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"Shelo Assani Isha"--A Critique of Contemporary "Bloggic" Discourse

Tuesday, August 16 2011

SHE-LO ASSANI ISHA– A CRITIQUE OF CONTEMPORARY “BLOGGIC” DISCOURSE

 

By Rabbi Zev Farber

(Rabbi Zev Farber was ordained (yoreh yoreh and yadin yadin) by YCT Rabbinical School. He is the founder of AITZIM (Atlanta Institute of Torah and Zionism) - an adult education initiative. Rabbi Farber serves on the board of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) and is the coordinator of their Vaad Giyyur. He is also a PhD candidate at Emory University's Graduate Division of Religion.)

 

Recently, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, wrote a blog-post describing how uncomfortable he has become with men reciting the blessing thanking God for not making them women. If I remember the original post correctly (it has since been deleted), R.Kanefsky felt that this blessing reflected an outdated view of women as something less than men. In our society that belief is no longer held and implying it would be discourteous to women.Therefore, he argued, the blessing should not be said nowadays.

            The latter point, i.e. that the blessing should be dropped or changed is, of course, debatable, since where and when halakha is supposed to change is a tricky question. I myself have an article in the works on this subject, advocating an adjustment to our nussah, and I am looking forward to a constructive dialogue on this topic in our community.

R. Kanefsky’s first point, that the blessing reflects, or, at least, originally reflected, a viewpoint of women as being somewhat “less” than men is so patently obvious that it is amazing to me that it needs to be defended. And yet, the nature of our Orthodox world has become one where the patently obvious can be denied as if it were itselfabsurd. This can be seen from the numerous blog posts that have been written over the past week attacking Rabbi Kanefsky for not being “really” Orthodox (a favorite form of “j’accuse” amongst Orthodox bloggers nowadays). At best, some have chalked it up to his strong emotional nature clouding his judgment. I will not engage these posts or their authors directly because of their mean-spirited and inappropriate tone, but I do think a number of points need to be made.

First, does the berakha imply that men are better than women? Let’s look at the set of blessings as a whole. Is it better to be a Jew than a Gentile according to the rabbis? Obviously. Is it better to be a freeman than a slave according to the rabbis? Obviously. Is it better to be learned than an ignoramus according to the rabbis (one of the Talmudic blessings that we no longer say)? Obviously. Is it better to be a man than a woman according to the rabbis?... Is the answer somehow not obvious?

            But someone will say: “No, you have to understand what the rabbis really mean.” All right, let’s do that. The earliest reference to these blessings is in Tosefta Berakhot 6:18. Here is the entire passage:

 

R. Yehudah says: “A person must say three blessings every day:

a. Blessed [is God] for not making me a Gentile.

b. Blessed [is God] for not making me an ignoramus.

c. Blessed [is God] for not making me a woman.

Gentile – for it says: “All the nations are like nothing before Him, like naught and void they are considered by Him” (Isaiah 40:17).Ignoramus – for an ignoramus does not fear sin.Woman – for women are not obligated to perform mitzvot.They made a parable: To what is this similar? To a human king who tells his servant: ‘Cook me a dish.’ And [this servant] has never cooked before; in the end he will ruin the dish and anger his master. ‘Fold my laundry”, but [the servant] never folded laundry before; in the end he will sully the cloak and anger his master.

 

 

Here each blessing comes with a short explanation. It is better to be a Jew than a Gentile, since Gentiles are entirely discounted by God – an offensive enough statement which inspired the alternative text of “who has made me an Israelite”. It is better to be learned instead of ignorant, since the ignoramus does not fear God, ostensibly because he does not know how. It is better to be a man than a woman since a man has mitzvot (i.e. positive commandments) and women do not.

            One could argue that none of this is a statement about the intrinsic worth of a person. It is simply about a person’s status before God or his or her ability to serve God. However, this is really an academic point, since the bottom line is that, for whatever reason, the three types of people that the reciter of the blessing does not want to be are clearly worse things to be. It may be an interesting question why God chose to make certain people Jews and certain people Gentiles, or why God chose to make certain people men and others women, but the end result is that God did, and it is the Jewish free man that is the best thing to be according to this series of blessings.

            Why this is becomes clear in the parable. Although the parable has often been interpreted as directly commenting on the ignoramus, it explains all three nicely. Only the Jewish free male can properly serve God because only he has the experience performing mitzvot properly and knows how. Hence, it is better to be a man than a woman because men know how to serve God, and do so daily, and women do not.

Although I will not do this here, source after source can be quoted from the Talmud and other rabbinic literature that makes it clear that there was a strong belief, at least among many rabbis, that women were inferior to men, for whatever reason. The idea that the berakha thanking God for not making one a woman does not reflect a worldview where women are somehow “less” than men is impossible to consider as a real interpretation of this blessing, at least in its original and simple intent.

So, one will ask, were the Rabbis chauvinists? My answer to this question is that it is anachronistic. The rabbis (or at least many of them) certainly did believe that women were less than men. However, this was not a peculiarly rabbinic prejudice, but reflected the perspective of the entire known world at the time. In fact, this very set of blessings was said by Greek philosophers as well as Zoroastrian scholars. This is why the rabbis wrote the blessing; they wanted to thank God for having made them men – why should they be less pious than Plato or Zoroaster?

There should be little surprise that the Sages shared the worldview of the rest of “civilized humanity” with which they were familiar. Being upset or outraged about this is like being scandalized that the Rabbis believed that the sun went into a tube at night, or that the heart pumped air, or that insects were spontaneously generated – all of which they believed. The rabbis of Talmudic times were products of their age when it came to scientific and social-scientific reality. This is hardly surprising.

Does all this mean that we should change the blessings since our perspective on women has changed? Again, a blog post is not the forum for hashing out this type of technical halakhic question. Much research has been put into understanding the nature of these blessings, especially on the historical front, with the most recent treatment being Yoel Kahn’s book The Three Blessings. As I stated above, I myself have an article in the works on this subject that attempts to show that the formulation of these blessings has been fluid throughout our liturgical history and that there should be little problem adjusting their formulation as has been done throughout the ages when necessary.

One can, of course, debate my or Rabbi Kanefsky’sanalysis, but this is not the point. The point is that Rabbi Kanefsky has opened up a discussion of a real problem by poignantly, if perhaps overzealously, calling our attention to the consequences of continuing to say the blessing as is.

First of all, it does not reflect our worldview; it feels false to say it. Even worse, the statement is actually offensive to fully half of the people in our community. The reality is, we men state publicly every day that we thank God that he did not make us women, implying – and yes it does imply this – that it is better to be a man than a woman; that being a woman is worse.

Of course, one could offer an apologetic spin and reinterpret the blessing as some have done.If this works for certain communities, great (some of my best friends are apologists). Unfortunately, this strategy does not seem to work well in the Open Orthodox community as a whole; many of us are simply too cognizant of the apologetic process for it to have real affect. Given this problem, Rabbi Kanefskypoints out an important irony: What was once a prayer that highlighted God’s magnanimity to the reciter of the prayer has now become an unintentional tool of offense against fifty percent of God’s own people!This makes the religion look archaic, the opposite of what we are striving for. Worse still, Rabbi Kanefskyargues that continuing to say this blessing daily reinforces and perhaps even justifies our failure to afford women some of the religious opportunities they halakhically deserve, at least according to many authorities. The question is: what can be done?This is the Orthodox community after all, and our practices need to be firmly grounded in halakha.

This problem and the possible solutions to it will require much discussion in the Modern Orthodox community, for those who are open to it. The question of what to do next is a complex one and not one that can be solved in a blog post. Nevertheless, I hope that people will give careful thought to the complexity of thematter. Automatic reactions against perceived change should not be proffered or accepted. All matters of importance require careful research anddeliberation.

This brings me to my final point, and the reason I write this post. I want people to think about the perils of knee-jerk aggressive responses, especially in public. In our world it has become acceptable to post whatever thoughts come to mind, even extremely negative ones about other people, and to put them in the public eye for all to see. We name names and we call people names. By doing this, we not only degrade our adversaries but we degrade ourselves as well. Lo zo ha-derekh my friends – this is not the way.