Commentary: A Dream of Just Knowing
Recently I was speaking to a class in my Reform synagogue’s religious school when I learned the significance of Memorial Day. We were discussing the differences between the customs of Memorial Day in the United States and those in Israel. In Israel, I noted, Yom HaZikaron is widely observed with services, tributes, visits to soldiers’ graves and a countrywide two-minute period of silence. In America, while many families visit veterans’ cemeteries, most people see Memorial Day as a vacation day.
After this serious discussion, one of the girls lightened our melancholy conversation by remarking that in the States after Memorial Day one can wear white. I had no idea what she was talking about. With complete unawareness of my social inadequacies, I asked, “What do you mean you can wear white?” The girls became excited and animated. Here was a chance to teach their rabbi about fashion etiquette. “After Memorial Day, you can wear white pants and carry a white pocketbook,” one girl explained. “You can always wear a white shirt, but only after Memorial Day can you really wear white.” I was dumbfounded. I looked to the teachers and cantor (all of them women) for help.
“Yes,” they nodded to me. “It is true. After Memorial Day, you can wear white. But only until Labor Day.”
“Why?” I asked. One girl attempted to answer me. “You just don’t.” They all looked at each other and nodded. I was still perplexed. They were still certain. I am grateful for their teaching. Most of all, I am thankful for their passion.
So here is my newfound passion: Though the mitzva of talit has been taken up by some women, it is by no means universally accepted or observed. I hope that girls will one day think that wearing a fringed talit is as self-evident and universally accepted as wearing white after Memorial Day. That they will not imagine doing otherwise. This is my aspiration for my own daughter. When asked why do you wear a talit, she will respond, “It is just because.” It will be so obvious to her that she will be unable to recall that in the not-too-distant past it was an exceptional (and to some revolutionary) thing for a girl to wear a talit. Of course, the Torah is clear: “That shall be your tzitzit [fringes]; look at them and recall all the mitzvot…and observe them” (Numbers 15:39). But centuries of interpretation have insisted that this time-bound mitzva (as well as many others) is only incumbent on men. And this has shaped our worldview more than the Torah’s words. Jewish tradition does not prohibit women from wearing a talit. It only insists it of men.
My dream is that mothers (and perhaps some fathers) will take their daughters shopping for a talit. Young girls will look through the many kinds now available—silk, decorated, colorful. They will shop for a talit with the same care and concern (and even frustration) with which they shop for a dress. And their mothers will say: “My daughter, the dress that we just bought that looks so beautiful on you—you will soon outgrow it. But you will never outgrow this talit. It will carry you from simha to simha. May you wear it at countless Shabbat and High Holiday services. And one day may your daughter [or son] play with these tzitzit when sitting next to you in synagogue.”
My vision is that one day our daughters will be grandmothers, who will pass down their talitot to their granddaughters when they become bat mitzva. And our daughters will someday relate how they wore the talit on their bat mitzva day. Perhaps she will say, “I have bought many others since then, but this was my first talit. My parents prayed this talit would carry me from simha to simha—and it has.” And then our daughters will look at the congregation, at a sea of women (and men) wearing talitot, smile and say: “Do you see all those women wearing talitot? That fashion began with me.”
And my great-granddaughter will be as perplexed as I once was about wearing white. H
Rabbi Steven Heneson Moskowitz can be reached at www.rabbimoskowitz.com.
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