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Posted on July 14, 2010 By Leah Kohn | Series: | Level:

“BLESSED ART THOU, O LORD OUR G-D, KING OF THE UNIVERSE, WHO HAS NOT MADE ME A WOMAN.”

AN EXAMINATION OF RABBINICAL INTEGRITY RELATED TO THE BLESSING

We received many questions and comments in response to our recent class on the prayer, “BLESSED ART THOU, O LORD OUR G-D, KING OF THE UNIVERSE, WHO HAS NOT MADE ME A WOMAN.” Before answering each submission, we have decided to write the following general response to a general misperception that rabbis who viewed women as inferior established the blessing. With this essay as a foundation, we will subsequently respond to each previous student inquiry.

One of the most fundamental issues related to a discussion of “who has not made me a woman” – and, by extension, to the laws governing a Jewish woman’s conduct – is the fact male rabbis established them. This gives rise to several questions. Why should women, accept rabbinical authority, especially in matters that pertain specifically to women? Since male sages wrote the prayer book, does it not by definition favor men? What are the parameters of a rabbi’s rights to preside over questions of halacha (Jewish law), especially on women’s issues? What is it that gives a rabbi legal authority in the Jewish community? Do certain personal qualities or professional accomplishments mark him as a leader? Or does he attain and maintain his position by virtue of being male?

Let us first examine what distinguishes a leader in contemporary society today, versus criteria for leadership in the Jewish community. In the secular arena, public figures often earn their positions by being the best fundraiser, while they establish a reputation through effective publicity campaigns and as dynamic media personalities who challenge the credibility of their opponents. In the Jewish nation, any of these criteria – including the very desire for authority – would disqualify a potential candidate. Torah insists that a leader not have any personal agenda, even to the extent that running for office or lobbying for power is unthinkable. Within this context, it is difficult to imagine that such a person would harbor the ill will towards women that some perceive in “who has not made me a woman.”

The Torah tells us that our greatest Jewish leader – Moses – was so hesitant to take on a position of power in Israel that he protested for seven days, once G-d informed him of His intentions. Moses’ misgivings did not reflect a lack of self-esteem or an attempt to evade responsibility. Rather, they expressed his profound humility and acknowledgement that his personal gifts were G-d-given. In addition, Moses’ eldest brother Aaron – a prophet himself – was currently at the helm of the Jewish nation. Moses’ integrity was such that he did not want to upstage his brother. G-d tells Moses that, on the contrary, Aaron will support his brother’s ascent to head his people. Each brother sees beyond his own ego in favor of best serving G-d and the Jews. From Aaron and Moses we learn that integrity and humility, rather than personal interest, motivate the ideal Jewish leader. The Men of the Great Assembly at the beginning of the Second Temple period, who wrote, “who has not made me a woman” were of this sort.

The Men of the Great Assembly were the ideal Jewish leaders – specialists in personal integrity, scholarship and objectivity. Moreover, they lived in the last generation to experience prophesy, and some of them were in fact prophets. In order to receive the prophetic gift, one had to be of almost perfect character and Torah learning. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides tells us that, “such prophecy can only be attained by a person who has very great intelligence. He must have strong character, and not be overcome by his impulses in any way. He must also have constant control over his emotions and have an outlook that is both very broad and very firm…” (The Foundations of Torah 7:1). It is difficult, given our day to day exposure to leaders and politicians who are often motivated by self-interest, to imagine men of such high caliber.

As Jewish women, our ability to accept rabbinical authority today is tainted by our exposure to the self-promoting agendas of heads of business and state. But the men who wrote, “who has not made me a woman” were of a different school. Their singular dedication to Torah as a guide for both presiding over public affairs and for personal conduct is what marked them as leaders. The Torah itself sets forth this level of attachment to Torah as the criteria for leadership. Deuteronomy (17:18-19) mandates that for the penultimate leader – a king – “It shall be that when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah [one copy for his travels and one to remain in the treasury (editor’s note)]…it shall be with him and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear Hashem, his G-d, to observe all the words of this Torah and these decrees, to perform them, so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren…”

Often, our misperceptions about the blessing “who has not made me a woman” are reinforced by rabbis who fall short of the Torah standards for their role. While anyone can call himself a rabbi, there are different levels of experience and talent that distinguish a true rabbinical leader. This level of accomplishment requires a lifetime of work, because of the Torah learning and character development involved. A rabbi attains a top position in the Jewish Nation, not because of his desire for power, but because he feels obligated to use his intellectual, personal and spiritual gifts for the sake of Torah. In this regard, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro offers him the following advice on how to select public officials: “And you shall discern from among the entire people, men of accomplishment, G-d fearing people, men of truth, people who despise money…”(Exodus: 18:21).

There are many examples that illustrate the extent of the ideal Jewish leader’s objectivity and selflessness in matters of scholarship, politics and community affairs. The Talmud, for instance, tells us of Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia, who came up with an original theory concerning the use of the Hebrew word “et” in the Torah. (There is no English equivalent for “et,” a grammatical construct that connects an object to its direct object). Rabbi Shimon spent his entire life referencing every use of “et” in the entire Torah, in order to support his theory that “et” signals an addition to the concept or term it precedes. Towards the end of his research he found one source that seemed to contradict his case. Instead of ignoring it, Rabbi Shimon recanted his life’s work, declared his theory flawed, and turned his back on what might have added an entirely new level of interpretation to Torah. (Rabbi Akiva later proved Rabbi Shimon’s theory fully correct after all). This level of personal honesty and dedication is why Torah relies on its scholars to transmit its Truth, while commanding us, “According to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgement that they will say to you, shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left.” (Deuteronomy 17:11).

By way of contrast with these standards for Jewish leadership, Dmitri Mendeleev, a scientist and a leader in his field who invented the table of elements, chose a different route when he discovered a flaw in his own work. Rather than admitting the mistake, he covered it up in order to preserve his reputation as a pioneer who was to bridge the gap between alchemy and chemistry. Ironically, Mendeleev’s work, like Rabbi Shimon’s was also proved correct later on. But the difference between Mendeleev’s commitment to himself and Rabbi Shimon’s commitment to the truth is striking.

The integrity Torah demands from its leaders does not exist only in theory or in isolated occurrence. The greatest scholars in each generation have exhibited this characteristic. In addition, Torah requires that those in public positions demonstrate profound compassion and caring, as illustrated in the following story – one of many with the same message. Rabbi Dovid of Lelov saw a woman running with a child in her arms. The child was bleeding and obviously badly injured. Rabbi Dovid, who thought the child was his own son, ran towards him in a panic. When he realized he was wrong, the Rabbi sighed with relief. He then broke out in tears, sobbing for hours. When asked why he was crying, Rabbi Dovid explained that he had not exhibited the same level of concern for another Jewish child, as he would have for his own son. This unqualified love for each and every Jew marks the Torah leader.

The essence of Rabbi Dovid’s life, and the lives of our sages, was to focus all of their energy on understanding and accomplishing the demands of Torah. Their opinions were firmly grounded in the ways and means of Torah. This holds true for “who has not made me a woman,” which the Men of the Great Assembly wrote based on their own objectivity and deference to a Higher Authority.

Admittedly, there are times when a rabbi’s ruling or response to our questions is not to our liking. We might assume this reflects a lack of sensitivity or disregard for our position, especially when regarding a woman’s issue. It is critical to understand, however, that a rabbi is not at liberty to make decisions based on his own personal interpretation. He may use his own intellectual gifts only as tools for the purpose of unearthing a Torah Truth. A rabbi whose ruling is based on his own opinion or who has attempted to align his decision with the desire of the person who has asked him a question, is not abiding by the dictates of Torah. Taken from this point of view, “who has not made me a woman” cannot be considered an expression of male prejudice.

In examining the seemingly negative view of Jewish women in “who has not made me a woman” it is important to take into account the caliber of the men who wrote this prayer. What we know about their selflessness, scholarship and honesty, should become a factor in proving to ourselves that the words of this blessing do not discriminate.

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Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.

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