Thank You, God...For Not Making Me A Woman?
Shelo Asani Ishah: Why Thank God For Not Being A Woman?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
We live in a post-Frozen world. A world where women are not damsels in distress, helplessly waiting to be saved by men - they're quite capable of saving themselves, thank you very much. The old-world notion that women are somehow inferior to men is slowly becoming a thing of the past.
But that leaves us with a problem - because one of the prayers that Jewish men say every morning reads, "Blessed are You, God... for not making me a woman" (“Baruch atah Hashem… shelo asani isha.”) What do we make of this blessing — and what does it imply about the role of women in Judaism? Is it a relic of a bygone era, something to leave behind? Is there a fundamental gender inequality in Judaism? Or is there a different way to understand the meaning behind the blessing of “shelo asani ishah”?
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, welcome to Aleph Beta and welcome to a new round of Parsha.
Why Would Jewish Men Thank God for Not Being a Woman?
I encourage you to take a look at our first round of Parsha which actually is the antecedent for this video. Inlast year's Parsha, we talked about the creation of woman and what I would like to do is a bit different, is to focus a little bit more on sort of a grand idea, sort of a controversial and difficult idea, but I think something which each of us faces.
It's certainly something that has bothered me ever since I was a kid, and that is: if it is in fact the case that woman as a creation is so highly valued as we in fact suggested in last year's Parshat video, if that's really true, then how can it be that men make this blessing every morning: shelo asani ishah, 'Thank God that I was not created a woman'. As I say these words, you feel like cringing. Certainly, if you are a woman, you will feel like cringing, but even if you are a man who has grown up in the 21st century, how could I possibly say this with a straight face, every single morning? It just seems so defamatory, the opposite of everything that we talked about before.
If woman is really such an exalted creation, at some level we might even say, you know if you look at how things are created, and it starts with rocks and then it proceeds to animals and then it proceeds to man and there is greater and greater complexity in creation, that at some level woman is the apex of that, she is created after man, perhaps a greater sense of refinement and perfection. And yet, do we trash that every single day, when we say, 'Thank God that you have not created me a woman'? How do we deal with this problem and look ourselves in the eye in the morning?
Is Judaism Perpetuating Gender Inequality Between Men and Women?
So over time, I suppose I have heard many different answers given to this and somehow I guess none of them really struck me as having this great ring of authenticity, and frankly some of them kind of smacked of apologetics. I will give you an example of one: maybe it is the case that women are somehow closer to the divine than men. You know, okay, so far as that goes, you know maybe there is some evidence of that – they were created last in the creation. Men thank God because men have more work to do to become divine, so they really thank God for all of that work, that privilege that they can work so hard to perfect themselves and women are already there, so that's what we thank God for.
I don't know, when you say shelo asani ishah, that really sounds like you are pretty happy that you are not a woman. Why am I so happy that I am less divine? It just didn't feel like that compelling an answer, maybe it is just me.
What The Torah Says About Women
So the truth is that the Gemara talks somewhat about this issue in Menachos 43B, and various medieval commentators there talk about it, and one of the rationales they give for this blessing has to do with men having more mitzvot that they are commanded to do than women, but what's interesting is that Rashi there suggests another possibility, something that has nothing to do with mitzvot, or actually has nothing to do with theology at all. He basically seems to say just in some fundamental way and in a very practical way, it is just sort of better to be a man than a woman, which at face value sounds, like, awful but I want to explore that line of thought with you..
I think it is no coincidence that it has just been in the last 70 years or so, that people have begun to become troubled by this question and I think one of the reasons why people have begun to become troubled by this question is because if you would have lived in any other era, in any place on earth, before 70 years ago, you never would have asked why it is that men thank God every morning, you would have known why it was better to be a man and not be a woman.
Gender Roles In Judaism: Supported By History?
Let me actually take you back to exactly 70 years ago, to an ad, to advertise Van Heusen ties. Here is this guy, lying back in his bed, with his beautiful Van Heusen tie and there is this woman who is literally kneeling in front of him, providing him with breakfast in bed. “Show her it’s a man's world”, it makes your blood boil. “For men only”, the subtitle says, “brand new man-talking, power pact patterns that tell her it is a man's world.” This is not a farce, this is real, and it is only from 70 years ago.
Go back 160 years ago: the advent of public education, education coming to the masses. But you know the idea that made that practical, the fathers of public education in this country, the early reformers who sought to make education mandatory, premised the economic feasibility of public education on the fact that you could afford to pay teachers because they would all be women. You could pay them half of what men earn, a quarter of what men earn, just bring the women in as teachers. The economic inequality was built into the system and that was considered fair, it was adopted by the United States government. That oppression, that inequality was built into the social compact. Why was it built into the social compact? Where did it come from, why was it a man's world? That came from somewhere.
In the old world–and now think before the information age, before the cotton gin, before the Industrial Revolution, really in the old world–where did economic power come from? Didn't it really come from physical strength? My ability to cut down the trees and build my house, my ability to fend off the barbarians. That's what economic strength was made of. So in that world, Van Heusen was right – it really was a man's world. It was a man's world because men are just biologically stronger. They have greater upper body strength and that gave men power. It gave them greater economic power but it also gave them greater power in a darker way. They could exploit women, overpower them. Armies would plunder and they would rape the women captives. It wasn't easy being a woman.
You know on the one hand it is easy to say, 'Hey, we live in a changed world, we wouldn't accept Van Heusen's ad today and look, we live in a post-information age', when it is not so much your physical strength that gives you economic power. It's mind, it's creativity, and women have these kinds of strengths the same way that men have these strengths. So maybe it is an even playing field, maybe there is no “shelo asani ishah” gratefulness for this comparative advantage of being men today.
But is that really true? Women really still remain vulnerable to exploitation, even now. I mean look at these hard numbers, women earn about 82% of what men earn for exactly the same work and you know what, it is not just economics, it is just about the way things are, women just are more physically vulnerable than men. A man can father a child with a woman and simply walk away. It is just a biological fact. A woman can't. There are 9 months of pregnancy, there is caring for that child, feeding that child as an infant. Women can't walk away. A man can go jogging around the neighborhood at night and generally, he doesn't have to worry about getting raped. Women do live with that fear.
I am speaking of course about generalities here. Not all women live with this fear and yes, some men live with these fears. But generally speaking, these are the realities.
Now, let me ask you a question, so is this fair? Is it fair that God created half the population more inherently vulnerable than the other half? And the answer is no, it is not fair but guess what, life is not fair. There are rich people and there are poor people, it is not fair. Life is just easier if you get born into a rich family. There is privilege. There are different races. Guess what, in America, life is still easier if you are white. It is not the ideal, obviously, but it is just the way it is. But just because that's the way it is doesn't make exploitation an 'okay' thing.
Shelo Asani Ishah: Judaism's Recognition of Gender Inequality?
You know, if God indeed created the world this way, with men having less vulnerability and more physical power than women, then what do you think men should do with that power? You think that maybe they should use it to exploit the less powerful? Or maybe they should resist that temptation?
I think we all understand the answer to that one, there is an ideal, an ideal that we have not yet achieved: Men working to respect women, their abilities, their bodies, not exploiting them. It is the future indeed that should be worked for but until that future arrives, men thank God every morning, for their comparative advantage and you know what, maybe that's not a bad thing, maybe that's a good thing.
Let me share with you what I think about when I make this blessing in the morning. If exploitation is inherently not a very good thing, what's the first step towards a better world? The first step, ironically, is a recognition by the privileged of privilege. You know, here's part of the problem. It is in the nature of the powerful, always, throughout time, to simply not really realize just how powerful they are. It is in the nature of people not to realize how vulnerable others are. You've got to work on it. When we don't work on it, we get into trouble.
Look at the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri: The black community and the relations with the police. It is not easy for whites to understand what it is like to be black and to be profiled and to be pulled over and searched just because of the color of your skin. You know, for a white child, parents are fond of telling their little kids to go out and play, “You know if you are ever in trouble just call over the nearest policemen, he is there to help.” But you know what, black parents in some neighborhoods don't so easily tell that to their kids. If I am a kid and I feel like I am in trouble, how do I know that the officer I talk to is not going to look at me with suspicion, that maybe I'll be the one arrested? It is just hard for whites to understand it, you have to work to understand that, and that's where the full-throated recognition of shelo asani ishah comes in. It is a vehicle by which men actually look their comparative advantage in the face, and recognize it every single day. How can you be expected to deal with privilege and power fairly, if you don't even understand that you really have that privilege and power?
So when we look towards the future and we ask ourselves, what kind of future do we want to create, where are we aiming for? Can we create a society where women and men enjoy the same freedom from fear and intimidation? We can, and if we ever did, would the sages of Israel come together and decide it is time for a new brachah in the morning, maybe they would. I have no idea. I will have to connect you to the prophecy department for that one. But until we reach that time, it is important that we understand the truth. It is important that men look the imbalance in the eye and recognize it because that is the soul of empathy, that is what can allow society to finally abandon the scourge of exploitation and work towards a future that we can all be proud of.