A recent brouhaha has emerged in the Jewish blogosphere over Rabbi Ari Hart’s recent post, “Should I Thank God For Not Making Me A Woman?” Rabbi Hart references one of a series of morning prayers, collectively termed Birkot Hashahar, in which Orthodox men proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” Women, and both genders in the prayerbooks (“siddurim“) of the other Jewish denominations, instead proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made me according to His will.” Rabbi Hart, an Orthodox rabbi who is the co-founder of a leading Orthodox social justice organization, bemoans the sexism and misogyny the former prayer supports within the Orthodox world but feels duty-bound, as a matter of Jewish law (“halakha“), to continue reciting the prayer every day. He hopes that saying the prayer will make him more mindful of gender inequality in the world and more committed to fighting for equality.
Not surprisingly, Hart’s blog registered some vociferous responses. Those on the religious right have sought to defend the prayer as reflecting the fact that, according to traditional halakha, only men are obligated to perform positive, time-bound commands (“mitzvot“). According to this perspective, men who say the prayer are virtuously accepting the yoke of commandedness that does not similarly bind women. Of course, this system of differentiating between men and women on the basis of time-bound mitzvot itself is the product of an historical context in which women were solely charged with domestic responsibilities that were thought to conflict with the performance of time-sensitive religious obligations. Conspicuously absent from these defenses is any discussion of the propriety of maintaining such a standard in a contemporary society where domestic responsibilities increasingly are becoming shared, if not reversed.
Those on the religious left have reacted with vitriol. They view Hart’s apologist defense of the blessing’s continued relevance as privileging misogyny over equality. Others have protested Hart’s attempt to have it both ways—to bemoan the prayer’s contribution to sexism within Orthodoxy but to assume that adopting a certain mindset while reciting it will somehow eliminate the misogyny engendered by this attitude.
But there is a third approach that has been conspicuously absent from this online debate: why not have women bless God explicitly for making them women? Why not let women thank God for not making them men? Surprisingly, this is not some modern, liberal attempt to mess with tradition. Instead, such a prayer actually exists in a siddur dating back to 1471 Northern Italy, which you can see here (p. 5v). This siddur was written by Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Farissol, a well-respected Italian rabbi at a time when there were no Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or other denominations of Judaism. The prayer’s language is unambiguous and unabashed: blessing God “she-asitani ishah v’lo ish”–for making me a woman and not a man. The beauty of this prayer is that, in one line, it affirms the inherent dignity and worthiness of women in society, rebutting (though by no means removing) the toxicity of the male praise for not being made a woman. Its poignant language promotes gratitude for the privilege of having been born as a woman.
Ultimately, my preference is for both men and women to proclaim the gender-neutral “who has made me according to His will.” This language, which has been endorsed liturgically by all non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, ensures no confusion about which gender is normatively preferred. It recasts the blessing from a negative (and therefore seemingly perjorative) connotation—thanks for not making me X—to a positive one. And it has the added benefit of providing a means for affirming individuals who experience gender fluidity. But for places of worship that, for whatever reason(s), prefer to use the original male-centric wording, I hope that they will also embrace the tradition of the 1471 female-centric prayer as a viable text for women to use in expressing praise to their Creator.
With Purim just a month from now, the internet is just starting to entertain with the usual, and welcome, plethora of videos, jokes, and other expressions of frivolity. A rather lively, and creative, one was brought to my attention by a colleague and, after a preliminary viewing, I showed it to my nearly-thirteen year old son.
He thought it was pretty cool. I did too. But what was troubling was this:
Me: Those cantors did a fantastic job with the vocals, don’t you think?
Ben: There were cantors in that? I didn’t see any.
Ben didn’t see any because he has only attended synagogues that have female cantors. Additionally, he is used to rabbis who sing. Really sing. So when he said he didn’t see any cantors, it wasn’t a conscious statement of gender-bias. It was an innocent statement based on his life experience.
To me, there is little difference between a child growing up to think that all rabbis are male and a child who grows up thinking that all cantors are female. Both beliefs are problematic — not mention incorrect in the liberal Jewish community — and some serious education is required in order to rear future generations whose beliefs regarding gender accurately reflect the vocational landscape. Because such gender-exclusivity exists in every discipline.
Earlier this month, The Atlantic ran a piece “A Simple Suggestion to Help Phase Out All-Male Panels at Tech Conferences” with a follow-up, “The Panel Pledge: A Follow-Up,” a few days later. Senior Editor, Rebecca Rosen, brings attention to a pledge, developed by Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, for men to take. This pledge asks men to forswear participation in any all-male panels in an effort to stem the homogeneity that so frequently occurs.
Having sat through many single-gender presentations, I see great value in this and I especially appreciate the approach. Having our male counterparts partner with us in challenging the status quo is a powerful statement. But I can’t sign the pledge. I can’t sign it because, of course, I am not a man. And I would not sign it because I think that it does not go quite far enough. A simple expansion of the parameters would call for a gender-balanced panel; one with men and women, with no all-male or all-female panels. There are, certainly, some legitimate exceptions to the mixed-gender panel. As a general rule, however, we need a pledge that calls upon women, as well as men, to take a stand. Because an all-female panel does a disservice to future generations as well.