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.