Three Blessings

Why does the daily liturgy thank God for not making you a Gentile, slave, or a woman?

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The Standardizing of Jewish Texts

Meanwhile, the advent of printing standardized the texts of these and other prayers like never before. But then, starting in the 18th century, once emancipation came around, the three blessings became problematic again—not only because of Christian sensitivities but because of the Jews' own aspirations to merge their particularity with the values of the broader society. "Not surprisingly," Kahn observes, "not a single 19th-century European liberal prayer book includes 'did not make me a Gentile' in Hebrew." Even unimpeachably Orthodox figures changed the wording from goy to nokhri (foreigner), a term shorn of the negative connotations accrued by the former word over the centuries.

In America, liturgists were freer still. By 1872, almost a decade after slavery had been abolished in the nation, "Who did not make me a slave" was gone from Reform prayer books, to be followed by the removal of the other blessings from the 1895 edition of the Union Prayer Book. Proto-Conservative siddurim like Avodat Yisrael of 1873 replaced the three blessings with one: "Who made me an Israelite." The leading modern-Orthodox siddur of the 20th century, by Joseph Hertz, substituted nokhri for goy and added an elaborate apologetic commentary: "He who would serve humanity must first of all to himself be true." As for "Who has not made a woman," it was glossed as "Who has set upon me the obligations of a man," while the corresponding blessing recited by a woman thanked God for allowing her "to win hearts for Thee by motherly or wifely devotion."

The Blessings Today

And today? Unfortunately, Kahn does not investigate the work of Israeli liturgists of various denominations. He does, however, attend to the further evolution of Reform and Conservative prayer books—and, pointedly, to the Artscroll phenomenon, in which everything old has become new again. (The Artscroll siddur contains the three blessings in unadulterated form, asserting unapologetically that "The Torah assigns missions to respective groups of people.")

Toward the end of his study, Kahn also offers interesting reflections on his experience in his own synagogue in San Francisco, a gay community that has proved more than willing to re-engage traditional liturgies from its perspective of theological agnosticism and commitment to inclusion: "Who has led me to my Jewish heritage...Who has made each of us unique, and all of us according to Your will." Today's non-halakhic communities, he notes, perhaps because they are more distanced from the old texts and the forms of authority that accompanied them, are more eager than their immediate forebears both to appreciate those texts and to experiment with them.

The world in which the ancient prayers emerged was one in which clear social boundaries and correspondingly well-defined roles were a value and an end in themselves, however imperfectly realized in practice. Today, the category of slave has been discarded with a moral vehemence that can only be termed religious, and that was nourished in no small measure by both Scripture and the historical experience of Jewish suffering. The second two categories, distinguishing between man and woman, Jew and Gentile, are still with us but in a continual process of redefinition that shifts once-fixed expectations, rights, and responsibilities by seeking to minimize friction and maximize the reach of human freedom.

Can God ground and guide these explorations as He once guaranteed those boundaries? That would be blessing indeed.

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Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.