What Inspired the Rabbis to say, “Thank God for not making me a woman!”? (Part 1)

As we have pointed out in other postings, a strong case can be made that one of the most serious  “deadly sins” of history is the sin of misogyny. Every faith grapples with this problem in one form or another. In Judaism, there is a well known blessing men say every day upon getting up in the morning:

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler the universe who has not created me a woman.”

The Original Rabbinical Source of the Blessing

The origin of this prayer is found in the Tosefta to Berakhot 6:16 that reads:

R. Judah says: “A man is bound to say the following three blessings daily: (1) ‘[Blessed are You . . .] Who has not made me a heathen’, ‘. . . . (2) Who has not made me a woman’; and  (3) ‘ . . . who has not made me an uncouth person.’”

The Tosefta then explains its rational:  (1)    “. . . a heathen,” because it is written:  ‘Before him all the nations are as nought, as nothing and void he accounts them,’” (Isa. 40:17). (2)   “. . . an uncouth person,” because it is said, “an uncouth person cannot be pious” (Avot 2:5). (3)   “. . . a woman,” for women are not legally required to observe all the precepts.

To what is this matter (i.e., gentile, uncouth people, women who perform the precepts) analogous to? A mortal king once said to his servant, ‘Go cook a meal for me.’ However, unbeknownst to the king, the servant had never cooked a meal in his life! After cooking a meal, the king got upset with him. Another analogy: A king once asked his servant to hem a garment for him, but having never hemmed a garment before, the servant ruined the garment, thus angering the king. [The moral of the story: Let those who are unfamiliar with the observance of the commandments be exempt from observing them, lest they be an affront to their Maker.]

It is interesting to note that unlike the canned apologetic responses seen in subsequent rabbinic literature, which purports that women are essentially exempt from the performance of certain time-bound precepts because of her family obligations, the Tosefta dismisses such a perspective. Her legal exemption from the commandments is because of incompetence and not because of the lack of opportunity.

Re-interpreting the Tosefta

The Talmud discusses part of the Tosefta in BT Menachot 43b:

A learned discussion began: “ R. Judah [1] used to say, ‘A man is bound to say the following three blessings daily: ‘[Blessed are You . . .] who has not made me a heathen’, ‘. . . . who hast not made me a woman’; and ‘ . . . who hast not made me a brutish man.’

One of the Sages, R. Aha b. Jacob, once overhead his son saying ‘[Blessed are You. . .] who has not made me a brutish man’, when he immediately said to him, ‘Isn’t this blessing a tad bit presumptuous?’ (Who says the rabbis didn’t have a wry sense of humor?) His son retorted, ‘OK, what would you have me say instead?’ Surely it is better to say, ‘. . . Who has not made me a slave.’ Once again his son retorted, “ How is this blessing different from that of a woman (seeing that neither one is fully obligated to carry out the precepts of the Torah; in fact they are on equal footing in terms of their obligations)?  His father rejoined, “A slave is more contemptible” (since his character is generally prone to licentious behavior, which is not the case with women).

Now the 2nd century Roman emancipated slave Epictetus would have certainly took serious offense to the Talmudic discussion, had he been included as one of the respondents–but that too, is another discussion for a future date.

A Pre-Shabbat Meditation: “When Shift Happens . . .”

Byline: March 5th, 2010 — 5:45 PM

Life’s Unexpected Upheavals

With all the economic upheaval and uncertainty we face these days, it is important to not lose faith in the possibilities of today’s momentous hour. Nobody can afford the luxury of a negative thought—whether we like it or not, we are on a journey. Where exactly the road is taking us, is anyone’s guess, but the boundaries that have for decades been intact are in a state of movement. When I think about the earthquakes that have devastated Chili, Haiti, and other places in recent times, it reminds me of the economic, psychological and spiritual earthquakes that are forcing us to reinvent ourselves anew.

So far, this has been one real unusual year. It is amazing that life brings us on the threshold of new experiences whether we are ready for it or not.

Shift Happens

A professor once lectured how the borders of the various European nations were all in a state of shift after the cold war was over. The borders of the Czechs, the Hungarians, Russians were changing and so on; all changed. One fellow, with a wry sense of humor, offered the following double entendre: “I hear that even the Poles were shifting (e.g., the North and Southern Pole),” to which the professor quipped, “So what does all of this prove? It proves that “Shift happens.”

Attitude and Change

Indeed it does. Shift happens, whether we like it or not, one must learn to embrace the changes, because if there is any one constant in the universe, it is that change is—and  will forever be—inevitable–except when it comes  from pay phones and vending machines. The evangelical scholar Charles Swindol once said something I can actually agree with, “The remarkable thing we have is a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude.”

The Eternal Flux of Creation

My favorite modern Sufi thinker, Hazrat Inayat Khan, wrote about the ontological nature of change–from the macro–to the micro:

“Life is full of inconstancy, at least so much of life as we can see. It is constant changing activity. A mystic calls life motion. It is constant motion in every aspect, both fine and gross, and in all its planes. Where there is motion there must be change and diversity. If there was no motion there would not have been creation and without change, there could not be diversity. The first two aspects of nature are male and female and the significance of them we can notice by keen observation in all objects and even plants, so that we may see the outcome of motion and diversity in life. Colors and sounds are due to rays of light and the changes of vibrations. The diversity of sounds come from uneven and invisible vibrations, while those of colors are even and visible. So that all that is visible and perceptible in form is constantly changing. It is nature which makes them intelligible and we recognize them as life  . . .”

Our attitude colors the way we experience change. A negative attitude can cripple us, a healthy and buoyant attitude can make all the difference in the world.

Yes, change is inevitable. The boundaries of our lives are always in a state of shift and change. Sometimes we have to touch the nothingness and void in order to experience the miracle of resurrection and renewal. All of this is doable, provided we have but the courage to embrace the impossible, and She [the Shekhinah] will do the rest.

The Three Princes of Serendip

Let me share with you a caveat.

In the medieval period there was a legend about the “Three Princes of Serendip”  (the ancient name for Ceylon). Three young noblemen take off to discover the hidden treasures of the world before them. Rarely did they find the treasures they were actually looking for. But as Providence would have it, these three princes constantly found themselves discovering other treasures that were equally great or even greater which they were not seeking.  In looking for one thing, they found something else.

It dawned on them, that this was one of life’s clever and wonderful tricks. When they realized this, they developed a whole new slant on life, and every day resulted in a new and thrilling experience. Continue reading “A Pre-Shabbat Meditation: “When Shift Happens . . .””