On August 5th, R. Yosef Kanefsky created an internet storm about the status of women in Orthodoxy by denouncing one of the standard daily blessings. The resultant debate, beginning during the mourning period of the “Nine Days” and continuing beyond, demonstrated the ongoing schism within the Modern Orthodox community.
R. Kanefsky posted an ill-timed essay to the Morethodoxy blog explaining why he no longer recites the morning blessing “she-lo asani ishah — who did not make me a woman.” R. Kanefsky, a rabbi in LA who received his ordination from YU, served as R. Avi Weiss’ Assistant Rabbi for six years (link) and is currently both a member of the RCA and a national officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, stated that “each morning we actually reinforce the inherited prejudice that holds that women possess less innate dignity than men.” He concluded that he “cannot take God’s name in the context of this blessing anymore.” In fact, he suspects that “at this point in history,… it constitutes a Desecration of the Name, God forbid.”
He later regretted his wording and took down this post. However, he subsequently posted two essays defending his liturgical decision. In the first additional essay (link), he argued that there is a minority opinion supporting a more inclusive blessing (“she-asani Yisrael – who has made me a Jew”) that is post facto acceptable. He seems to have moved from omitting the blessing entirely to modifying it. In the second additional essay (link), R. Kanefsky argues that practices change based on evolving circumstances. In this essay he reverts to omitting the blessing and implicitly argues that since women’s status is different today, the new circumstances require reevaluating (and rejecting) the blessing.
R. Dov Fischer posted two essays to the Cross Currents website in response to R. Kanefsky’s essays (I, II). In both, he accuses R. Kanefsky of taking a Conservative approach to Judaism. R. Avraham Gordimer similarly objected to R. Kanefsky’s attempt to mold Judaism according to “contemporary Western social values” (link).
R. Avi Shafran called on the RCA and OU to expel R. Kanefsky and his shul for crossing the line of Orthodoxy (link).
R. Asher Lopatin posted two essays supporting R. Kanefsky (I, II). In the first, he adduced minority texts and theological concepts supporting changing the blessing to a positive formulation. In the second, he argued that Judaism routinely adopts secular values into sacred practices.
R. Zev Farber (link) argued that the blessing is obviously offensive and must be changed. The sages of the Talmud may have viewed women as inferior, but everyone in that era did and the rabbis should not be blamed for this prejudice.
IV. My Take
I see two issues here. The first is an attempt to change the liturgy, specifically the text of a blessing. I am generally uncomfortable with the changing of texts for grammatical or historical reasons. Historically, those who have tried to “improve” the liturgy have often inadvertently caused more harm. I don’t like it and I won’t be a part of it, but I won’t overly object to it either. Textual arguments about the text of the blessing and its fluidity or lack thereof address this issue, which I do not consider insurmountable even if I do not particularly support it.
The second issue is changing Jewish practice for ideological purposes. R. Kanefsky has an agenda and he is clear about it. Judaism has, in the past, discriminated against women and continues to do so. We need to change that and altering or omitting this blessing is part of the task. He wrote in his initial post:
Simply for lack of male reproductive organs, otherwise qualified women are still barred from the rabbinate, and from many positions of communal leadership. She can be a judge, but not a dayan. A brain surgeon, but not a posek. And often she must content herself with davening in a cage in shul, from where her desire to say kaddish for a parent may or may not be tolerated.
R. Kanefsky wants broad religious change and this blessing is only the start. Women deserve religious equality, he seems to be saying. They can do anything in the secular world yet Judaism discriminates against them. We need to change Judaism to remove anything that might be considered discriminatory. In short, we need complete religious egalitarianism. That is what I see in R. Kanefsky’s words. I expect in short time that he will also be demanding the inclusion of the Matriarchs in the beginning of the Amidah, as Prof. Daniel Sperber has recently permitted (link).
|These three blessings are mentioned in the Talmud (Menahot 43b). They have nothing to do with hieararchies of dignity, for we believe that every human being is equally formed in the image of God. Rather, 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.|
–R. Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Siddur, p. 26
As others have pointed out, the earliest text we have of this blessing includes an explanation why men thank God for not making us women. We are thanking God for obligating us in more commandments (Tosefta, Berakhos 6:18 – link). I suspect that any explanation of the blessing that does not consider the sages of the Talmud misogynists will be rejected as apologetic yet the original source focuses on commandedness and not on personal value.
Everyone, then, agrees with Rashi’s second explanation that “shelo asani ishah” refers to a man’s greater obligation in mitzvot. A number of rishonim also cite social reasons in keeping with Rashi’s first explanation, but they, too, accept the second explanation as primary… The problem is that while the Sages’ entire joy lay in the worship of Hashem and the fulfillment of His commandments, over the course of centuries men read other connotations into the blessing.
Despite the Tannaitic explanation of the blessing, some people still misunderstand it and are offended by it. Should we change the blessing to accommodate them? I don’t think so, for two reasons. First and primary is that this is part of an explicit agenda of religious egalitarianism that is incompatible with halakhah. Even if this first step can be accomplished within halakhah, it amounts to the proverbial removal of one of the two Yekum Purkan prayers which was Reform’s initial innovation. We cannot be part of the first step toward a non-halakhic goal. Second, we should educate rather than change. A synagogue is supposed to be a place of prayer and learning, certainly learning about prayer. Omitting or changing a prayer due to misunderstanding is neglect of a synagogue’s and rabbi’s role in the Jewish community.
If this blessing was an isolated issue, I would not object to R. Haskel Lookstein’s elegant suggestion (link). He initially established in his synagogue that the blessing be recited quietly. This was misunderstood as omitting the blessing so he now begins the services at a later point to entirely avoid the issue. R. Yehuda Henkin similarly suggested this or that the beginning of the blessing be recited out loud but not its conclusion. Neither allow a change to or omission of this blessing from the Talmudic form, despite the existence of manuscript variants that were generally due to fear of censors (recall that this lessing is part of a trio that includes thanking God for not making us gentiles). However, since this is an ideological issue being promoted by forces of religious reform, I even object to the institution of these suggestions as well.
Is R. Kanefsky and his synagogue outside the orbit of Orthodoxy, as R. Shafran suggested? The rhetoric has crossed the line but I’m not certain the practice has. If so, despite the clear inevitability of schism (if it hasn’t happened already), the RCA and OU have a little more time before they have to take action and pick sides. A little more time.