Many of us who pray on a regular basis are bothered by one of the morning blessings in the traditional liurgy—Shelo Asani Isha. This blessing praises God “for not making me a woman” (and is only said by men). It is obvious that in the 21st Century, where, thank God, women are afforded equal rights, blessing God for not being a woman seems somewhat offensive. Young Jews are especially bothered by this. A Facebook group entitled “say Lo (no) to Shelo Asani Isha” has nearly 400 members, mostly Orthodox students.
The truth is that this is not the only possibly offensive blessing in that set of morning blessings (called “Birchot HaShachar”). Certainly “Shelo Asani Goy”, “blessed is God who has not made me a non-Jew,” offends even more people than Shelo Asani Isha. The succeeding blessings thank God for opening the eyes of the blind, giving clothes to the naked (poor), straightening the hunchbacked, and freeing the prisoners. These blessings can also be construed as possibly being offensive. If a blind person, a homeless person, or an elderly person is happy in life, should s/he not thank God? The point of these blessings seems to be that the best possible situation is a healthy, rich, free, Jewish male. Everyone else seems to be deficient. If this truly is the case, than all of these blessings perturb me. I do not place value on a person based on their ethnicity, gender, age, physical functioning, or economic situation.
One morning, while praying, I thought of a new way of possibly reconciling these blessings. I had always been assuming that these blessings were making a judgment. Thank God for not making me a woman, because being a woman is worse than being a man. However, the actual blessings never explicitly make such a judgment, they seem to just be stating matters of fact (I am not a woman). Then it dawned on me—these blessings might actually be an expression of individualism. When I say the blessings I am not saying there is anything wrong with being a woman or poor or blind, I am simply thanking God for creating me in the way that He best saw fit, however I am. The reason the blessings are written in the way that they are can simply be that they were written by healthy, rich Jewish males living in a society where being a healthy, rich Jewish male was the best possible living situation.
In our Modern society, however, we can find new meaning in these blessings. I can thank God for the plurality of the world; for creating a world with diversity and multiple perspectives. In fact, the blessing said by women in lieu of “Shelo Asani Isha” reflects this sentiment—“Sheasani Kirtzono,” “blessed is God, who made me as He wished!”
Should these blessings be rewritten? Maybe. I will applaud the Orthodox rabbi who has the courage to alter these blessings. There is plenty of precedent in Halacha for altering liturgy to suit contemporary needs. Alternatively, additional blessings can be added so that each person can express his or her own individuality. Each person can thank God for the attributes that they find best express their individuality. If a handicapped person feels that their situation is an integral part of their individuality, they can thank God for that. Imagine each Jew starting their morning by expressing the value of their individuality!
I also understand those who are hesitant about altering liturgy in any way. Their sentiments are legitimate, and should not be dismissed. Working within that fixed text I think we can at least approach these blessings in a different way. Even if the authors of these blessings did mean to make a judgment—such as male is better than female—we don’t have to accept that judgment. We can accept the Sheasani Kirtzono model and view these blessings as a statement about the value of diversity. Even if I am bound by The Rabbis’ text, I am certainly not bound by their intentions. I am proud that Judaism celebrates diversity and pluralism, and believe that by approaching liturgy with a different lens we can gain a profound, new understanding of these blessings.