I don’t remember exactly when I first learned about “shelo asani isha,” but I have to imagine that I wasn’t too happy about it. There is a section of the siddur called birkas hashachar (morning blessings), which is recited every morning by observant Jews. One of the blessings within birkas hashachar is said by men and blesses God for having not made them women. Women, in turn, thank God for having made them according to His will. Needless to say, this is a challenging topic for many people. I will not attempt to quell anyone else’s unrest or discomfort about the issue. I can only speak of my own perspective, how it’s changed yet remained the same, and how I can live with this rather politically incorrect blessing.
While I can’t recall when or how I first learned about this blessing, I do remember what I was told by a Torah teacher when I asked about it. “Shelo asani isha is not a dig at women,” she explained. “It is only an acknowledgment that men have more mitzvos available (as women are exempt from time-bound ones.) It is said by men in order to be grateful for the extra work.”
I bought this line of thinking for quite some time, and I repeated it to others on many occasions. But over the years, I began to doubt it. It seemed a little apologetic. A little too convenient. It didn’t answer why the prayer was in the negative. So I moved away from this approach. What I focused on instead was context. When people who were bothered by this blessing would ask me how I dealt with it, I would ask them “Do the Orthodox men in your community look down on women?” If the answer was yes, I would tell them, “Then find a new community!” For the vast majority, though, the answer was “Of course not.” These women felt as valued as I do.
My response then was, “I can’t speak for what the rabbis of those times believed about women – no one actually knows the intention they had when they wrote this blessing. What I do know is that the Orthodox men I surround myself with don’t just respect and value women, they are looking to improve women’s place in society, they are looking to find creative ways to include their voices in Jewish life, they are raising strong confident daughters and cherishing their beloved wives. Some of them even have a hard time spitting out these words each day as they pray, because they struggle with this prayer too.”
This approach doesn’t un-write this uncomfortable blessing, but it does mean it can be said knowing that no one actually looks down on women and many people wish they didn’t have to say it. They continue to say it because they respect the magnitude of tradition. This was my approach up until a year ago, when I learned something new, which was actually something old.
I was invited to make an appearance on a radio show, and I was told that the day before my appearance that the hosts had been bashing this prayer. I figured that I should look into it more before I showed up on live radio. As I began to research the sources, I saw something fascinating: it wasn’t just some kiruv professional in 1997 trying to alleviate my concerns about the uncomfortable nature of these words. There was actually a renowned 11th century rabbi who was also bothered enough to comment on it. His name was Rashi and he lived in medieval France – a time and place where women’s lib had not yet been invented! Rashi clearly saw the blessing as problematic enough require an explanation. He said exactly what the outreach professional had told me years earlier:“shelo asani isha” refers to a man’s greater obligation in mitzvos. But that’s not all – the rabbis of old were also bothered by the negative phrasing of the blessing, and the Bach concludes that it’s a grammatical technicality that requires the blessing to be the negative in order for a man to reach the required daily allowance of 100 blessings a day.
I admit – this is not a beautiful, elegant answer, neatly wrapped up in a bow. Having an emotionally charged issue end with a lesson in grammar is about as unsatisfying as it gets! At the same time, sometimes, this is the nature of Judaism. Like a marriage, it comes as a package deal which means that some parts of it are less appealing than others. So too, like with marriage, I can choose (and do choose) to accept it because it is a meaningful and mostly beautiful fixture in my life.
Thank you God for making me a women and giving me the freedom to choose.