A Torah for Both Genders: “Shelo Asani Isha”

Question

I have recited the blessing Shelo Asani Isha my entire life. But in recent years, I have become growingly uncomfortable with it. I’m getting to the point that I feel I can no longer recite it while believing it in my heart. I do not feel joy as I recite it, but I feel repulsion.

The reason is that I feel this blessing ascribes superiority to the male gender. I personally feel the two genders are equal in importance, even though their roles in life might have some differences. Though the explanation given is to thank Hashem for having more mitzvot one can fulfill, reality is both genders have important mitzvot that in most cases are exclusive to that gender. And the mitzvot of both genders are of equal importance to society.

It bothers me that men thank Hashem for not making them a woman, but woman don’t use wording thanking Hashem for not having made them a man. It sounds as if a person is extra special in the eyes of Hashem for not being a woman.

The Torah was given to both genders, not just men.

5 months

Answers

  1. I am sending you an essay I recently wrote that deals with all three of the “Negative Blessings,” plus an explanation for the Blessing that women recite. The explanation for your question is in Blessing 4, but it needs to be viewed in the context of related morning blessings.

    I hope you find it both helpful and thought-provoking.

    The entire series for all the Morning Blessings can be found at: http://ohr.edu/morning-blessings

    BLESSING TWO: THE THRILL OF BEING JEWISH
    Blessed are You, Hashem, Our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a non-Jew.

    The next three blessings are unique. With the exception of the Morning Blessings, there is no other time when we recite what can only be described as negative blessings. In Judaism, a blessing is recited over what we have, not over what we do not have. For example, a person who is about to eat an apple does not thank G-d for not having given him a potato. And yet we now have three blessings, one after the other, that all begin with the words, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me…” More than that, two of the blessings seem to be phrased in a derogatory fashion. “Blessed are You… for not having made me a non-Jew,” and “Blessed are You… for not having made me a woman.” How are we to understand why the Sages deemed it correct to compose the blessings in the negative? And why did the Sages feel that it was appropriate to speak in such a language about non-Jews and women?

    Many, many years ago I posed these questions to Rabbi Uziel Milevsky. Rabbi Milevsky was a senior lecturer at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem and was one of the most erudite, insightful and humble people that I have merited knowing. He began by explaining that the most sublime activities in this world are doing the Will of G-d. And, specifically, keeping G-d’s commandments and learning His Torah. G-d granted the obligation and the responsibility to do so to the Jewish People. That is the reason why the Jews are called the Chosen Nation. The ability to live a life that reflects the teachings of the Torah is truly an indescribable gift. But, it is not always such an easy thing to do. The daily obligations of a Jew are myriad and complex. The Code of Jewish Law is a primer that stretches from pre-birth to post-death. There is not supposed to be even a moment in our day that does not reflect the depth of our relationship with G-d. Rabbi Milevsky emphasized that it is the potential for such infinite profundity that can make our constant striving to connect to the Divine either inestimably exhilarating or just as equally discouraging. The numerous commandments are tools that have been given to us to help us try to overcome the seductive attractions of this physical world. And, when we are successful, we are connecting ourselves to G-d in the most absolute way possible. But, for someone who finds that immeasurably difficult to do, the commandments can also be regarded as hurdles and barriers to living “the good life” in this world. It is hard to remain focused all the time on what G-d wants. And it is definitely hard to ignore the many corporeal delights that the Torah forbids us to enjoy.

    How does this connect to the blessing of thanking G-d for not having made us a non-Jew? In spiritual terms, perhaps the most basic definition of who I am is that I am a Jew. I belong to G-d. And my task in this world is to live my life accordingly. Therefore, when I recite the Morning Blessings, which are — in part — a description of who I am, one of my first obligations is to thank G-d for having given me the most wonderful gift of all: To proclaim that I am a Jew. However, being Jewish is not a non-conditional state of being, that G-d made me a Jew and I can behave however I want. Being Jewish is obligatory. It carries with it an enormous responsibility. If I were to declare that I am Jewish by saying, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, for having made me a Jew,” it would mean that I would be testifying to the fact that I live my life as a Jew, without deviating from any of my responsibilities. The problem is, I do not always live exactly as G-d wants me to. I am not always so careful about the things that I do or the things that I say.
    When I make a blessing, I am bearing witness that what I am saying is absolutely true. By proudly making a blessing proclaiming that I am Jew, it would be as if I were telling G-d, “Look at me! Look how wonderful I am!” And, perhaps, that is exactly what G-d would do. It is conceivable that my blessing would be the direct cause of an extremely exacting Divine “investigation” into the way that I live my life. In effect, G-d would do exactly as I asked — plus more. He would not just look at me. He would scrutinize all of my actions as well, to see if they really match up to my overconfident declaration that I am a Jew.

    In the spiritual realms, being Jewish is not just being born Jewish. Being Jewish is living Jewish.
    And that leaves us with a most challenging dilemma. On the one hand, my being Jewish is possibly the most fundamental definition of myself, a definition that cannot be ignored. My being Jewish absolutely requires recognition within the Morning Blessings, to proclaim with joy and unbridled passion that I am a Jew. To acknowledge the One who made me Jewish. And to recognize what an enormous privilege it is. I am not looking down at anyone else. Perish the thought. Rather, I am “counting my blessings” and offering up thanks. But, on the other hand, to do so directly might be the cause of an unwanted Divine accounting. Therefore, our Sages, in their infinite wisdom, composed a blessing that is an indisputable fact: “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a non-Jew.” Obviously, the only conceivable meaning of the blessing is that I am a Jew. But our Sages understood that when it is said in the negative form it becomes a statement of fact, rather than a brash, defiant announcement that could spark an unwelcome Divine reaction.
    Finally, let me conclude with a very important point made by Rabbi David HaLevi Segal, who was known as the Turei Zahav (or the Taz for short) after his seminal work on the Code of Jewish Law and one of the most eminent authorities in sixteenth century Poland. He writes that this blessing should not be taken to mean that non-Jews are considered to be of a lower status than Jews. This would be a serious and unfortunate mistake. Every category of being has a powerful purpose in this world, and each one is an absolutely necessary creation. But I bless G-d for not creating me as one of the other necessary categories, but, rather, as a Jew — because of the unique role the Jew has in
    serving the Creator.

    BLESSING THREE: CELEBRATING FREEDOM – THE JEWISH WAY
    Blessed are You, Hashem, Our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a slave.

    The philosophy behind the “negativity” of the previous blessing is going to serve as the key to help us understand the third blessing and the depth of the message that it conveys. No one wants to be a slave. The dictionary definition of slavery does not make for very pleasant reading: Slavery is any system in which principles of property law are applied to people, allowing individuals to own, buy and sell other individuals, as a de jure form of property. A slave is unable to withdraw unilaterally from such an arrangement and the slave works without
    remuneration. It is clear why no one wants to be a slave. It would seem that the aversion to being enslaved is such a basic and straightforward concept that there is no need to recite a blessing over our being free. And yet the third blessing that we recite each morning is, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a slave.” Not only that, but it is the second of the three blessings that are recited in the negative. As with the previous blessing, the meaning behind the blessing is clear – we are thanking G-d for having made us free. And yet, for the second time, our Sages use a language that is distinctive in its composition and that requires clarification.

    Why did the Sages not simply write, “Blessed are You…for having made me free”? Worded like that the blessing would clearly convey the message that we are here in this world in order to reach beyond ourselves. To stretch upwards towards our potential and to use our freedom to build up the world. In effect, to be attached to G-d. But, as before, our Sages chose to couch the blessing in
    negative terms. Why?

    It transpires that there might be an intrinsic difference of opinion between the Torah and secular society as to how to define “free”. Our Sages in their thought-provoking moral and ethical treatise Ethics of the Fathers (6:2), teach in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that a truly free person is someone who studies G-d’s Torah [and lives his life accordingly]. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, in his customary eloquent style, that the Torah is not a crushing and constricting yoke. Rather, the Torah is a source of freedom that allows man to be loyal to himself and his G-dly soul. To be free to live according to the internal harmony of his personality. Rabbi Samuel ben Isaac de Uceda, in his classic commentary on Ethics of the Fathers, writes that unless man lives as G-d created him to, he is a slave to his own passions, the standards of society, or the authoritarianism of dominant or fashionable cultures.

    Accordingly, Jewish freedom is not to be defined as “an absence of servitude”. Jewish freedom does not mean that I can do whatever I want; whenever I want; to whomever I want. Jewish freedom means each person utilizing their life in order to make the world a better place by learning G-d’s Torah and keeping His commandments. That is definitely an electrifying idea! But how does it fit into the Morning Blessings? Because, a blessing is a definitive statement. And freedom does not just mean that I am not enslaved. Jewish freedom means that I am doing the Will of G-d. Just as with the previous blessing, if I boldly claim that I am free – “Blessed are You, Hashem, Our G-d, King of the universe, for having made me free” – but I am not living up to what G-d wants from me, then I am not using my freedom in the way that G-d wants me to. I am not connecting to G-d to become both better and bigger spiritually than I was up until now. And that may be the cause of
    G-d’s carefully examining how I use my freedom. It will be a thorough Divine checkup delineating exactly how I live my life. Am I using my precious freedom to draw closer to G-d or am I ignoring it and drifting further away from G-d? But, on the hand, I am beholden to acknowledge the dazzling gift of freedom that G-d has granted me. Yes, it is true that I may not be utilizing it to its fullest, but I still recognize it for what it truly is – the most effective and vivid method of connecting to G-d. Therefore, our Sages introduced another blessing written in the negative, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a slave.” A blessing that is undeniable in practical terms, but will not be the cause of Divine scrutiny in the way that the blessing, if said in the positive, might be. And a blessing that reveals my inner yearning to be close to G-d – even if I am not totally succeeding right now.

    BLESSING FOUR (i): BE A MAN!
    Blessed are You, Hashem, Our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a woman.

    Now that the method that our Sages use when composing “negative blessings” has been established, it needs to be applied one last time to the final blessing in the series of three blessings that follow one after the other within the Morning Blessings. This blessing is possibly the most challenging to explain. Not because of the concept that underlies the blessing itself, but because of the emotive issues that it raises.

    Blessed are You, Hashem, Our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a woman. Why do our Sages use such a seemingly insensitive vernacular? Why did our Sages not compose a blessing that states simply and clearly that I am thankful for having been created as a man? And,
    how does this blessing fit into the triumvirate of negative blessings? What has become apparent in the two preceding blessings is that making a blessing that reflects directly on my spiritual standing can become a two-edged sword if I am not extremely careful in the way that I act and behave. And that same concept will apply here as well. Our Sages teach that the spiritual spheres and the physical spheres mirror each other. Each one needs the other in order for us to be able to live balanced lives that reflect both the Divine side of us and the corporeal side. More than that, every single creation has its task in this world and is created specifically to be able to perform its spiritual assignment. Therefore, the undeniable biological differences that exist between men and women are a physical manifestation of the spiritual differences that exist between them. Consequently, just as there are certain things that only men can do, so too, there are things that only women can do. And this is applicable in both the physical realms and the spiritual realms.
    Our focus in this article will be to explain the blessing made by men, “for not having made me a woman”. In the next article we will address in greater depth how those differences manifest themselves spiritually with regards to women. Both women and men are created in the “image of G-d” and both are placed here in this world to enhance G-d’s Majesty in the physical realms – each one according to their Divine specifications. In spiritual terms how are these differences expressed? The most obvious way is through the number of commandments that men have to keep as compared to women. Women are exempt from most time-bound positive commandments. That translates into men having considerably

    more spiritual obligations than women. Why is that? Because men are less innately spiritual than women (this will be expanded upon in the next article) and they require more external commitments to ensure a healthy and continual connection to G-d. Those external commitments
    are the commandments.
    And that leads us into exactly the same problem that was raised with the previous two blessings. Every Jewish man is obligated to thank G-d for the unparalleled opportunity to keep His commandments. And the more commandments I am obligated to keep, the greater is my responsibility to thank Him – and the greater my joy should be at the possibility to do so. If so, it would seem that the most apt blessing to make should be, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Our G-d, King of the universe, for having made me a man.” And yet, as twice before, our Sages chose to use the negative syntax to convey our gratitude and appreciation for being able to live a life that revolves around G-d’s commandments.

    The reason for this anomaly is that, once again, there is a dilemma of how to express our gratitude without its being the direct cause of some kind of a Divine audit. Just as with the two previous blessings, by thanking G-d for having made me a man, the inference is that I am doing everything that G-d demands of me. And as a man there are many more obligations which, if I am not doing them exactly as G-d commands, my blessing might end up having exactly the opposite effect. Instead of its having its intended impact, my blessing could be the very medium that will trigger a spiritual appraisal. Therefore, the Sages introduced one last negative blessing to allow me the opportunity to give thanks to G-d for the increased opportunities that I have as a man to perform the commandments – without its impinging negatively on me.
    Paradoxically, despite its complex composition, the fourth blessing is not a negative reflection on women at all. Quite the opposite. It is the potential for men’s spiritual inadequacies that are the cause of the blessing.

    BLESSING FOUR (ii): BE YOURSELF!
    Blessed are You, Hashem, Our G-d, King of the universe, for having made me according to His Will.

    The blessing that many women recite in place of “…for not having made me a woman” is fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, its origins are not clear. The majority of the Morning Blessings can be found in the Talmud but this blessing is a much later composition. It is first mentioned within Jewish Law in the 14th century by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher in his magnum opus, the Tur, and by Rabbi David Abudraham in his scholarly work entitled Sefer Abudraham. But there is no real indication as to who composed it and when exactly it was written. The second
    fascinating element is the language it uses. We could have expected the blessing to mirror the men’s blessing, “…for not having made me a man” and yet it reads, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Our G-d, King of the universe, for having made me according to His will.” As we discussed in the previous article, keeping commandments is a privilege. The fact that men have more commandments to keep obliges them to make a special blessing acknowledging the gift that they have been granted. And that is also the reason why women cannot make a corresponding blessing “…for not having made me a man” – because to do so would mistakenly imply that it is good not to have been given so many commandments. On the other hand, as was also pointed out previously, women are inherently more spiritual than men, which means that they do not have the same need that men have to be constantly connected to the commandments to be able to sustain their relationship with G-d. Where do we see that women have an innate sense of spirituality? The Maharal of Prague (Be’er Hagolah 4:16) writes that there is fundamental spiritual concept that G-d built in to the Creation called ma’alin bekodesh – to grow in holiness. Ma’alin bekodesh means that, in spiritual progression, something that follows another is on a higher spiritual level than that which immediately precedes it.
    Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in explaining the creation of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:22), writes that the fact that Eve was created after Adam is proof that women have an innate spiritual potential that men do not possess. When Adam was created, G-d took earth and fashioned his body. But when it came to creating Eve, the material for her body was not taken from the earth – which represents inanimate, albeit pure, potential – but, rather, she was created from the sensitive living body of Man.

    And that brings us to the question of the wording of the blessing. Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz of Frankfurt, in his brilliantly erudite work the Hafla’ah, writes that even though Eve was created from Adam’s side, it was established for all the future generations that she be born complete. And then he continues, “It seems that they [the Rabbis] enacted for women to recite the blessing ‘for having made me according to His will’ over this. Meaning, over being created complete, as arose in G-d’s will from the first.”
    My Rebbi, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro z”l, explained that G-d’s will is to give – to bestow kindness – to mankind. So, too, a woman is created with the same will to give and to create. To nurture and to support. That is why the blessing women make is “…for having made me according to His will” – that the blessing is conveying that women were created similar to G-d’s will.
    A classic example of the way that the spiritual needs of men and women differ is the commandment for men to wear Tefillin. The Rabbis teach that Tefillin are a mystical and esoteric means of establishing a bond with G-d. But, explains Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, women have a far more
    meaningful way of creating their relationship with G-d – through the experience of carrying life within them. Intriguingly, in the Kabbalistic works, the inner chamber of the Tefillin is compared to the womb and the leather strap is a parallel to the umbilical cord.
    But perhaps the most significant idea that can be gleaned from the differences between the blessing that men recite and the one that women recite is that every individual – regardless of gender – has the most incredible potential to be an upright and noble human being. A being who can reach unparalleled closeness to G-d. As Rabbi Mordechai Becher writes, “Men and women have different challenges. Commandments are described in the Zohar as tikkunim – solutions, fixes to these challenges.” Consequently, the commandments that men are obligated to keep are tailor- made to help men meet their challenges. So, too, the commandments that women have serve exactly the same function for women. And the different blessings for men and women reflect their different approaches to serving G-d.

    In effect, the ultimate spiritual level of each individual is determined by how they respond to their challenges and whether they utilize the unique potential that has been granted to them by G-d.

    Best wishes from the AskTheRabbi.org Team