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PRAYER PINGS #9

We invariably do it. And then just as invariably, we feel bad for having done it. When we encounter a human being who is markedly less fortunate than we are, in any one of numerous ways, we feel lucky and blessed to be who we are, and to have what we have. And although the pang of guilty conscience that follows - the one triggered by the realization that we are being self-centered at a moment when we ought be other-centered - is ultimately legitimate and good, there is nonetheless real value to that initial,  involuntary reaction of having realized how well off we are. Because in real life, we actually often miss it. We just don't see it.  In life as it really is, the moment of contrast is often the spark that fires up the spirit of genuine appreciation.

And this was surely the intention of the Tanna Rabbi Yehuda in ordaining that every day we should thank God that we are not various kinds of people who aren't as fortunate and privileged as we are.  That we are not non-Jews, who do not have the Torah as do. That are we are not slaves who are not masters of their own destinies or even of their own schedules. And - if you are a Jewish man - that you are not a Jewish woman, who is exempt from, and in Talmudic times therefore generally did not participate in, the study of Torah, communal prayer, and a good handful of very significant and beloved ritual mitzvot.

As for the pang of guilty conscience that must of necessity accompany such contrasts, we need remember that Rabbi Yehuda likely formulated these brachot in this particular way simply based upon the template that had been circulating among philosophers and scholars for centuries already.  In the third century B.C.E., we find a comment attributed to Socrates that expresses gratitude for having been born a human and not a brute, a man and not a woman, Greek and not barbarian. An analogous idea circulated in Zoroastrian circles. Rabbi Yehuda simply believed that we should express these important realizations Jewishly.

We'd be doing ourselves a disservice by getting overly stuck on the negative formulation of these blessings, and to fail to experience the appreciation they are intended to arouse, an appreciation that we articulate explicitly on the following page of the Siddur: אשרינו! מה טוב חלקינו!    We are fortunate. Our portion is profoundly good.

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And now, too briefly, to the legitimately problematic element, the inescapably insulting quality - to modern ears - of the words  שלא עשני אשה, "...that You have not made me a woman." We undoubtedly hear these words differently than they were heard at their time of composition (and for centuries thereafter), specifically because we regard feminism's central claim as containing a moral and religious truth. Which is why we believe as a matter of religious conviction that although Halacha often distinguishes between genders in terms of technical obligation, we should train ourselves and all of our children - as a matter of operational reality - to learn Torah and perform ritual mitzvot to the greatest degree possible. And indeed we structure our families, communities, and institutions accordingly. The anachronistic quality of reciting  שלא עשני אשה  renders it, invariably, insulting.

We do not, and should not, take changing age-old liturgy lightly. This case however, arguably rises to the level where the consequences of inaction are graver than the consequences of action. In shul, we've long-since adopted the practice first prescribed by Rav Aharon Worms, the Dayan and Rav of Metz (1754-1836) in his work, Me'orei Or. He rules that this blessing ought to be said silently, even by the person leading the davening. In his words, "As to saying שלא עשני אשה  [aloud], how can we publicly insult someone? "  Halacha is filled with instances in which we have adjusted practices in order to avoid embarrassing people. Why should this be different?

In my personal practice, I utilize a halachic stratagem to avoid the blessing altogether. You can find the details here , in an essay I wrote when I was a slightly younger man....

--Rav Yosef

Sat, April 20 2019 15 Nisan 5779