The Shelo Asani Isha “Discussion” (or does changing the liturgy remove one from orthodox Judaism?)

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The orthodox Jewish world is in tumult over the recent essays published by a local Los Angeles rabbi. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky wrote a series of blog posts in varying tones explaining why he is unwilling to say the blessing where men thank God for not making them women. The exact text of the blessing reads: Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, Master of the world, who did not create me a Woman.

This blessing comes from the Talmud quoting the Tosefta. It has been part of Jewish liturgy for nearly 2000 years. Any tradition, be it religious or not, that has that kind of cachet cannot be discarded willy nilly.

Indeed, Rabbi Kanefsky justified his position by articulating something that many have felt when reciting or hearing this blessing: by its plain meaning, and by the simple smell test, it has the effect today of justifying our lack of progress, and of affirming for us that women do not possess the spiritual dignity than men do.

There has been a very strong response from more traditionalist orthodox rabbis.

One blog has dedicated no less than four of its 28 blog posts in August to distancing itself from Rabbi Kanefsky and either by association, implication or explicitly tossed Rabbi Kanefsky out of orthodox Judaism.

There is much to say on this topic and much has already been said. My purpose in this blog post will be to deal with two separate issues. They could just as easily have their own independent blog posts. But I prefer one landing place for both of these issues.

The first issue relates to the actual blessing in question.

The second issue relates to the response from the traditionalists.

The Blessing

It was 11 years ago that Senator Joe Lieberman famously said on Imus in the Morning that he does not say this blessing. My less than 20 year old brain was met with the tension between tradition and modernity. I decided then that it was necessary to understand the blessing and what it meant.

There are several apologist explanations for the blessing. They all basically say something along the lines of women are really on a higher level than men, they don’t need to do as many commandments, they can if they want, but they don’t have to, men need the commandments to lift men out of the abyss, the blessing recognizes that men are appreciative for having those commandment to elevate them and thanks God for that opportunity. It is not insulting to women because it is not about who is better, it is about appreciating having more commandments.

While this is somewhat enticing, it falls short. The next logical step is that if the commandments are not indicative of higher status rather lower status, why are we blessing God for that? Could it be that it is something like tziduk ha’din – thanking God for the bad as we do after a death?  Unlikely. The other morning blessings do not follow this form.

Further, there are several medieval sources that actually say that the blessing is to thank God for for not making man a woman because women are not as special as men. It is certainly a viable explanation for the blessing. As I have written previously, I don’t blame the rabbis of the Talmud for thinking that way – if they did. They were subject to the social values of their era.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks offers this explanation:

“…they are acknowledgments of the special responsibilities of Jewish life. Heathens, slaves and women are exempt from certain commandments that apply to Jewish men. In these blessings, we express our faith that the commandments are not a burden but a cherished vocation”

In other words, the blessing is an affirmation that extra commandments are a privilege. Well, why doesn’t everyone have this privilege?

It is easy to see why the blessing is an affront to many women. It implies inferiority at worst or less opportunity at best. It could be argued that just because Judaism has some specific roles for men and women does not mean it deserves a blessing to that effect. I completely understand why some find it offensive.

Rabbi Kanefsky’s feelings about the blessing are justified. His actions are what are subject to scrutiny. His feelings are not.

(Here is what I think about the blessing: Apropos of Nothing)

The Response

Rabbi Shafran takes a strong stance against Rabbi Kanefsky. Rabbi Shafran’s approach to orthodox Judaism is that things are not supposed to change. Commitment to orthodox Judaism and its mesorah mean accepting the status quo and not changing anything. In his mind, not saying the blessing is a change and simply because Rabbi Kanefsky is “big enough” to impose a change in orthodox Jewish liturgy, he can’t. Not only that, but making such a change is enough to push Rabbi Kanefsky out of orthodox Judaism.

The punchline:

But when a contemporary rabbi, particularly one who has not yet garnered the wisdom that comes with many years of living and learning, proposes to reject an element—any element—of the Jewish mandate, there can be no question about his having relinquished the right to call himself Orthodox.

Speaking of change, a friend of mine put Rabbi Shafran’s opinion in perspective. The biggest innovation in the history of orthodox Judaism is that there is no innovation in orthodox Judaism.

This is especially true with regard to liturgy.

In orthodox Judaism there are three primary nuschaos (prayer styles). They all follow a basic formula but transferring from one to the next is a difficult proposition. There are enough words, sentences and paragraphs that would make it uncomfortable for one who prays using nusach A to lead the services for a nusach B congregation.

How did this happen?

Simple. Different communities felt different prayers were important enough to incorporate into their services. Some did. Some didn’t. Over hundreds of years some prayers were added, others were deleted.

In the Aleinu prayer a line was taken out because it was offensive to the non-Jewish community. Some have said it should be put back. Others leave it out. No harm; no foul.

My great-great-grandfather, Reb Elya Lopian, a Torah giant with impeccable credentials (the Brisker Rav said of him: He is what R’ Yisrael Salanter had in mind when he created the Mussar movement) adjusted his personal prayers several ways. In the introduction to his classic work, Lev Eliyahu, we are told that Reb Elya did not say “ki shem Hashem ekra…” before his Mincha amida, When Reb Elya would lead the services on the High Holidays he would omit the line “hineni he’ani mi’maas nir’as v’nifhad…” because he felt it was not honest. He felt he wasn’t really afraid so he just skipped it. Reb Elya also changed the words of “Elokai nitzor l’shoni” into “Elokeinu nitzor l’shonenu” because he felt that the author of the prayer was honestly trying his hardest to avoid the things mentioned in the prayer, but we don’t necessarily try our hardest so how could we ask God to do it for us? Instead Reb Elya switched the words to be general prayer on behalf of everyone.

I have been told, although I can’t find it in the book, that on Tisha B’Av Reb Elya even omitted the references to Jerusalem being desolate and destroyed. His reasoning was how could he say those words when they were no longer true?

In short, prayer for Reb Elya was an exercise in truth and honesty. The rigidity of the words in his prayer book were not impenetrable barriers to be accepted without careful consideration.

There is precedent for changing prayers and adjusting the liturgy based on many factors.

Of course Rabbi Shafran knows this. His problem with Rabbi Kanefsky is two-fold. One, he is not “choshuv” enough to make changes. Two, Rabbi Shafran makes that disingenuous claim that orthodox Judaism does not change.

As to the first claim: This is a classic ad hominem attack. If the change is valid, the source of the change is irrelevant. Very weak argument by Rabbi Shafran.

As the second claim: The entire concept is a lie. Things do change, especially in the liturgy.

Rabbi Shafran, and anyone else for that matter, would be taken much more seriously if he would make an actual argument against the change other than “we don’t change”. Does he have such an argument? I don’t know.

What does Rabbi Shafran really mean to say?

I think he means to say that changes that were made in the past were either needed, necessary or important enough to make. This change is not. In his opinion, the sensitivities of women who find this blessing offensive are not sufficient to warrant a change to the liturgy.

This is fair position. He can say it is not important enough and others can disagree. But by drawing the lines as he did, there is no room for discussion. One side is presenting halachic analysis and reasoning. The other is just closing its ears and saying “I can’t hear you”.

I think the way forward is to have a genuine discussion about the liturgy. Tossing your opponent out of orthodoxy doesn’t make the issue disappear nor does it win any argument.

As always, debate and discourse will provide the best way to analyze the issue and give orthodox Jews the tools they need to make the most appropriate informed decision for themselves.

Links: Morethodoxy, Cross-Currents

  • BS

    Good post. The key point remains that nobody has defended the bracha itself. Nobody. Is it indefensible? If yes then it should be defended by somebody. If no then Kanefsky should be commended for attacking the indefensible.

    • Anonymous

      I think the bracha has been properly defended as thanking Hashem for the additional mitzvos.  I think the better question is, why don’t women have a bracha thanking Hashem for the special responsibilities that they are given?

    • ThatsLife

      Personally I never really saw much problem with the bracha. It acknowledges a simple fact that women have it worse off than men (then and now). Not that men are somehow inherently better than women simply by virtue of being men, but due to unfortunate realities of sexism.

      Similarly, I often am grateful for the fact that I am white. Not because I am a racist of any sort, but simply because in the Western world it is usually a pretty nice advantage (for instance, I am pretty unlikely to be shot to death if I get into an altercation with law enforcement).

  • There’s a sefer ברכות שנשתקעו that documents numerous brachos that disappeared throughout the generations. I’m gonna have to study it in order to have a proper answer for BS (Berel Shain?)

  • Anonymous

    Here’s an example of an old Italian nusach in a womens siddur –

    I think this is a few hundred years old and predates the very concept of the “Orthodox” label we use today.

    • “She-asitani isha ve’lo ish”


    • The siddur you have linked was a private siddur written specifically for an aristocrat. It is not certain that ANY other siddur had this nusach. It may have been “just for her”.

      • Anonymous

        I am aware of that. The astounding thing is who wrote it. Do you think the Baal Tefilah (or Cantor) in R’ Avi Shafrans shul (or in my shul for that matter) would write such a siddur?

  • I’m glad Rabbi Shafran has informed me that nothing in Judaism can change. He has just patured me from much of pesukei d’zimra and tachanun, almost the entirety of selichot, most of the yomim noraim service, all the minhagim specific to simchat torah, and kabalat Shabat, as all are post-Chazal innovations that render the people who introduced them non-Orthodox. I will be able to spend a lot less time in shul now. 

    • Nonsense, Professor.  We can change as much as we want – as long as it involves ADDING things to Jewish practice and making a halachic lifestyle MORE burdensome (especially if the burden falls largely on others); its when you try to take things away and reduce the degree of halachic  regulation that you become a reformer. *Tongue in cheek*

  • Anonymous

    R’ Fink,
    I agree that Rabbi Shafran could have used better arguments than just attacking Kanefsky and claiming that nothing ever changes.  I think Rabbi Shafran’s real problem is his objection to the feminist movement, and the fact that Kanefsky appears to be endorsing and even promoting the feminist agenda.  As such, I agree that Kanefsky should be tossed from the Orthodox rabbinate, having personally observed the detrimental effect that the feminist movement has had on the frum world.
    As a fellow Mechinas Ner Yisrael bochur (who only lasted one year there), I must ask, what do you think Rabbi Tendler would say about this?

    • Ich mein:

      The blessing is offensive whether one is a feminist or not. And being a feminist can’t possibly be grounds for exclusion from orthodoxy. That is insane.

      What has been detrimental about what you call the feminist agenda?

      As to Rabbi Tendler’s opinion, while I value his opinion and consider him a rebbe and mentor of mine, I don’t think that his opinion would be dispositive. That being said, I am sure RT would say something like “people shouldn’t be so sensitive”.

  • Anonymous

    R’ Eli, I didn’t realize u had such Yichus (R’ Elya fantastically genius and helpful Lev Eliyahu is one of the few mainstays on shabbos afternoon from my yeshiva days)! Guess you have the backing (like R Elazar Ben Azarya) to be a leader and stand up against some of the torah highjackers threatening judaism today. keep it up!