Religious rights don’t justify discrimination

My Canadian Take on the “Can’t sit next to Women on a Plane” Issue.

From the Toronto Star


What has been a recurring problem in the U.S. has now reached Canada.

In the U.S. Orthodox Jewish men have caused numerous delays and turmoil on flights by insisting women switch seats so the men can avoid sitting next to them. On a recent Porter flight from New Jersey to Toronto, a woman was asked by an airline attendant to switch seats to accommodate an Orthodox Jewish man who did not want to sit next to her for religious reasons but did not ask her directly.

The men in these cases present their cause as a simple request (or a demand) for religious accommodation. The women who are asked or pressured by the men and sometimes by airline attendants to move see the situation as discrimination based on sex and feel their rights are violated. Both religious accommodation and freedom from discrimination based on sex are integral values that define our view of ourselves as a nation.

As an observant Jew, I see the importance of accommodation. As a feminist, I cannot abide someone regarding gender as a reason to reject a seatmate on a plane. How can these seemingly conflicting values be resolved?

Read the rest here

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It’s not about the extra mitzvot: Mansplaining the Morning Blessings

In Orthodox prayerbooks, a traditional daily morning blessing specifically thanks God for “not making me woman.” It is a part of a trio of prayers expressing gratitude for what we are not. The other two members of the trio are thanking God for “not making me a slave” and for “not making me a non-Jew”.  These blessings remain only in Orthodox prayerbooks, (at least in the negative “who has not made”  formulations) all other denominations having gotten rid of them for various reasons.

I have heard numerous well-intentioned men (and a some women like  Mrs. Leah Kohn  and Kressel’s Korner ) explain that the  blessing for not having been made a women is not a negative reflection on women, which the simple or pshat reading would tell, you but in fact is gratitude for the additional mitzvot/ obligations that a man has, but which a woman is excepted from due to her duties to her husband and children.   These explanations sometimes refer to this blessing’s place in the trio as part of the explanation. Slaves and non-Jews have fewer mitzvot as well and the man saying these blessings is simply grateful for his greater obligations to God. Women’s fewer obligations are explained because women serve God differently through their child-rearing and household  duties. The claims is that intention of the prayer’s authors was never that women were lesser beings, only different.

Those who defend the contemporary use of this prayer  also frequently suggest that this formulation has been “the traditional” and only  formulation since the time of the Talmud.

Before I comment on the “it’s just more obligations” argument, here is a brief history if these blessings. Most of this timeline comes from My People’s Prayer Book: Birkhot hashachar (morning blessings) By Lawrence A. Hoffman and Three Blessings b

  • 3rd century B.C.E. A prayer, attributed to Socrates, expresses gratitude for having been born human and not a brute, a man and not a woman, a Greek and not barbarian. The Zoroastrians had a similar prayer.
  • 200 C.E. Jewish version appears in Talmud (Menahot 43b). The trio of blessings   was unconnected with the dawn blessings /birkhot ha-shahar, which is their current location in the siddur. The rest of the dawn blessings are in a different place- Talmud (Berakhot 60b)
  • 750-825 C.E. The trio makes its way into the dawn blessings /birkhot ha-shahar in Sefer Halakhot Gedolot (“Book of Major Laws”)
  • 13th century : Due to Christian scrutiny, Jews alter the text of “who has not made me a non-Jew” substituting  less direct words (like “Samarian”), phrasing it in the positive as “Who has made me a Jew,” or omitting the blessing.
  • 13-14 centuries- Because many Jews are servants they either replaced the word slave with “boor” or “beast” or removed that  blessing.
  •  14th century – An  alternative form for women to say is established: “Who has made me according to His will,” in the  code of Jacob bar Asher. (Men still say the original blessing.)
  • 14th century- The Rome Machzor replaces “who has not made me a non-Jew” with “who has made me an Israelite”
  • 14th-15th   century – In Southern Europe women say “who made me a women and not a man” (1478, 1480, siddur copied by Abraham  Farisol in Ferrera ), or  “Who did not make me a man”or “Who made me a woman.” See photo.
  • 18th- early 19th centuries- Non-Jew is changed to Nokri/foreigner  in many  Liberal (Reform) books and some in Orthodox ones.
  • 1850s-The Reform movement issued a prayerbook with the blessing “Who has created me to worship Him” for both men and women.
  • 1872- No Reform prayerbooks have “who has not made me a slave”.
  • 1873-The Positive-Historical influenced prayerbook (precursor of Conservative) omits all three original blessings and replaces them with “Who has made me an Israelite”
  • 1895- The “woman” and “non-Jew ” blessings are removed from the Reform siddur
  • early 20th century – The blessing “For making me as God wished”, which became the main Orthodox option for women, appeared as a selection in smaller type in the main prayerbook with “women say” printed above it.
  • 1945- The  Reconstructionist  prayerbook has  with all three blessings in the positive: made me free, made me a Jew and made me in God’s image.
  • 1946- The Conservative prayerbook has  with all three blessings in the positive. From this point forward the negative forms appear only in Orthodox prayerbooks.
  • 2000s- Orthodox prayerbooks have “For making me as God wished” presented side-by-side with “for not making me woman”.

All that history was to just demonstrate that the blessings have been changing since they were introduced.  So change is neither forbidden nor inconsistent with what was done by Jews in the past. Moreover in terms of non-Orthodox Judaism, the change away from all three blessings  in their original forms has been around for 70 years.

So when we have a compelling reason,  that a basic reading of the blessing is offensive to women, and  change this blessing, we are not that different than the Jews who came before us.

And how compelling is the reason? Let’s look at the point that men had more mitzvoth/obligations than women and they had different duties but were still equal in the eyes of the authors of the prayer . What reasons are given for these fewer obligations for  women? The medieval commentator Abu Dirham explains is that a woman is a servant of two masters: her husband and God. To spare a woman the dilemma that might occur if her husband commanded her to do something while she was supposed to be fulfilling a divine commandment, God graciously bows out, relinquishing the claim on her time. This explanation also appears in the Shulchan Aruch/Code of Laws. Later on  and even today we see explanations that suggest that women are inherently closer to God because of their “spiritual” nature and thus do not require extra mitzvot, and at the same time are less subject to temptations or less grounded in their bodies and thus need fewer mitzvot to make them closer to God.

While women, non-Jews and slaves had fewer mitzvot to fulfill, they were also of much lower status and women and slaves had very few, if any, rights as people.  The authors of the Talmud saw none of these categories, non-Jews, women or slaves as their equals but all as lesser beings. The Talmud asks, when discussing this trio of  blessings why the category slave does not just cover women as well:

What form should the morning blessings take?..who has not made me a slave..Isn’t a slave to equivalent to a woman?”(Menachot 43b)

Rashi explains this passage:

For a woman is to her husband as a slave is to his master

There is  a direct connection between this lack of status, being seen as lesser beings and the lack of obligations.  Mitzvot were and are seen as good things to have and being exempt from them to serve the needs of others (husband, and children)  is  not an equal exchange. We are taught all over rabbinic literature that the opportunity to perform additional mitzvot is something to be sought after and the performing mitzvot is our principal way of interacting with and serving God. Nechama Leibowitz wrote that mitzvot elevate “daily, egoistic activities to the level of divine service”.  So, the idea that women have fewer mitzvot, but are still equal but just different  (less likely to sin, more “spiritual) does not mesh well with this basic principle of rabbinic Judaism.

Moreover in the culture of the time and (to a far lesser extent in ours), the freedom of Talmudic men  to study Torah and pray three times a day was because their women or slaves  were taking care of all the menial housework and all the difficult parts of  childrearing for them. Women without rights suffered horribly throughout history, this time period included (however advanced the rabbis may have been on some issues). One example of the numerous way lower status and had real consequences in the lives of women is that  a rape victim had to marry her rapist and could not innate divorce. Another is that a father could marry his daughter to a person she despised while she was still a minor.

There is an inherent connection  between  fewer mitzvot and the associated real suffering of women through lack of human rights and lower status. Ignoring this connection is trying to decouple inherently linked concepts that have been connected by the rabbis right from the introduction and discussion of this blessing in the Talmud  onward.

This attempted decoupling reminds me of this article (The “Southern Belle” Is a Racist Fiction) and many like it which delineate why  glorifying Southern Culture without connecting it to slavery is wrong.

And the Belles of today do exactly that—if you bring up sl*very, they’ll point to all the nice parts about the Old South. The architecture, the parties, the sipping of cool drinks on warm porches. Oh, the fields? Those fields are just for growing delicious strawberries and tomatoes for folks to enjoy. Nothing more……Unfortunately for the nostalgics, the Old South is synonymous with the Antebellum south, which in turn is synonymous with the slave economy. Bu-bu-but tradition! Sorry. Your tradition was someone else’s nightmare. Pining for those days, even if you’re too detached from national history to realize it, is pining for the comforts of whiteness when black people were property.

I am in no way saying that the two situations: women’s lack of personhood throughout  the majority of Jewish history and slavery in America, are equivalent.  What is problematic in both cases is putting one’s own comfort and desire for tradition above the fact that those traditions were inherently linked to the suffering of others.

Men’s extra obligations in rabbinic Judaism were based on and enabled by women’s oppression. It is wrong  to preserve and glorify a time when women were basically property and eminent, educated men were unashamed to compare women to slaves, (even if the comparison was not 100% literal.) If your tradition was someone else’s nightmare, then it needs to changed.




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The Othering of Tzedaka in Jewish Education

Penny in the pushka,
Penny in the pot,
We give tzedakah right before Shabbat.
Counting all the pennies, nickels, quarters, too
It’s fun to help each other,
It’s what we ought to do.
One for the family without enough to eat,
One for the poor folks that live down the street,
One for the little girl who learns in special ways,
And one for Israel and that is why we say…..


The problem with the song is that the ones we are helping are always framed as “the other,” (even if it is not the case in reality). We, the singers of the song, the teachers, the students in the class, are the “Givers,” who help the poor, those with special needs or those who do not have enough to eat. The idea that the children in our schools, or their families or neighbours may be those who are poor, who may not have enough to eat, who have complex needs or mental illness is never brought up in the context of Tzedakah in the classroom.

read the rest of my post here


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The Freedom Seder, radical but not Messianic

As I wrote here before I  like to get ready for Passover by reading the original Freedom Seder which took place on April 4, 1969, the first anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, the third night of Passover.

Hundreds of people of varied racial and religious communities gathered in a Black church in the heart of Washington DC to celebrate the original Freedom Seder. For the first time, it [explicitly] intertwined the ancient story of liberation from Pharaoh with the story of Black America’s struggle for liberation, and the liberation of other peoples as well.


As radical as they were for the time, I noticed something a bit sad this time through:

How much then are we in duty bound to struggle, work, share, give, think, plan, feel, organize, sit-in, speak out, hope, and be on behalf of Mankind! For we must end the genocide [in Vietnam],* stop the bloody wars that are killing men and women as we sit here, disarm the nations of the deadly weapons that threaten to destroy us all, end the brutality with which the police beat minorities in many countries, make sure that no one starves, free the poets from their jails, educate us all to understand their poetry, allow us all to explore our inner ecstasies, and encourage and aid us to love one another and share in the human fraternity. All these! For, as is said, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree, and none shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken. For let all the peoples walk each one in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.”

* Insert any that is current—such as “Biafra,” “Black America,” etc.—depending on the situation.


With all its calls and hope for”Liberation Now! Next Year in a World of Freedom”, it still acknowledged that each year or era ahead would have its own  war crimes or genocide to talk about at the seder. So in this part of the Freedom Seder there is not exactly a vision of a utopia or Messianic future, but more along the lines of

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

It is not your duty to complete the work. But neither are you free to desist from it.


Video of the seder is below:



Enjoy a young Arthur Waskcow and Rabbi Balfour Brickner and Rev. Channing Phillips. Rev. Phillips tells abortion jokes. It was filmed by the CBC. (Yes you have your 1960s era well funded Canadian public broadcaster to thank for this historic footage.)

You can get a copy of the haggadah in pdf here.

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Hagbah observant progressive feminist Jews talking about Torah, egalitarian practice texts and Jewish life

New fb discussion group if you are interested join us

Hagbah: observant progressive feminist Jews talking about Torah, egalitarian practice texts and Jewish life

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Oh Tonight We’ll Merry, Merry Be -for Tomorrow We’ll be Sober

For generations Jewish children have sung a classic ditty for the holiday of Purim called “Once Where was a Wicked, Wicked Man and Haman Was His Name-o.” The chorus, as you may know from your own Purim festivities, goes “For today we’ll merry, merry be (x3) and nosh some hamantaschen.”

Some research reveals that this classic Purim jingle full of odd turns of phrase has its origins in the 19th-centuryEnglish drinking song, “Landlord Fill The Flowing Bowl.”


Landlord fill the flowing bowl, until it doth run over (x4)

Chorus: For tonight we’ll merry, merry be (x3)
tomorrow we’ll be sober.

Here’s to the lad who drinks dark ale and goes to bed quite mellow (x2)
He lives as he ought to live, he’ll die a happy fellow (x2)

Here’s to the lad drinks water pure and goes to bed quite sober (x2)
He falls as the leaves do fall, he falls as the leaves do fall (x2) 

Read more and listen here:

We modern Jews like to think we have a monopoly on snark and inside jokes, but here is  definite evidence of a kindred spirit winking at us from the past.


And for the record- While the B-I-N-G-O has the same or a similar tuner- it does not have the same chorus.


Note: someone else noticed this 10 years ago.

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Learning about spirituality from Oliver Sacks

Decades ago I was a Judaic programming director at a camp for children (and also a vacation lodge for adults later on in the summer) who were  developmentally disabled or had a dual diagnosis .

While the actual programming was an exciting challenge (I wrote an appropriate sidur, planned experiential learning, challah baking and  homemade havdallah candles), when it came to the staff training I was stumped.

By necessity, the staff were a combination of Jews and non-Jews (who cared about developmentally disabled people and wanted to work in a camp with a good reputation). And the majority of the Jewish staff were there primarily for the same reason.

My training was to convince the staff that all this Jewish programming and prayer was worthwhile despite the fact that some of the people we were served were non-verbal or non-Hebrew speakers or not able to articulate the concepts of religion. And since this was the first few days of camp, this was my chance to win or lose the respect  of the staff.

To my rescue came Oliver Sacks. In his books there are few very moving essays about how church and shul routines and songs helped comfort and support people people like our campers.

For my training of the staff I got up and read theses essays. I  spent no time on explaining  shabbat or brachot.

And it worked. There was less grumbling during prayers ( not none, but less). People gave me and Judaism at camp a chance. One of the French Canadian kitchen staff, who was under no obligation to do so learned the first paragraph of birkat hamazon so he could sing along with us. And he asked me what it meant.

That time more than 20 years ago was the first time I saw how Dr.Sacks was a powerfully spiritual man and writer ( though that is not how we usually see him).

Yesterday was the second time I was struck deeply by his spirituality, when I read his essay on finding out he is dying. A beautiful prayer and lesson.


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