25 June 2015

I Wish that I Were This Good a Jew

Baci Weiler, a woman in New York City with a buzz cut and wearing baggy trowsers and t-shirt, was was approached by a Chabad Lubovich representative and lent her Tefillin* so that she could pray.

In Orthodox Judaism, Tefillin are only to be worn by men, so Ms. Weiler posted the picture of this (Since deleted) to Facebook:
This happened last friday at a chabad table. Apparently, buzzed hair + baggy t-shirt + charedi lack of any concept of fluidity in gender expression = egalitarianism. Tefillin with a bracha [blessing], administered by a chabadnik! bimheira beyameinu [Hebrew for "it should come speedily in our time].
It should not have been a big deal, and no one but her FB friends should have seen it, but at this point, through the vagaries of the Internet, it ends up getting some mainstream coverage. (The Jerusalem Post picked it up.)

Well. Baci Weler was horrified at the idea that the Chabadnik who offered her Tefillin was being subjected to mocking, and she offered the most sincere and spiritual that I have ever read:
Two days ago, I posted a couple of photos of myself...

Two days ago, I posted a couple of photos of myself putting on tefillin at a Chabad stand in Union Square. Watching these photos spread, I’ve had time to reflect on their implications. These thoughts are still not fully formed, but I hope both my critics and supporters read them carefully and charitably.

The encounter itself was brief, shocking, and personally significant. I did not plan or initiate this interaction. I was approached and misgendered. Being seen as a man, despite being a woman, was paradoxically validating: for just a minute, I was no longer an Other - the mechitza that has frustrated me for years dissolved. As he carefully wrapped the tefillin shel yad around my arm, I felt connected - to him, to God, to tradition, to the Jewish people. It was a powerful moment, but also painful and wrong - because it was under false pretenses. Though his mistaken assumptions - products of the harmfully rigid gender roles with which he grew up - instigated the encounter, I let it continue without correcting him. Though I didn’t force him to do something wrong, I allowed him to do something he presumably would have been uncomfortable doing given complete knowledge of the situation. Despite our ideological differences, I owed him this basic level of respect as a fellow Jew and as a human. For that I am sorry.

Beyond this, my post was interpreted as personally mocking him, and for that I am also sorry. This was not my intention. The post is a separate entity from the encounter itself, and its goal was dual: on one level, I was knowingly making a sharp, ironic political statement - a criticism of a religious ideology with which I fundamentally disagree. It transcended the human interaction and presented us as caricatures of our respective religious identities. I am not retracting this criticism, but I don't want to be lauded for encouraging that kind of dehumanization. On another level, and more importantly, the photo - also separate from the encounter itself - is powerful because it depicts an instance of accidental pluralism and of shared joy in the mitzvah of hanachat tefillin. It is a serendipitous glimpse of the world I wish I lived in: a world where both he, a bearded chabadnik guy, and I, a buzz-cut egalitarian girl, could be “frum”, regardless of gender or labels, equally bound by mitzvot. I'll end as I did before: Bimheira Beyameinu.
I don't think that I would ever achieve this level of Kavanah.

Ms. Weiler might want to consider the Rabbinate as a career.

H/T Failed Messiah.

*Boxes that contain scripture, and are placed on the non-dominant arm and head in order to conduct certain prayers.
The spiritual focus and awareness required for prayer to "take".


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