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 exempted 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 by Yehudah Mirsky
- 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.