When my daughter gave birth to her firstborn, [my first grandson], she taught me new ways to care for infants. One of the things that was new to me was the practice of swaddling the baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics claims that a blanket wrapped snugly around the baby’s body can resemble the mother’s womb and can help soothe the newborn baby.
Snuggle? Yes. When I wrap myself in the prayer shawl – the tallit -- I feel like a baby that is swaddled. I feel wrapped securely in my tradition that is like a womb. I sense as if I am being enveloped with the soothing caring presence of God. I actually believe that the tallit helps me contain my own energy next to my body, so that I can connect better with the Divine. Praying without a tallit gives me a different sensation. Reading the Torah without a tallit feels like I am half naked.
So why, do you think, has the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis determined that women cannot pray at the Kotel with a tallit/tzizit (* ? Why would men want to deprive women of a spiritual dimension of prayer? After all, we learn that Jewish texts do not mention the prohibition for women to wear a tallit!! Yes! Women are exempt from the obligation to wear the tallit but are not forbidden to wear it! The exemption comes from the Torah that address the "positive time-bound commandments” which only men are required to perform. For example, like waving a lulav during Sukkot, the mitzvah of tzitzit is also time-bound since it applies only during the daytime.
According to the Gemara in Menachot 43a, in Talmudic times some respected sages let their wives and daughters wear a tallit. Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Amram used to attach the fringes to the garments of the women of the house --
Rab Judah attached fringes to the aprons of [the women of] his household [For he held that women are also bound to wear tzizit]… But since he attached [the fringes to the women’s garments], obviously he is of the opinion that it is a precept not dependent on a fixed time [For women must observe only those positive commandments that do not depend upon the time of the year or of the day for their performance].The teaching continues to say that women are permitted to wear a tallit just like the others
Our Rabbis taught: All must observe the law of tzizit; priests, Levites, and Israelites, proselytes, women and slaves. R. Simeon declares women exempt, since it is a positive precept dependent on a fixed time, and women are exempt from all positive precepts that are dependent on a fixed time. What is the reasoning of Rabbi Shimon? It has been taught “and when you see it”, this excludes clothing worn at night.
Wearing a tallit is not always a matter of halacha. It could also be a matter of a sociological/personal choice for many women I know. And despite the insinuations made by those who object to this practice, not all women who wear a tallit are doing so to fight for gender equality. They are not necessarily feminists who want to show that women can do what men do. They do not even care about the media and have no intention to upset the Ultra-Orthodox population. These women choose to wear a tallit because they find it meaningful on a spiritual level. Some will tell you that it helps them connect with God. Others will share that they want to fulfill a commandment that is dictated to all, not only to men. Basically, women challenge the position of Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Orakh Chaim 17:2) who felt that donning of a tallit by a woman would be an act of religious arrogance. While it is difficult for me to understand this logic, the variety of the most gorgeous feminine artistic tallitot you can find today, show the opposite. They bring a sense of pride for those who wear them, reminding them that they perform another mitzvah, which is Hiddur Hamitzvah -- the practice of excessively adorn a commandment with beauty.
The fact that the woman's tallit does not resemble the traditional pattern worn by men is actually in compliance with the decision of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (a 20th century orthodox rabbi) who did not reject or object to women wearing a tallit, as long as they use differently colored tallit to avoid confusion with men’s clothes (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:39).
It does not surprise me that the symbolic ritual of the tallit has become such a focal point at the Western Wall, stimulated by the group called the Women of the Wall. It is not a new debate, as it has been a debate for ages noted in the history of Jewish law, going back to the 11th century in Egypt, Europe and Israel. The difference is that today, the fight to wear a tallit at the Kotel by the Women of the Wall has a wider implication- the struggle for religious freedom for women without undermining halacha at all.
Today I am troubled to witness the lack of religious pluralism in Israel and I am equally concerned that the ideal of Israel as a democratic Jewish state is fading. I am not happy to see the power of a minority group -- that of the Ultra–Orthodox, calling the shots in Israeli daily life. This is why I respect the Women of the Wall; by insisting on praying their way with a tallit, they lead the way for a better understanding of the Jewish law.
*) Tzitzit is the Hebrew for the specially knotted ritual fringes attached to the four corners of the prayer shawl] to the garments of the women of their houses -- Note that a prayer shawl without the tzizit is not considered a tallit.
(C)Rabbi Ziona Zelazo