible and Talmud - may have worn tzitzit (fringes on the end of a garment or prayer shawl) and tefillin. In this week's Torah portion, we read that the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit (fringes on the corners of a garment) was given to all the Israelites as a physical mnemonic, to help in remembering the path of mitzvot. The Torah explicitly states that fringes shall be worn on the corners of the garment for all generations, so as to be seen and thereby, cause us to remember and fulfill all the mitzvot.
The mitzvah of wearing tzitzit takes on additional significance when we recite the sh'ma- the prayer which declares the unity of God. At this moment, the four corners of the tallit with its four sets of fringes are gathered up into one hand and held together as a unity. We gather together all of our parts, much as we pray for God to gather in all of our people from the four corners of the earth. The concept of exile and redemption, of galut and ge'ulah, is ritualized in this pose of healing and wholeness.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (late 19th C.), also known as the S'fat Emet, was one of the last great masters of Polish Hasidism. He teaches that the gathering together of the four tzitzit while reciting the sh'ma, is an act which unites one's Self with the "root of oneness." By doing so, we become agents of unification in the world, bringing holiness and wholeness into a fractured world. The S'fat Emet sees the tallit as a personal sukkah of peace. Under its canopy every Jew can experience connection with the Divine in any place and at any time. He states, "Wherever they are outcast, this commandment (tzitzit) helps them not to be separated from their root." The mitzvah of wearing and gathering the tzitzit brings awareness to our connection with the root of all. Whether we experience a sense of being outcast in the world or, God forbid, in our own communities, in our own families, or within our own existential core, tzitzit offers us a tool for reconnecting with the sacred truth of unity - of deep spiritual connectedness.
Dwelling in these concepts of healing and wholeness, related to the mitzvah of tzitzit, I could not help but recall an incident that took place at the Western Walljust a few weeks ago. Sarit Horwitz, a rabbinical student from JTS, was praying there when two police officers ordered her to remove her tallit from her shoulders and wear it instead like a scarf around her neck. After services she was detained and interrogated by the police. In an online news article Ms. Horwitz cited an Israeli law passed in 2001 saying, "it is illegal for women to perform religious practices traditionally done by men in Orthodox Jewish practice at the Western Wall, such as reading from a Torah scroll, wearing tefillin or a tallit, or blowing a shofar." At the end of her report she declares, "The homeland we dream of, that we have dreamed of for thousands of years, is not one that arrests women for religious expression through wearing a tallit. The homeland I know we can attain is one that embraces multiple forms of Judaism to create a richer, deeper, and stronger Jewish State."
How ironic and yet perhaps appropriate, that the mitzvah of wearing a tallit, whose four corners we gather together in an act of unification, should become emblematic of the trend in Israel towards such misogynistic rulings. Yet, despite this growing trend, this past week saw a momentous ruling as the State of Israel recognized the first female Reform Rabbi - Miri Gold. In response to hearing the news, Rabbi Gold stated, "This is a big step for religious pluralism and democracy in Israel. Israeli Jews want religious alternatives and with this decision the State is starting to recognize this reality. There is more than one way to be Jewish even in Israel."
May this be the beginning of a true healing for our fractured Jewish community. As we don our tallitot (prayer shawls) this Shabbat, may we gather together all of our parts, recognizing the many in the one and one in the many- the Divine Oneness that connects us all.
By: Rabbi Kaya Stern-Kaufman