Apropos of Nothing (well… maybe something): Rabbi Julie Schonfeld Edition

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Rabbi Julie Schonfeld makes an outrageous claim and Ha’aretz runs with it.

The claim? A version of a siddur published in the 15th century contains the blessing she’asani isha v’lo ish. The blessing thanks God for making the one reciting the benediction a woman and not a man. Rabbi Schonfeld contends that:

“This Siddur proves that the degrading attitudes towards women, which we are seeing in certain extreme religious communities in Israel today, are a modern distortion of Judaism. Ironically, treatment of women in certain extreme sectors of the community is far more denigrating to women today than even the attitudes of the late Middle Ages.”

While I sympathize with Rabbi Schonfeld’s efforts in this regard, this siddur “proves” absolutely nothing of the sort. The siddur, which has been floating around the Internet for quite a few years now despite the attempt to portray this as an amazing new discovery, only proves that one woman had this siddur written on her behalf. It does not prove anything about the attitudes toward women in Medieval times.

Although, I would argue that the treatment of women in some Jewish communities in today’s day and age is not rooted in halacha as much as it is rooted in traditional, old-fashioned values that may or may not be compatible with halacha, Judaism or Torah. They are two separate things. But the siddur does not prove that. Nor does it prove that women were treated any better or worse in Medieval Europe.

The siddur, however does prove something very important in my eyes. It proves that the blessing of shelo asani isha is not as nefarious as it seems. See, if a woman is willing to say she’asani isha v’lo ish she must not feel that it is a degrading blessing. It would be extremely hypocritical for an oppressed group to turn around and use the same degrading terminology against the group that is oppressing them. It would be like civil rights activists in 1965 organizing a bus with black people in the front and white people in the back. Reversing the roles in degrading situations is hardly a fair or open-minded approach to the problem.

It seems, that neither the one who makes the blessing she’asani isha v’lo ish nor the one who makes the blessing shelo asani isha is meant to be degrading. Rather, both are blessings expressing appreciation for one’s place in life. Both blessing are ways of practicing the concept of being happy with one’s lot. Just like one can be happy as a man and not a woman, one can be happy as a woman and not a man. Even if one has more commandments than the other.

In my opinion, this single instance of a woman having her own blessing validates the blessing of shelo asani isha. It shows that the true meaning of blessing is that one blesses whatever their situation happens to be. It is not an expression of superiority, nor is it an expression of oppression. It is just a blessing.

I understand that this will not change the perception of the public. I do believe that the blessing of shelo asani isha appears offensive to outsiders (and even most to insiders who need to wrestle with apologetics to make it less offensive). I think the most effective way of preserving this ancient blessing is to understand what a blessing really is all about. Seeing a woman’s prayerbook with she’asani isha v’lo ish affirms to me that the blessing is not meant as a tziduk ha’din or an expression of having more mitzvos. Rather, it is an opportunity to thank God for one’s place in this world.

It is my hope that the public can accept that this blessing is not derogatory in intention or application. Rabbi Schonfeld’s new favorite siddur helps make that point.

Link: Ha’aretz

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

  • While this of course isn’t proof of any particular view held by Middle-Ages Jews, it may show the plurality of opinions and views Jews used to have as opposed to the monolithic views that Judaism enjoys in modern times.
    (This makes me think of this story with R’ Yosef Dov Solovetchik and R’ Shaul Lieberman: RSL mentioned to RYDS that a manuscript was found that indicated that a sheretz is not metamei a Kohen, which is contrary to the long accepted opinion. To this the Rav responded (not verbatim), “you think ignoramuses didn’t have access to parchment back then?”)

  • Andy

    I would agree with you 100% about she’lo asani isha..if the blessing for women (other thin in this siddur) were she lo asani ish. But it’s not. Or if the blessings preceding it were not she lo asani goy and she lo asani eved. But they are. It seems like the women who had this siddur made for her was being davka. But more importantly, are you saying that women should say she lo asani ish? Or that men should say she asani ish, and women should say she asani isha?

    • I am only arguing that my interpretation of the blessing is validated by this siddur. That’s all. I am making zero statements about what people should or should not do.

  • DG

    I don’t see how it proves that the blessing is not degrading any more than it proves that medieval Jews didn’t have denigrating attitudes toward women. It may indicate that one particular woman didn’t see “shelo asani isha” as degrading. But neither the scribe nor the person who commissioned this siddur was the author of a blessing first said well over a thousand years before, so their take on the blessing may be irrelevant to what it really means.

    • I understand what you are saying. I am arguing that to at least one Medieval woman’s mind, shelo asani isha was not degrading. And I think her interpretation was as I have described and I think that is the best interpretation we can offer.

  • Anonymous

    I think the fact that R’ Farrisol wasn’t excommunicated, or even attempted to be shunned says far more about this issue (in comparison with today) than anything else. In fact, as far as I am aware there is no contemporary criticism of R’ Farrisol in this regard.

    • DG

      That would be significant provided that this siddur was widely known at the time. But if it was just one woman’s siddur, how would the prospective shunners know about it?

      • Anonymous

        @c057154fd302f905d4249b838f2495f5:disqus  Good point. But I have no idea how widely known it was at the time, probably not too widely known as it appears to have been a personally prepared siddur, but also not necessarily hidden from the public in any way. And it (the siddur in question) did somehow remain to this day, so it is possible, even probable, that many have seen it throughout history. And as far as we know, nobody has yet claimed anything against R’ Farrisol over all that time.

  • Herman Grunwald

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think you’re correct. You write “if a woman is willing to say she’asani isha v’lo ish she must not feel that it is a degrading blessing,” and cite civil rights as a support. In fact, many African Americans DID feel that the way to respond to discrimination was by turning it on its head (i.e. the Black Power movement).

    While I think I agree that it might not be an “open-minded” approach to resolving issues of discrimination, it is one that has been utilized. So, I don’t understand your proof that it is not degrading.

    (By the way, I’m responding to your attempted proof that the bracha is not degrading [in the name of intellectual honesty]. I am NOT trying to say that I think it’s degrading.)

    (By the way, I’ve never commented before, but I’ve read many of your posts. Nice job, here.)