Like most Orthodox Jews, after washing in the morning, I say a series of brachos (blessings) to thank Hashem for the many blessings He bestows upon me in each moment. There is one bracha (blessing) I say that stands out above the others in this morning ritual:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁלֹּא עָשַֽׂנִי אִשָּׁה
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a woman.
Unlike most who say this bracha, I do not identify as a man; I am a transgender woman. This means I was born into a body that was identified as male for the first portion of my life, but I now understand myself to be a woman. Despite that self-identification, I still say this seemingly invalidating blessing! In truth, not only does this bracha validate my transgender experience, but it in fact helps me find the holiness within it.
היום הזה ה’ אלהיך מצוך. בְּכָל יוֹם יִהְיוּ בְעֵינֶיךָ חֲדָשִׁים כְּאִלּוּ בוֹ בַיּוֹם נִצְטַוֵּיתָ עֲלֵיהֶם (תנחומא)
This day the Lord your God commanded you — This suggests: each day they (God’s commandments) should be to you as something new (not antiquated and something of which you have become tired), as though you had received the commands that very day for the first time. — Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tavo 1; cf. Rashi on Deuteronomy 11:13
We are taught that the Torah is equally applicable to our generation as it was to the generation that first received it at Mount Sinai. For this to be the case, it must be revealed anew in a way meaningful to the current generation, even as the truth revealed to previous generations is never invalidated. Whenever a piece of Torah seems to chafe against our modern understanding we can recognize this as a clue — a hint that a deeper meaning is ready to be revealed for the first time. With this in mind, let’s look at this blessing passed down to us and discover how it can be empowering for our current generation, inclusive of our ideals of feminism and queer acceptance.
First, let’s look at a traditional approach to finding the truth in this blessing. Rabbi Yehuda teaches that, since women are not obligated by the time-bound commandments, men say this bracha for the extra mitzvos (commandments) they are blessed with:
כאין נגדו אשה אין אשה חייבת במצות
The reason for saying a beracha for not making him] a woman is because women are not obligated in mitzvos –– Tosefta Berakhot 6:23
While Rabbi Yehuda is not saying that women are less important than men, many women do not find this understanding meaningful. I would like to offer an additional perspective based on my experiences as a transgender woman and as a convert, without intending to invalidate Rabbi Yehuda (G-d forbid). It should be mentioned that transgender people have varied relationships to their experience of transition — mine should not be assumed to apply to all. I offer my personal understanding as a contribution to the dialectic around this bracha, and not as a one-size-fits-all answer.
Each morning, I wake up to a world that will not recognize my womanness inherently — I must create it. While my internal essence is inherently feminine, the external must go through changes to match. I am making choices to reveal my femininity to the world, whether this is through taking hormone supplements, putting on makeup, working on my mannerisms, or wearing beautiful dresses. These may all seem like superficial veneers of womanhood, yet it is the surface of ourselves that is initially seen by others.
These efforts grant me a unique perspective on womanhood — one who has entered into it late and from the outside. I believe this viewpoint is one of the truths that transgender women offer the world. For a valuable comparison, consider the case of a convert. We converts are born as gentiles. One day, we wake to the sensation of a Jewish soul hanging over us, compelling us to undergo the ritual of conversion. There is truth and inspiration to be found in the struggle of a convert learning Hebrew later in life, forgoing our gentile traditions, and elevating our prior non-Jewish experiences to the realm of the holy. Indeed, Rashi comments in a discussion on converts being compared to scabs in Tractate Yevamot:
לשון ספחת שאוחזין מעשיהם הראשונים ולומדים ישראל מהם או סומכין עליהם באיסור והיתר
The language “scab” is because [converts] hold on to their original ways and Jews learn from them. Or because Jews rely on them for matters of ritual law. — Rashi on Yevamot 27:5:3
Similar to conversion, the process of transition is one of simultaneous pain and joy. The sadness one experiences at knowing they will never experience the childhood of one’s chosen gender can be compared to the similar yearning for having had a Jewish upbringing. The struggle of learning Hebrew and Torah as an adult is not dissimilar to learning the ins and outs of the social language of one’s chosen gender. There is a holiness to this struggle, as the Alter Rebbe teaches that Hashem takes pleasure in the efforts of common people in our genuine yet often futile attempts to become truly righteous (Tanya, chapter 35). How much pleasure G-d must take in seeing a convert earnestly struggle to attain the level of Torah knowledge of a Jew who is “frum” (religious) from birth! Would He not also take pleasure in seeing a transgender woman struggle to embrace the truth He has implanted within her?
I believe this struggle should be celebrated, and I do so each day, upon saying my morning brachos. There is precedence for only saying brachos relevant to one’s birth, with the understanding that one’s circumstances have changed:
צריך לברך בכל יום שלא עשני גוי שלא עשני עבד שלא עשני אשה: הגה ואפי’ גר יכול לברך כן [ד”ע] אבל לא יאמר שלא עשני גוי שהרי היה גוי מתחלה [אבודרה”ם] והנשים מברכות שעשני כרצונו
One needs to bless every day “who did not make me a non-Jew,” “who did not make me a slave,” and “who did not make me a woman.” Rem”a: And even a convert can bless thus [his (ie. the Rem”a’s) own words], but he should not say “who did not make me a non-Jew,” for behold, he was a non-Jew previously [Abudarham]. And women bless “who made me according to His will” (instead of the last one mentioned above). — Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 46:4
This ruling cannot be due to a lower status of converts, because there is another commandment: “You shall not oppress the ger (stranger, convert).” Instead, I think Rabbi Abudarham is pointing at the divinity hidden within the struggle for change. G-d forbid a convert ever forget the effort and sacrifice they have undertaken to join the Jewish people. While the souls of converts and Jews-by-birth were present for the revelation at Mount Sinai together, Hashem bestowed these Jewish souls on the children of non-Jews for a reason. We were born as goyim, and that we now say the brachos of the Jewish people in the morning is to our merit and in line with divine intention.
In the morning, when I say the bracha for not having been made a woman, I am holding close to the efforts and divinity of my transgender experience. My path has at times been difficult and immensely painful, but such experiences empower me today with a unique worldview. My womanhood is for me a valuable jewel that I wish to never forget the effort required — both past and present — to attain. This bracha allows me to thank Hashem for the opportunity to experience this struggle which brings me closer to Him.