It was mid-August and the air conditioning was broken in the café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Across from me sat a woman I was about to interview. Her hairline, concealed by a dark brown wig, emanated sweat. Every so often she would raise her arm and, using the long-sleeve of her blue shirt, wipe the perspiration away.
I apologized for the heat and pulled at my slightly-too-short skirt so that it covered my knees. She should feel comfortable, I thought, knowing that I, too, was a modest Jewish woman suffering through the humidity.
But this was not entirely true. I am not an Orthodox woman who adheres to the modesty laws—not in the strictest sense. I was there to talk to her, and, over the course of the summer, I would speak with twenty-one other Orthodox men and women, about their understanding of the morning blessing “she lo asani isha,” Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has not made me a woman. My hope was to uncover how Jews from different branches of Orthodoxy grapple with—or ignore—the implications of sexual hierarchy established by this blessing.
I was masked by my role as a detached academic, researching my senior thesis topic. More honestly, it was a personal project laden with frustration, pain and a longing to find my place within the Jewish tradition that I love.
Why do I want to be a part of a religion that values this blessing? The question has plagued me for the last few years as I find myself yearning more and more for traditional Jewish ritual and community.
I was not raised Jewish. My mother is a practicing Unitarian Universalist and my father is a non-practicing Jew. While our family celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, we never went to a Shabbat service or spoke the words of Hebrew prayer. Until I was fourteen, I attended a Unitarian church in Manhattan every Sunday. I participated in the youth group, Christmas pageant, and children’s choir. I identified both as a Unitarian Universalist and as a Jew. But at the start of high school, a major shift occurred.
I began to wonder if my Unitarian practice was the right fit. I convinced my father to join me for our first Kabbalat Shabbat service at a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn. The awe I experienced that evening changed my life. It was like returning to something I had not known and yet understood somewhere in the recesses of my body. The Hebrew sounds were foreign, the music was mysterious, and I felt simultaneously at home and like an outsider. I fell in love that night, and I became determined to immerse myself in Judaism and to work towards feeling like an insider.
Since that evening I have struggled to learn about my Jewish tradition. I studied for two years to become a bat mitzvah at the age of sixteen, majored in Jewish Studies at Northwestern University, spent a year in Israel studying at Hebrew University, and, most recently, went to the mikvah for an official conversion and a re-commitment to Judaism and my practice.
But the deeper I have traveled into the body of Jewish text and ritual and the more I crave a rigorous faith, the more I run into the wall of what it means to be a woman inside a traditional community. I am constantly battling the side of me that wants to be enveloped in an Orthodox community and the side of me that is accustomed to, and believes in, contemporary norms of gender equality.
I set out to spend two years researching and wrestling with the blessing “she lo asani isha.” I looked to the blessing as the site of a struggle between tradition and modernity. I believed that through engaging with this blessing, I could resolve a tension within myself and a tension that I imagined many other men and women feel.
Each time I sat across from my interviewees I hoped that they would provide me with an answer. I saw them as guides—individuals filled with wisdom and spirituality who might share my sentiments. Did they wrestle with the blessing too? Could they give me a persuasive answer about why it is said and why it is important to say? How did they bridge the divide between tradition and change? Their words had the potential to counsel and revive my spirituality.
What I learned through the process of my research was that there was no resolution to be found—no answer that would quiet my battles and the tension that many of my Orthodox interviewees experienced. What I found were a variety of rationalizations that often seemed to evade the insulting nature of the blessing. Nearly everyone I interviewed applied multiple explanations even if one line of logic contradicted another.
This tangle of answers, combined with my own daily struggle with the words “she lo asani isha,” has enabled me to become more comfortable with my religiosity and with spiritual tension. At the start of my interviews I was uncomfortable critiquing women’s roles within Jewish tradition and within many forms of Orthodoxy. I was uncomfortable because I felt the weight of being an outsider. How could I critique what I did not know—a world that I was not raised in? I did not feel that I had the right.
Immersing myself in the interpretations, both historical and contemporary, that surround “she lo asani isha,” I began to feel more at home with critique. I could listen, contest and judge from a place of greater knowledge and understanding. While I am without a resolution, and while I am still deeply troubled by this blessing, I am more at ease in my Jewish body. I can embrace my critiques of Judaism because I am battling with my faith, my Jewish tradition and my Jewish forbearers from a place of immense love.