Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rabbi Kanefsky and “…shelo asani isha

By Susan Esther Barnes

Earlier this month, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky published an article in which he explained why he doesn’t say the prayer that ends “shelo asani isha,” thereby initiating a flurry of discussion in the Jewish Orthodox blogging community. (I’d link to the post, but it appears to have been removed, and replaced with “A Calmer and Fuller Articulation.”)

This prayer may be unfamiliar to Reform Jewish people, since it has been omitted from the Reform prayer book. The prayer is/was part of the recitation of every day blessings, and in it the person praying thanks God for “not making me a woman.”

The bloggers who disagree with Rabbi Kanefsky include the usual arguments claiming that Orthodox practice has not changed for thousands of years (which is patently false), and that anyone who questions current practice must not really be Orthodox.

But others, including thoughtful people on Dov Bear’s blog, claim that we should continue to say this blessing because, regardless of what its intention was when it was first written, these days “almost everyone” interprets this prayer in a benign fashion.

So what do they mean by benign? First, there’s the argument that the men are required to do the time-bound mitzvot (commandments), and women are not, so what the men are doing when they say this prayer is thanking God that they get to do more commandments, and thus get a greater reward. This explanation, of course, furthers the idea that men are rewarded more than women are, which I don’t see as benign.

One reason given for why women aren’t required to do as many commandments as the men is that the women are somehow spiritually superior to the men. On the surface that’s a nice-sounding argument, but it doesn’t make any sense for a man to thank God for making him spiritually inferior.

Dov Bear himself said it makes sense to say this prayer because, “Being an Orthodox Jewish woman sucks.” As one commentor elaborated, “I'm damn thankful I'm not a woman. Who wants to get paid less for the same job? Who wants a bunch of men telling you how you're supposed to dress and how you're supposed to cover your hair? Who wants to have every intimate detail of your personal life on display and up for inspection by a man? The list goes on and on, but there's only so much time in the day.” This is benign?

Another reason given for not removing this prayer from Orthodox prayer books is that doing so won’t change the mind of misogynists anyway, so what’s the point? Well, the point is that by leaving it in, every day Orthodox Jews are reminded that the prayer book, and thus Judaism, apparently supports the idea that being a man is better than being woman. Thus, the prayer is an institutionalization of the idea that women are inferior to men. The removal of the prayer would be the removal of the endorsement of this idea by the establishment.

Although removing the prayer, by itself, will not solve the problem, the longer the institution of Judaism endorses prayers that promote the idea that women are inferior, the harder it will be to change the attitudes of Jewish misogynists. That is the point.


  1. Thanks for the link to R. Kanefsky's "A Calmer and Fuller Articulation." Here's my favorite comment to that post:

    Avi says:
    August 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm
    Rabbi Kanefsky:

    I saw this article (below) today and thought of your posts. Yes, we are seeing that women are our intellectual equals and this is probably a good thing. Still, I would like to imagine what the Jewish world would look like if, instead of reciting each day that Torah study is equal to all other mitzvot, Jewish men and women had been reciting for the past 2000 years that “creating a Jewish child is equal to them all.”

    Indeed. With all the talk of women's vital role in the perpetuation of the Jewish people, is "Praised is HaShem for having made me according to His will" the best b'rachah/blessing that the rabbis could imagine for us?

  2. I recommend that you follow this link, also posted in the comments to R. Kanefsky's post--in my opinion, Rabbi Fink's reaction to both R. Kanefsky's post and some of the more extreme responses is very worthwhile reading.

  3. Thanks for the link. I usually read Rabbi Fink's blog, but hadn't seen that one yet because I've been nursing a head cold.

  4. I thought that Rabbi Kanefsky´s approach from within the context of his Modern Orthodox community was very compassionate and sensitive and I applaud him for it. Hopefully, he will initiate a larger discussion within Modern Orthodoxy specifically and the Jewish community generally about including women in our tradition.

    Kol hakavod, Rabbi Kanefsky!

    Thanks for sharing, bivrachah,
    This Good Life