So there were some visitors in synagogue this shabbat. (It's quite gratifying that I'm getting to the point where I can spot visitors as opposed to regulars I don't recognize.) Anyway, the male half of the couple asked me if I was the only woman in the community to wear a tallit. I told him that there are a handful of us, and also mentioned that there are semi-regular "egalitarian" services where women's participation is positively encouraged and that a lot more tallit-wearing women show up at those. He said something about a lot changing in 50 years but I couldn't tell whether he was being approving or critical. I didn't bother getting into an argument about whether this is actually an innovation, anyway.
It turned out that the person I'd been speaking to is rather a famous rabbi. So famous in fact that I had previously assumed (in a vague, non-specific sort of way) he was dead, as he is mentioned so much in historical accounts. And as he was leaving he said to me:
Keep flying the feminist flag with your tallit!I said that it wasn't a feminist tallit, but in the conciliatory manner one uses for contradicting strangers.
I am sure the rabbi meant well (and now I know who he is I'm fairly sure he is pro egalitarianism). And no, I don't think it's insulting to be thought a feminist. It's just annoying that people should make a whole string of assumptions about my politics because of something I do for religious reasons, not gender political reasons.
I am not trying to make a statement that women are just as good as men. Much less implying a criticism of Judaism for being too sexist. I wear a tallit primarily because of the Biblical commandment to do so. I am joining myself to that element of Jewish tradition, following a practice in common with other Jews for at least 2000 years and probably longer. Wearing a special garment while I'm engaged in specifically religious actions and celebrating holy days is something that is meaningful to me; I like the physicality of it. In the more immediate sense of "tradition" it's something that is common the community I come from and my family, and that's important to me too. Those reasons or something similar to them would probably be the default expectations if one saw a man wearing a tallit. But as a woman, I have to justify my practice, and that's annoying.
The community where I grew up and acquired the rudiments of a Jewish education was egalitarian by default. They didn't spend a lot of time debating feminist theory; it was just obvious to them, as I think to most people in late 20th century Europe, that women were people. They weren't always terribly consistent in their practice, but that went for a lot of different issues, not just egalitarianism. For example, although women took a completely equal role liturgically, it was generally the case that men wore tallissim throughout the service whereas women would put one on specially if they were doing something ritual such as leading the service or reading from Torah or whatever. Nobody really thought through the inconsistency; it wasn't that kind of intellectually engaged community.
When I was taking bar mitzvah classes, I was taught in part by R Hadassah Davis. She was both much more actively feminist, and (being a rabbi, it's somewhat expected!) more engaged with Jewish learning than most of her community. I had assumed that I would follow the synagogue's normal practice of borrowing a tallit for my bat mitzvah and then going back to only wearing one when needed. R Davis encouraged me to take on the practice of wearing a tallit whenever I attended services. It seemed logical to me; taking it as a given, as I then did, that women were equal participants Jewishly, there seemed no reason for women not to wear the ritual garment in all the circumstances men would.
I was vaguely aware that the historical reason for the difference was that women were exempt from commandments that have to be performed at a specific time, and for somewhat technical reasons wearing a tallit is included in this category. It is generally assumed that this exemption was to save women from a situation where their religious duties might conflict with urgently needing to deal with young children. So men were theoretically obliged to wear tallit, women could choose to do so if they wished. Traditional Reform Judaism has issues about absolute obligations anyway, so in fact not all the Jewish men I knew wore tallissim. But my 13-year-old's understanding of the situation was that the custom of women not wearing tallissim was a relic from the days when women were married and pregnant as soon as they reached puberty. Some Jews, I was vaguely aware, carried on this antiquated custom because they hadn't quite realized that in today's society a large proportion of adult women are not the primary carers for young children. (At 13 I thought Orthodox Judaism was this aberrant sect who hadn't realized that society has changed in the last several centuries, which was rather unfair of me but I had had little direct contact with Orthodox Judaism.)
So it seemed reasonable to me that I, as an unmarried and childfree (and intending, even at 13, to stay that way) religiously adult woman, I might as well follow the same standard of religious observance as my male peers. At the same time, I didn't want to rock the boat, and I was very conscious of the fact that many in the community were nervous of R Davis' feminism and generally radical ideas. Then as now I didn't want people to assume I was making a feminist political statement by wearing a tallit.
What decided me in the end was the tallit itself. For the special occasion of my bat mitzvah, I was allowed to borrow a tallit which is a family heirloom. My maternal grandfather inherited it from his great-uncle, so it was probably made in the early 19th century. It is made of silk, slightly yellowing, fragile silk, and it has my grandfather's great-uncle's initials embroidered on it, and it is absolutely huge for a small woman. And it's gorgeous. I was so proud to wear it at my bat mitzvah and to feel part of that family line. After that, I wasn't going to put it away, carefully folded up with tissue paper and mothballs so that my brother could have it when he came of age; I was the eldest and it was my birthright. (Screwy in fact inherited our grandfather's carved ivory chess set, which means more to him than the tallit so I don't think I deprived him too badly.)
So yeah, I wear a tallit because I'm following the tradition of my community, the tradition of my teachers, the tradition of my family. My mother, by the way, comes from a long established Liberal family; my grandfather's great uncle might have been a little surprised to see a female descendant wearing his tallit, but then it's unlikely that he or my grandfather would have worn it more often than their bar mitzvahs, weddings (and theoretically their own funerals, but for various reasons they didn't do the latter, which is why I was able to inherit something that is not usually passed down through generations) anyway.
I have since gained a more sophisticated understanding of women wearing tallissim and all the politics behind the controversy but the basic idea still remains: it's obligatory for men and optional for women. There are reasons why it's pretty unusual for women in Orthodox circles beyond "Orthodox Jews are living in the 17th century"; they are not necessarily reasons I approve of, but they are important to the people who believe in them. For me as a Reform Jew, it is an obligation that I have taken on myself (a concept which doesn't really exist in Orthodox Judaism) and therefore it is important in my religious practice that I maintain it.
There are two other factors: firstly, the techelet thing. The original commandment says that the fringes on the tallit should include a thread of a particular shade of blue. Early rabbinic literature goes into great detail about how the dye has to be prepared from a particular organism and matching the colour isn't good enough, it has to be this specific dye. After the destruction of the Temple the knowledge of exactly which organism and how to prepare the dye was lost, so in modern Judaism it has been forbidden to wear the blue thread as it is likely to be the wrong shade of blue. However, recently, there was a huge collaborative project between rabbinic scholars, historical textual scholars and biologists and chemists to recreate the original dye. At least some authorities have ruled that yes, we know with adequate certainty exactly what techelet is (though as with everything in Judaism, there is controversy on this matter). So now it is possible to wear the blue thread again, and I just couldn't resist the idea of a collaboration between rabbinic scholars and biochemists, so that makes it even more meaningful to me to wear a tallit with the newly rediscovered blue thread!
And then there was the whole issue when I was going out with lethargic_man and his parents disapproved of Reform Judaism in general and of women taking active ritual roles including wearing tallissim in particular. When my practice was directly, personally attacked, it made me all the more determined that I had taken on this obligation and I wasn't going to drop it. So I acquired the "small" form of the tallit, which is worn as an undergarment. Initially this was so I could wear it when visiting lethargic_man's parents' shul without offending his parents or their friends. But now that I have the undergarment I have extended my practice so that I wear fringes throughout the day of a shabbat or festival, and not just when I am actually in synagogue.
Is that "flying a feminist flag"? I don't see it as such. I don't put gender politics above religion; in this particular case, I think the differentiation between men and women is not justified and that's why I ignore it. But I don't have a problem in principle with men having different ritual roles from women. (And now that I'm a bit more mature I don't think anyone who comes to a different conclusion from me on this issue is old-fashioned or sexist, either.)
Words that might need explaining: tallit is the Jewish ritual garment, often described as a prayer shawl, usually white with black or blue stripes, and where the important part is fringes at the corners tied with knots in a specific pattern. Tallissim is the plural that comes most naturally to me; it's sort of Yinglish though and probably not a "real" word.