If I Could Tell My Fifteen-Year-Old Self

February 10, 2022 in Rabbi Deborah Megdal, Reflections Off the Bimah

When I was about fifteen years old, my father took me to buy tefillin. An older teenage girl at my school showed me how to wrap tefillin one day at morning minyan. I can still remember that she taught each step with clarity and kindness: first, tightening the knot around my Rabbi Megdal teaching a student how to wrap tefillinbicep; next, wrapping seven times around my forearm; tightening the knot of the headpiece at the base of my neck; and finally, the elaborate and beautiful tying around my hand and fingers as I recited:

Erastich li le le’olam, ve’erastich li be’tzedek u’ve’mishpat u’ve’hesed u’verachamim, ve’erastich li be’emunah, ve’yadaat et Adonai.”  (Hosea 2:21-22)

These verses from Hosea are about reconciliation between God and Israel through the metaphor of romantic love. The context in the Bible is complicated (deserving of separate reflection and study), but the poetry is elegant and filled with love: “I will espouse you forever. I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness, then you shall be devoted to God.”

When I wrap tefillin, I feel connected to God in a more tactile, physical way than through other ritual experiences. The black boxes hold tiny scrolls inscribed with the Shema and Ve’ahavta (and other biblical verses), so I bind myself to God’s words.

At fifteen, when I began wrapping tefillin regularly, I was proud to join the ranks of the Women Who Wrap Tefillin, which included only one other female student and one or two faculty. I had studied the rabbinic legal position that women are permitted, but not obligated, for the mitzvah of tefillin. I struggled with this sex-based distinction, because I wanted to be obligated the same as the boys. I learned that there was a way to obligate oneself by making a public, formal announcement to the community. So I met with one of my teachers, a Conservative rabbi, and we created a ritual together for me to take on the obligation of tefillin.

Since my self-obligating tefillin ritual many years ago, there have been exciting and important changes in the world of traditional Jewish law. Rabbi Pamela Barmash (with whom I have the honor of working now in a fellowship) wrote a legal opinion that was accepted by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in 2014. She concluded: “Women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot, with the exception of those mitzvot that are determined by sexual anatomy.”

Today, no one must make a public and formal announcement to obligate themselves for tefillin. With the added celebration and inclusion of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming folks, we all have equal access to this meaningful and sacred ritual.

This week, I led tefillin workshops with the fifth and sixth graders in our Beth El Religious School. I taught them about tefillin and demonstrated by wrapping tefillin myself, as a woman rabbi. Then, in small groups, I invited each of them to wrap tefillin. Most of the children chose to participate, and we all had fun! 

Reflections on the experience in their words: “It was weird…good weird,” “it was hard, but cool,” and “it was like a hug.” WOW. This rabbi couldn’t be prouder or happier.

And if I could tell my fifteen-year-old self that I would one day teach 70 children of all genders how to wrap tefillin, she would be smiling ear-to-ear, too. 

Check out the photo album of the BERS tefillin workshops here! Thank you to Mitchell Solkowitz for photography.