Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Who Has Made Me a Woman and Not a Man


An illuminating piece of history crossed my desktop today.  Elana Sztokman's post on the Forward's Sisterhood blog calls attention to a woman's siddur from 1471 in the Jewish Theological Seminary library's collection, includes a variant on a controversial line in birkhot ha-shahar, the morning blessings.  Today's Orthodox siddurim read as follows:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם. שֶׁלּא עָשנִי אִשָּׁה
Barukh atah Adonai, eloheinu melekh ha-olam, shelo asani ishah.
Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me a woman.*

The Conservative Siddur Sim Shalom (all three editions) has changed the traditional berakhah to read:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם. שֶׁעָשנִי בְּצַלְמו 
Barukh atah Adonai, eloheinu melekh ha-olam, she-asani betzalmo.
Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has made me in His image.

This avoids slighting the half of humanity that is female, yielding a positive formula that recognizes that both women and men were created in the divine image.

But the 15th-century siddur, produced by scribe and rabbi Abraham Farissol as a groom's gift to his bride, replaces the "traditional" formula with the following:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם. שֶׁעָשיתַנִי אִשָּׁה וְלא אִישׁ
Barukh atah Adonai, eloheinu melekh ha-olam, she-asitani ishah velo ish.
Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has made me a woman and not a man.

You can see a scanned image of this page in the siddur here.  Select page MS-8255_005v, and you will find this formula in the tenth line down on the page.  (The first six words are condensed into two acronyms.)

What is the import of this liturgical innovation?  As Sztokman points out, 

it demonstrates the flexibility and ongoing evolution of the prayer texts, even when it comes to issues of gender. It is perhaps obvious that prayers are not fixed in stone — after all, there are so many variations in “nusach,” or version, that it would seem difficult to make the opposite argument. Yet, the staunch opposition in even the most liberal Orthodox circles to the slightest textual changes can be astounding.
Particularly prior to the printing of Jewish books, which began in the very same decade that this hand-written siddur was produced, variations abounded.  There was no sense of fixed liturgy that many of us have today, and innovations such as this were not unusual.

Furthermore, the change in this berakhah

also disproves the notion that history has some kind of linear progression. The medieval Italian rabbi was pre-modern, pre-feminism, and even pre-industrialism. And yet, he executed what was arguably a great feminist act. Orthodox women are so often told by rabbis that change takes time, that we cannot rush history, that social understandings have to evolve at their own natural pace.
A similar case was made by Dr. Elisheva Baumgarten when she visited Temple Israel last spring, when she taught us that there exists a wealth of evidence that some Jewish women in medieval times donned tefillin on a regular basis, a scandalous act in many corners of the Jewish world today.  What many of us perceive to be normative Orthodox practice today was not necessarily what existed in the Middle Ages, and those who defend "tradition" should take a close look at what they are in fact defending.

Now that we are facing, particularly in Israel, horrific encroachment on women's rights to live, dress, walk on sidewalks and ride buses according to their will at the hands of extremists, this fascinating artifact sheds light on how much ground we may have lost in the last 500 years.  All the more reason, in my mind, to embrace the historical approach that Conservative Judaism has always favored.



~
Rabbi Seth Adelson



* Some traditional siddurim substitute a line for women to say here, concluding with שֶׁעָשנִי כִּרְצונו, Who has made me according to His will.  That is, thank you, God, for choosing to make me something that is not quite as important or relevant as a man.

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