Who Has Not Made Me a Woman

Different versions and parallels from classical sources and manuscripts provide an interesting perspective on this controversial blessing.

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The morning blessings include one praising God "who has not made me a woman." This article appeared originally in the Calgary Jewish Free Press and is reprinted with permission.

Few Jewish religious texts have provoked as much indignation and discomfort as the brief passage that is recited by traditional Jewish men at the beginning of the daily morning prayers: "Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler the universe who has not created me a woman." For many, it expresses a quintessential misogyny that lies at the core of our patriarchal religion. 

The text in question appears as part of a sequence of blessings, found in the Talmud, that are meant to accompany activities that are performed in the course of waking up in the morning, such as hearing the first cock-crow, opening one's eyes, stepping on the ground, getting dressed, etc. In order to maintain uniformity, medieval Jewish authorities preferred that all the blessings be recited together in the synagogue, rather than left to the discretion of individuals.

The "has not created me a woman" blessing is part of a subgroup that expresses similar gratitude for not having been created a gentile (i.e., a heathen) or a slave. Differing liturgical traditions are at variance over whether these three blessings are to appear near the beginning of the sequence or at its conclusion.

This inconsistency attests to an important fact: The three "who has not made me" blessings were not originally part of the same set as the others. They originate in a separate Talmudic passage, ascribed to the second-century sage Rabbi Judah bar Ilai. Earlier versions of the tradition read "ignoramus" instead of "slave."

Contemporary apologists for the blessing insist that the blessing is not intended to disparage women or imply that they are inferior, but merely to express gratitude for the fact that men are obligated to perform more religious commandments. It must be admitted that the "apologetic" explanation is not a modern invention, but it appears explicitly in the earliest version of the blessing.

An old liturgical fragment from the Cairo Genizah contains a more positive formulation of the same themes "…who has created me a human and not beast, a man and not a woman, an Israelite and not a gentile, circumcised and not uncircumcised, free and not slave."

Some scholars have suggested that the Apostle Paul was alluding to an early version of this blessing when he declared, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female…" Others have preferred to portray Rabbi Judah as reacting to Paul's words.

The American Conservative Movement opted to replace the negative formulation with an affirmation of what we are: free, Jewish, and (instead of "male") created in God's image. In making this change, they could cite the precedent of the Genizah text cited above, as well as the text of the Rome Mahzor, which reads "who has made me an Israelite."

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Eliezer Segal

Dr. Eliezer Segal is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. A native of Montreal, he holds a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Holidays, History, and Halakhah, and many of his writings can be found on his personal website.