Sunday, August 8, 2010

Shelo Asani Ishah and Others [Part 2]

Part I on this topic can be found here

At a bris I did recently, the baby's grandfather said to me, "What blessing does a girl say at a bris?"

I didn't know.

"Shelo asani BOY." (for not having made me a boy)

Cute joke. [If you don't get the joke, you can see the explanation here, which will lead you back to this page]

But it got me thinking, once again, about the morning blessings, and that o-so controversial blessing of "Shelo Asani Ishah" – for not having made me a woman. I've written about this blessing before – and in response to this article, I penned a letter which the Jewish Week actually published in their print edition, but which has somehow since disappeared from their website

To the Editor:

In general, blessings are more “acknowledgement” than “thanks.” As such, you need not feel guilt or speak silently when you state, point of fact, that God did not make you a woman. Women recite a parallel blessing acknowledging God for “having made me according to His will.”

If I were to make something "according to my will," the object I would make would be the absolute best, the most perfect, without flaw and error. One of the reasons suggested for why women do not need to be circumcised, an act which finally made Abraham perfect and “Tamim” - complete (Genesis 17:1), is because they are born physically perfect and complete. (Obviously, with all the flaws that “all” humans have.)

Think of what you are saying this way:
"God, you did not make me a woman. You made me something else, and there are all kinds of things that I need to do to overcome desires and to correct and improve myself. Sometimes I need commandments to help me do this. I need to pray harder and I need to work harder because spirituality and a connection to You does not come as easily as it does to a woman. This is hard. This is rough. But this is the way You made it. And so I bless You, for Your eternal wisdom.”

Now who has a better blessing?
Avi Billet

A simple Google search brought me to this posting - which is well worth the read. The author addresses a suggestion of a left-leaning Orthodox rabbi who suggests changing the siddur to less controversial language, as it were. Read, and decide for yourself.

Here is my new thought on the matter – which may be extremely farfetched, but hopefully you can't deny its creativity.

Brachos 60b

When one looks at the morning blessings, it is clear that they all share a commonality related to one's morning experience and routine upon waking up. They all begin "blessed are You, Hashem, King of the world, who..."

* Gives the rooster (some translate as "brain") the understanding to determine between day and night
* Did not make me a "goy" (part of a different nation)
* Did not make me an "eved" (generally translated as "slave" - one subject to a human master)
* Did not make me a woman
* Opens the eyes of the blind
* Clothes the naked
* Frees the bound
* Straightens the crooked
* Spreads the earth upon the waters
* Provided me all my needs
* Firms man's footsteps
* Girds Israel with strength
* Crowns Israel with splendor
* Gives strength to the weary
* Removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids

Then we call upon the God of our forefathers to help us have a good day, without too much trouble or challenge and to bestow kindness upon us. We conclude with a prayer that asks for us to be rescued from evil or mishap, whether it come from someone who is a member of the covenant or not a member of the covenant.

The Talmud in Brachot (60b) explains that many of these blessings are meant to be said in the context of one going through one's morning rituals.

When morning comes "Who gives the rooster (or brain) knowledge to differentiate between day and night." When you actually open your eyes "Opens the eyes of the blind." When you begin to get up "Frees the bound." When you stand up and stretch, "Straightens the crooked." When you put your feet on the ground/earth "Spreads earth upon the waters" – for making there be land for me to stand on, as opposed to living in the sea. When you get dressed "Clothes the naked." When you walk "Firms man's footsteps." When you put on your shoes "He provided me all my needs." When fastening one's belt "Girds Israel with strength." When you put on your hat or head covering "Crowns Israel with splendor." When washing the face "Removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids."

It is noted, of course, that the three blessings whose gist begins "Shelo asani" – for not having made me "x" – are not discussed in this Talmudic passage. They are addressed separately in Menachos 43b.

Menachos 43b

In Menachos, there is a debate as to the language of the blessings. As what we have in the siddur is the most mainstream, it is fairly obvious which approach became normative.

The gemara debates the merits of the blessings and essentially feels we ought to say all three to help us say 100 blessings in a day (different discussion). If we start questioning some of the blessings, we'll start removing some of them and lower the number of blessings we have the opportunity to say.

One of the main points the gemara seems to draw from the simple wording in the negative "For not having made me a gentile, slave, or woman" is that this refers to levels of obligation in mitzvos. I've already discussed this point in my original posting (also linked to above).

Another main point is that when we bless God "for not having made me 'x'" we are saying "'X' is a good thing. I am not 'x' and so I bless God." [Remember that the Gemara in Brachos continues with the passage about "A person's obligation to bless God for the bad just as one blesses God for the good." Admittedly, the gemara speaks of the blessing "Dayan Ha'emes" - which is the blessing one says upon hearing bad news, such as of someone's passing. Nonetheless, the principle is still true.]

Is it good to be a gentile? If one is a gentile, yes.

Is it good to be a slave? If one is treated well by one's master – there are merits. You never have to worry about your home (rent, mortgage, keeping a roof over your head), expenses, finding a wife, how many children you will or won't have.

Is it good to be a woman? Ask most women, they wouldn't give it up for the world.

I'll make an admission – there are times when I "thank" God, not just acknowledge God, for not having made me a gentile, slave or woman. This usually happens when they do something I could never envision myself doing or wanting to do – and I thank God that I am not that way. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with it – but it is something I could never see myself wanting to be part of my life. "Thank God I am not that." (I can't imagine not being ready to go somewhere unless I've put on makeup, for example. I can also not imagine living in a culture where people might say "I don't trust a man who won't drink with me.")

The gemara in Menachos doesn't go into more detail as to why we say these blessings or when we say them.

Which brings me to the creative idea which was inspired by the joke.

Creative Thinking 101

In the context in which all the blessings appear, we are looking at the things a person experiences in the morning. The gemara in Brachos does not explain the "Shelo Asani" trilogy, but since our siddur lumps them into the other blessings, I think it is fair to suggest they also refer to one's observations of one's morning routine.

And I think we can suggest that all three blessings are a certain acknowledgement regarding bris milah (circumcision), which might be otherwise inappropriate to discuss in the gemara. But, at least for a man, it is a significant component of what he confronts in his morning routine.

We do have a blessing of "asher yatzar" [see also this cool poster] which is to be recited after one relieves oneself in the restroom. But these blessings ("Shelo Asani"s) are acknowledgment before appreciation that my body functions appropriately.

And they are listed in the negative because as much as I enjoy mitzvahs, I recognize that circumcision is a mitzvah that I might otherwise prefer not to have gone through – because honestly… - but I do it because You commanded me to do so.

New Explanations
Shelo Asani Goy – I acknowledge that You did not make me a gentile who does not have this mitzvah of bris milah (circumcision). Implication – I acknowledge my lot to have such a mitzvah and I am grateful for it.

Shelo Asani Aved – According to the Torah, even a slave is circumcised. But he is circumcised when he is acquired, which could be as an adult. Implication – If I am to be circumcised, I am grateful that this didn't happen the way it does to slaves, ie as adults. As a newborn, I don't remember it, I didn't feel all that much, and I had twenty four hour care from a mother who saw to my every need.

Shelo Asani Ishah – A woman, for obvious reasons is not circumcised. As a rebbe of mine said to my oldest child, a girl, when he first met her when she was a baby, "You are so lucky your father never did anything to you," or as the joke says "Shelo Asani Boy." I acknowledge that, not being a woman, I am subject to this surgical foreskin removal. Would I have necessarily wanted it, had they asked me when I was a baby? Who knows? But I acknowledge that you didn't make me a woman - over whom, thank God, there isn't even a possibility. In my male Jewish life, there was no option. I was going to be circumcised, and I am circumcised. I merit to bear this mark of the covenant.

The reason we don't say "She'asani Ish" [for having made me a man] therefore, is because we don't "Acknowledge" or "Thank" God for putting us through a painful procedure. We acknowledge for not having made it otherwise. [A point to consider, as proof, is that on the day of a bris we don't say tachanun, in celebration of the mitzvah which is being performed. But unlike other days when tachanun is omitted, we still say "Lam'natzay'ach" which acknowledges a "day of pain" (yom tzarah), which is what the baby is experiencing.]

Finally, this explains very nicely why a woman's blessing is "She'asani Kirtzono" - for having made me according to His will. Abraham was told by God in Genesis 17 "Walk before me and become perfect." Most interpretations say that Abraham became perfect through undergoing his circumcision. Translation – woman, as a physical specimen, is created perfect and need not undergo any corrective surgery to "perfect" herself in God's eyes.

The more I think of it, the more I am convinced the women got a much better blessing.

If we could only stop thinking the rabbis were out to get us, we could move on with our lives and be so much happier.

Another interesting suggestion can be found here (link goes to

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