Who Has Not Made Me a Woman

Different versions and parallels from classical sources and manuscripts provide an interesting perspective on this controversial blessing.

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The American Conservative Movement opted to replace the negative formulation with an affirmation of what we are: free, Jewish, and (instead of "male") created in God's image. In making this change, they could cite the precedent of the Genizah text cited above, as well as the text of the Rome Mahzor, which reads "who has made me an Israelite."

Several modern scholars, beginning with the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, have remarked on the uncanny parallel between the wording of the Jewish blessings and an ancient Greek tradition ascribed variously to Thales, Socrates, or Plato. The sage in question was allegedly in the habit of thanking God for three things: "that I was born a human and not a beast; a man and not a woman; a Greek and not a Barbarian."

Is it possible, then, that our problematic blessing is not even an original Jewish one, but merely a plagiarism from Greek sources?

Most traditional prayer books prescribe an alternative blessing to be recited by women, "..who has created me according to his will." The blessing, which strikes many as a kind of verbal sigh of resignation, is first cited by the 14th-century Spanish liturgical authority Rabbi David Abudraham.

Evidently, that was not the sole option available to women in their prayers.

I recall many years ago paying a visit to a well-known American Judaica scholar who had devoted much of his career to obtaining access to Hebrew manuscripts in Soviet libraries. The scholar had just returned from a jaunt to Russia, and was eager to show me his latest finds. One manuscript puzzled him. It was a small handwritten siddur, evidently written in medieval Germany. Upon opening it to the morning blessings, we noticed some orthographic irregularities and tampering in the text of the "who has not made me a woman" blessing.

After a few minutes of investigation, I realized what had happened. The prayer book, which had been custom-written for a woman, had originally contained a blessing praising the Almighty "who had not created me a man," to be recited while the men-folk were expressing their gratitude for not being women. Subsequent owners had "corrected" the text in order to bring it into conformity with the standard male wording.

The discrepancy between the Spanish rite, as reflected in Abudraham's text, and the Ashkenazic practice attested in this manuscript, is consistent with a general pattern that is emerging in the study of medieval Jewish society; namely, that the Jewish women of France and Germany enjoyed a much higher social and religious status than their sisters in Islamic lands.

In a society that encourages men to cultivate their "feminine sides," I doubt that this vive la difference approach would be considered acceptable in all circles. At any rate, it does have an unexpectedly egalitarian ring to it, and serves to remind us of the diversity of approaches that coexisted in earlier Jewish tradition.

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Eliezer Segal

Dr. Eliezer Segal is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. A native of Montreal, he holds a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Holidays, History, and Halakhah, and many of his writings can be found on his personal website.