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‘Not woman’-splaining

I will no longer recite the daily blessing thanking God for not making me a woman
Illustrative: An adult man putting Tefillin on his arm (iStock)
Illustrative: An adult man putting Tefillin on his arm (iStock)

I just can’t. Not anymore.

As a religious Jew, I’d estimate that I’ve said the Morning Blessings, as they appear in the standard Orthodox liturgy, for about thirteen thousand consecutive days, since kindergarten. But there’s one blessing I cannot bring myself to say anymore:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me a woman.

Unlike most of the other blessings (berachot), which use biblical phrasing and come from Tractate (wait for it) Berachot, this entry is part of a triad which the Babylonian Talmud cites in Tractate Menachot (43b-44a), which ostensibly deals with flour-offerings brought to the Temple.

It has been taught: Rabbi Meir would say: “A person (adam) is obligated to recite three blessings every day, and these are they: ‘Who has made me an Israelite,’ ‘Who has not made me a woman,’ ‘Who has not made me a boor.'”

Rabbi Acha bar Jacob heard his son reciting “Who has not made me a boor,” and he said to him: “Even to such an extent?”

He replied: “So what should I recite?”

“Who has not made me a slave.”

“But that is the same as a woman.”

“A slave is even more degraded.” [Some manuscripts have: “A woman is even more degraded.”]

The Jerusalem Talmud cites the teaching differently (Berachot 9:1):

It has been taught: Rabbi Judah says, “A person (adam) needs to say every day three things…

‘Blessed… Who has not made me a non-Jew,’ as the nations (goyim) are nothing, “All the nations are naught before Him” (Is. 40:17).

‘Blessed… Who has not made me a boor,’ as no boor fears sin (Mishna Avot 2:5).

‘Blessed… Who has not made me a woman,’ for a woman is not bound by the commandments.

The standard explanation of the formula we know is a bizarre blend of the two Talmuds: we say the Babylonian text (“Who has not made me a goy/ slave/ woman”), but the reason for the hierarchy is a mirror image of the Jerusalem Talmud’s last line: women come last because they are obligated in all commandments except the time-bound positive ones, while non-Jews have only the Seven Noahide Laws.

This technical explanation may suffice until you ask why women (like slaves) are exempt from time-bound positive commands. Rabbi David Abudarham, writing one of the earliest prayer-books in the 14th century, explains it thusly:

Who has not made me a woman”–for she is not bound by time-bound positive commandments, as we explained in the introduction to this book. The man is like a worker who enters his fellow’s field and cultivates it with the owner’s permission, while the woman is like one who enters without permission. Moreover, the fear of her husband is upon her, and she cannot fulfill even what she is bound to. In place of “Who has not made me a woman,” women have the custom to recited “Blessed… Who has made me according to His will,” as if justifying the evil which has befallen one.

Well, at least he is bothered by the exclusion of women from the category of adam.

Apologists have grappled with this text for centuries, but the problem is its threefold nature. If Jewish women are so spiritual that they do not need as many commandments, does that mean that non-Jews (who have fewer) are naturally closer to God? If these blessings are meant “to teach us that a person should not err to associate any deficiency with the creation of a person as a non-Jew or as woman” (Taz, OC 46:4) what does that tell us about the “Who has not made me a slave” blessing? If the last two blessings are meant to impress upon us the oppression suffered by women and those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, what does that tell us about the “Who has not made me a goy” blessing? And if all three are disadvantaged in a Jewish state, how cynical is it to thank God, as Jewish men, for not making us one of the classes we mistreat?

I have accepted these answers for most of my life; I have even told them to others. But at a certain point, one must face facts. I must face facts. And the facts are that in order to maintain a mangled, late tradition about three blessings of identity, we Jewish men have been sending a message to Jewish women (perhaps all women) that they are less. In fact, we’ve been sending it to our menfolk as well, and it has seeped into our public discourse, our politics, our culture.

So I’ve made the choice to join my sisters and recite the blessing they invented to fix our mistake: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has made me according to His will.” This is a text which seems far more in tune with the verse we read this week (Gen. 1:27): “So God created the person in His own image; in the image of God He created it; male and female He created them.

Is that enough to combat the misogyny embedded in our culture? Maybe not, but it’s a start. Check back with me in another thirteen thousand days.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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