4/15/2005

On Shelo Asani Ishah

The problem:
  • The original context (Menachot 43a) addressed the aspect of #s of Mitzvot, or so it seems. Given that it was recited in pretty much all-male contexts, and was pretty much true (it was a LOT harder to be a woman back then, and still somewhat harder today. Men don’t have to worry about getting pregnant or raped or stuck without a toilet around).
  • The Tur, when introducing the bracha of ‘She-asani kirtzono’, calls it ‘tziduk ha-din’ , an acceptance of an incomprehensible divine justice. This makes matters worse; it pretty much denies the possibility of apologetics (i.e., women don’t need as many mitzvoth because they’re on a higher spiritual level). By adding that bracha (which doesn’t appear in the Gemara), it actually makes matters worse.
  • Contemporary feminist (and not so feminist) sensibilities are uncomfortable with a bracha that says “Thank God I’m not a woman” – exacerbated by it’s public recital every day.
  • Like so many other issues, there’s a conflict between contemporary values (and I won’t say ‘modern’ or ‘secular’ values, because I really think that not demeaning women publicly – if indeed something would be perceived in that way – is something that we ought to refrain from morally and religiously) and established practice. What to do, within a Halakhic framework?
Some hackneyed solutions:
  • Apologize and do it anyway
  • Whisper the brachot
  • Start from the beginning of psukei de-zimrah
  • Institute a new bracha that’s neutral but preserves the themes of the original
Some ideas that I batted around with the ADDeRebbetzin:
  • Women should/can simply stop saying ‘she-asani’; it’s not a bracha from the Gemara anyway, was apparently instituted to make women feel better, somehow, so why not skip it? Once the ‘tziduk ha-din’ element is removed, the men’s bracha can become more palatable as a reference to mitzvoth in particular
  • That logic can be extended; the men’s bracha of ‘shelo asani ishah’ can be contextualized to a time that it was really much more difficult to be a woman – economically, socially, healthwise, etc. Relating it to the Gemara in Menachot, more mitzvoth is a symptom of grater freedom and greater control over one’s own choices – free to do mitzvoth (the Gemara’s equation of women and slaves in this context can support this read; ayen sham). Thus, perhaps that’s the ‘woman’ that we men ought to be thinking of when we make the bracha (like the Nazir used to think about the President of the USA when he made a ‘shelo asani goy’). Theoretically, the bracha might as well have been ‘Thank God for creating me in a generation where indoor plumbing is readily available’, but the point is that we’re trying to preserve ‘matbei’a she-tav’u chakhamim’.
  • This is a bit of a wildcard: perhaps both men AND women should say ‘she’asani kirtzono’. First off all, didn’t beis hillel agree with beis shammai that we’re beter off not being created? In that case, there’s an element of ‘tzidduk ha-din’ in all of us. It would mean appropriating an already existing bracha to a new context, which isn’t nearly as problematic as inventing a new bracha (especially for Ashkenazim, who make a bracha n the minhag of saying hallel on Rosh Chodesh and who make brachot on voluntary mitzvoth, such as a woman sitting in the sukkah. For Sephardim it might be different, but they might agree in this case since it’s a bracha of shevach, not mitzvahJ). It can even neutralize of re-invent that bracha so that it’s altogether positive and isn’t a ‘tziduk ha-din’ at all. It can even be interpreted to mean that we are all somehow uniquely endowed to ascertain and execute God’s will – we were made to accord with His will (rather than ‘in accordance with).
  • One other possibility - also a bit controversial but not completely 'out of bounds', would be to skip the bracha entirely. The 'chyuv' of 'me'ah brachot' is a general one, and these brachot are a way of expressing the general theme of finding things to praise God for. Do we men really feel compelled to thank God for not being created a woman? I don't. Should we lie in our brachot? If not, we should skip it or substitute alternative meanings (as in previous suggestions).
  • The final solution, which is really what most people do - just say the bracha without any kavana. It's easy.
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