Late this spring, my sister asked the administration at her Modern Orthodox high school if it would consider instituting a change to the morning prayer service. Instead of the usual practice of hurrying through the morning blessings, she wanted the male hazan to pause after reciting the blessing of “Shelo Asani Isha” (“Blessed are you Lord… for not making me a woman”) aloud so that the female students could reply by reciting “Sheasani Kirtzono” (“Blessed are you Lord… for making me according to Your will”) aloud.
My sister hoped that the female students’ recitation of “Sheasani Kirtzono” would serve as a sort of rebuttal to what they considered to be the hazan’s sexist declaration. By finding their voice in the male-dominated service, the female students would straddle the line between dignity and degradation and inspire reflection among their male peers about equality and the lack of a female voice in communal prayer.
Although fascinated by my sister’s explanation, I objected to her proposal on the grounds that, first, it didn’t push the envelope far enough. “If the blessing is morally objectionable and Halacha permits its omission, why not remove it from prayer entirely?” I asked her. And second, it seemed a little dramatic: People are simply too tired to lend much significance to the potential theatrics of a morning blessing. Still, she and I agreed that the blessing presented a moral problem that demanded a change in ritual.
Others, however, completely rejected our shared condemnation of the blessing. Shortly after my sister’s proposal was shot down, we started a Facebook group — “Say Lo!” [Hebrew for “no!”] to “Shelo Asani Isha” — that attracted an array of such apologists. Despite providing a variety of interpretations of the blessing, they all maintained that the correct interpretation in no way degraded women. For example, popular among the apologists in the group was the view that men recite the blessing thanking God not because men are intrinsically superior to women but because they are obligated in a greater number of commandments and are grateful for this sacred duty. From positions like these they argued that the tradition of reciting the blessing ought to be respected and kept in place.
But the apologists failed to recognize what motivated my sister’s desire to change the liturgy. Law and ritual can either reinforce or combat our prevailing attitudes about gender. By restructuring the service ever so slightly, my sister believed (perhaps incorrectly) that she could dramatically alter the gender messages expressed by the morning blessings. The main point here is that even if we grant the apologists’ claim that the blessing is not intrinsically sexist, it may still promote sexist attitudes that engender inequality and should therefore be removed.
Yet, one might wonder whether something as minor as a single blessing at the beginning of the morning service can seriously impact the way in which Modern Orthodox Jews think about gender. Does anyone really care or think about “Shelo Asani Isha”? Is it really worth the trouble to fight it? One member of the group asked me exactly that question in a Facebook message.
To this, I would reply that the effects of the blessing (and any seemingly sexist law or ritual) can’t be scrutinized in a vacuum. The blessing of “Shelo Asani Isha” is simply one thread of a broader social fabric in which men are the primary spiritual leaders and women the spiritual spectators. To change that landscape and the inherent sexism it is both formed from and perpetuates, Orthodox feminists must promote gender equality whenever it is halachically sanctioned. Because law and ritual give voice to communal attitudes, every detail of communal halachic practice (including the morning blessings) can affect our preconceptions about gender.
The apologists, though aiming to reconcile their feminist and Orthodox commitments, simply end up sacrificing the former at the altar of the latter. Many 21st-century women feel degraded by the blessing and find little solace in rabbinic speculation about its “deeper meaning.” At the same time, feminists who aim to un-pluck Judaism’s misogynistic threads inevitably run the opposite risk of unraveling the entire cloth of Orthodoxy. In other words, they must question whether the conflicts between their feminist and their Orthodox commitments are ultimately intractable ones. For as long as this question remains an open one, Orthodox feminists will and should continue to push the boundaries of socially accepted halachic practice in pursuit of a religious life in which they can participate in good faith.
Josh Halpern is a student at Yeshiva University.