“BLESSED ART THOU, O LORD OUR G-D, KING OF THE UNIVERSE, WHO HAST NOT MADE ME A WOMAN.”
An introductory essay on one of the most misunderstood blessings in Judaism.
I have taught and worked with unaffiliated Jewish men and women for the past 17 years. In fact, I came to the United States from my home in Israel for this express purpose. I grew up in an observant Jerusalem neighborhood, a twelfth generation “Yershalmi”. For as long as I can remember I had been surrounded by men who each morning recited the prayer, “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a woman.” I never objected to this practice – not because I was thoughtless or accepting.
As a child and a young adult I was perpetually curious and asked questions about Judaism regularly. Nonetheless, this blessing never became an issue for me.
On arriving here and working with American Jews, I was confronted with the challenge of explaining this blessing to many women whom it had perturbed. For the first time in my life I started to wonder why I was not similarly bothered.
A year after arriving in America, my husband and I traveled to Russia to teach Torah. The women in Russia expressed their interest to me in learning about any Jewish subject – except for about the perceived inferiority of women in Judaism. They explained that the few American rabbis who had visited in the past had all wanted to speak on this topic. The Russian women, however, had never been bothered by this issue. Further, the blessing, “Thank you for not making me a woman” had never troubled them. I asked myself why Jews I had spoken with in the U.S. were of a different opinion?
In attempting to resolve this question, I took a mental step back and tried to imagine the worst-case scenario about what the condition of women might be, in a Nation where men thank G-d daily for having not made them female. Would women in this scenario suffer widespread abuse or second class status? In my own real-life experience, living in a community where men in fact recite, “for not having made me a woman” each day, I had neither experienced nor witnessed any such treatment. On the contrary I always felt confident in the stature Torah accords women. In my community I had always seen and experienced equality, albeit the performance of different duties, between men and women. (I am not suggesting that every observant man treats women perfectly, but in my experience, if a man’s behavior was perceived as wrong and did not express the general philosophy and beliefs of the community, he would be called to task.)
In the process of articulating for myself why I had never been troubled by the blessing in question, I realized two things: one, that I had from childhood studies onward, studied Torah and had learned for myself that Torah treats women as equal; and second, that in my community I had experienced this equality first-hand. My perspective on the Torah’s positive view of women had been built on both knowledge and experience. Thus, I never considered the blessing, “thank G-d for not making me a woman,” reflected a Jewish woman’s secondary status
When confronted in the U.S. by women who were in fact troubled by this blessing, I began to research its Talmudic roots. I discovered in Jewish legal sources that, at the time the blessing was incorporated into the prayer book, there were opinions that it might be phrased differently, in order to avoid any pejorative misperceptions about women. The proposed alternative phrasing was, “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, for making me a man.” This opinion was over-ruled by the majority of sages who were secure in the reality that both Torah and Jewish communal life reflect a solidly positive view of the Jewish woman.
Why were the authorities so committed to maintaining the more difficult phrasing, “for not making me a woman?” What was the deeper meaning of the blessing when phrased as such, that they were so intent to maintain?
In comparing the phrasing, “for not making me a woman” to the less controversial, “for making me a man,” one must consider this blessing in conjunction with the two blessings (said by both men and women) that precede it in the prayer book, “Blessed are you for not having made me a gentile” and “Blessed are you for not having made me a slave.” Through this trio of blessings a Jewish man expresses his happiness and appreciation for the opportunity to connect to G-d by attempting to fulfill a set of obligations of which a small percentage are specific only to men. A footnote in the Artscroll prayer book, commenting on these three blessings states, ” The Torah assigns missions to respective groups of people Male, free Jews have responsibilities not shared by others.” The blessing, “for not making me a woman” differentiates a man’s mission vis a vis the particular mission assigned to the opposite sex.
A Jew’s mission in life, as expressed through the mitzvot, is impossible to complete, since it involves endless levels of refinement and self-growth. The negative phrasing of all three blessings, “for not making me a gentile, a slave and a woman” conveys the humility associated with shouldering such an enormous yet meaningful task, while preserving the sense of gratitude for such a profound life purpose. By contrast, the opposite phrasing, “Blessed are you Hashem for making me Jewish, free and a man,” could reflect a more egocentric position, which might lead to feelings of self-satisfaction and disinterest in further spiritual growth.
The distinct message imparted by this set of blessings – phrased as they are in the negative – can be clarified by the following example: suppose an employer assigns an employee several tasks. The employee procrastinates and does not complete them before the employer assigns the employee an additional task. The employee thanks his boss profusely and expresses real happiness at the additional assignment. His appreciation sounds insincere. If he is so happy with the additional assignment, why was he not motivated to complete the first set of tasks?
In the same way, if a Jewish man were to thank G-d for making him a man, this would imply thankfulness for the fact he’s been given more mitzvot than a woman, without his having perfectly fulfilled the mitzvot men and woman have in common. By expressing gratitude for his mitzvot, through the indirect phrasing, “…thank G-d for not having made me a woman,” a man acknowledges the privilege of having extra mitzvot, while admitting he will always have room for personal improvement.
In conclusion, our sages were confident that, “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, for not having made me a woman,” would provide the Jewish man with the right combination of appreciation and humility, while the positive status Torah accords women would ensure the blessing not be interpreted in a pejorative sense. There are many instances in which the Torah praises women and identifies their role as essential to the spiritual well being and continuity of Judaism. To cite but two examples:
“It was taught: He who has no wife dwells without good, without help, without joy, without blessing, and without atonement.” (Bereshit Rabbah 17,2)
“It once happened that a pious man was married to a pious woman…they arose and divorced each other. The former went and married a wicked woman, and she made him wicked, while the latter went and married a wicked man, and made him righteous. This proves that all depends on the woman.” (Bereshit Rabbah 17,7)
To this day, Jewish communal life is living proof of the fact that a man’s daily thanks for “not having made me a woman” does not imply inferiority of the opposite sex. Contemporary society may place this blessing on the negative side of prevailing views of what is considered politically “correct” or “incorrect”. Nonetheless, a conscientious exploration of Jewish law, philosophy and history will reveal the true picture of how Torah accords men and women equal status. Unfortunately, not all American women have had the exposure to Torah learning that would enable them to see past current misperceptions about the status of Jewish women. For this reason, I urge each reader of this essay to continue to explore Torah in general, and the role of the Jewish woman in particular. As a partner to your endeavor, I invite you to dialogue with me by asking questions and contributing your reactions to course material. Please contact me at [email protected]
This particular blessing (or for women, “Blessed art thou, O Lord our G-d, King of the universe, for having made me according to His will”), is preceded in the prayer book by two others thanking G-d for being a Jew and for not being a slave. Together, the three help a Jew express gratitude for his or her particular lot in life. Men thank G-d for being placed in a position to perform more mitzvot (obligations) than women, since Torah assigns them a greater number. The Torah tells us that the fact that men have more mitzvot indicates they have further to go in order to perfect themselves in the world. The Torah tells us that women, on the other hand, in order to accomplish their specific mission, are born more spiritually evolved. Thus, a man can legitimately thank Hashem for not having been made a woman, because he has a greater number of opportunities to use the mitzvot as tools to connect to G-d.
At the time when “who hast not made me a woman” was incorporated into the prayer book, one of the presiding Talmudic sages suggested that the phrasing might sound derogatory while the wording, “Blessed art thou who hast made me a man” might be more appropriate. He was over-ruled by a majority who felt the essence of the prayer would be diminished without use of the negative, “hast not made me a woman.” Their reasons were that the combination of appreciation and humility which captures the Jewish soul is best expressed through the negative.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.