I'm very glad you asked that question since it's one that many people have. The blessing does appear to be phrased in a disturbing way if you are unfamiliar with its context. I hope I will be able to clarify it for you.
This blessing is fourth in a series of twelve blessings Jews say every morning. Actually, the phrasing of all the blessings in this group hides their meanings somewhat. For example, the first, "Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the Universe for giving the rooster the understanding to distinguish between day and night," is an expression of gratitude for having woken up to another day. That the rooster can recognize the dawn and crow is a remarkable thing, but it seems simpler to say, "Blessed are You, Hashem . . . for allowing me to wake up today."
The blessing you asked about follows two others with similar phrasing: "Blessed are You, Hashem . . . for not making me a non-Jew" and ". . . for not making me a slave." These are the only three blessings in the group, and indeed in all of Jewish liturgy, which bless Hashem for not making us as something. It does seems strange; why do we thank Hashem for what we are not when we could simply thank Him for what we are?
The reason is that these blessings are more than they appear to be. They are expressions of gratitude for the mitzvohs we have, and each of the people mentioned in each blessing has more mitzvohs than the one preceding.
As you may know, mitzvohs are commandments from Hashem, specific actions to perform and specific prohibitions to adhere to in the service of Hashem. Non-Jews have seven mitzvohs to follow, which is far fewer than the number Jews have. Since it is proper that we should be grateful for the mitzvohs we have, we bless Hashem for not placing us in a situation in which we would have had fewer.
The next blessing, "for not making me a slave," requires a bit of explanation. Obviously, slavery does not exist in Western civilization, but in Biblical times, captives of war became slaves. Before you become indignant about the injustice of this, you should know that the Torah forbids cruelty to the slave, and the Torah delineates extensive laws on how to treat a slave (Exodus 21:1-11.) The Jews of that period treated their slaves more humanely than any nation contemporary to them and than many that held slaves centuries after them.
Non-Jewish captives who became slaves to Jews in this manner were required to keep some mitzvohs.. For example, the Torah requires everyone living under a Jew's domain, non-Jewish slaves included, to refrain from performing those tasks which are forbidden to Jews on Shabbos (Exodus 20:10.) Thus, non-Jewish slaves, by virtue of living in a Jewish home, observed the prohibitive mitzvohs of Shabbos. As a result, they kept more mitzvohs than regular non-Jews, but still fewer than Jews, so they are in the middle of this list. Interestingly, Jews who became slaves to non-Jews were still obligated to say this blessing because they were still obligated to keep mitzvohs. This proves that the blessing is for the mitzvohs, rather than a statement about the condition of slavery, and by extension, womanhood.
Now we come to the blessing you asked about - "for not making me a woman." A free Jewish woman is required to do more mitzvohs than non-Jews and slaves, but because of her responsibility to her children, she is exempt from certain types of mitzvohs. (For an in-depth explanation of this, see my article On Equality.) Therefore, a free Jewish man has more mitzvohs to fulfill than anyone, and with this blessing, a Jewish man expresses his gratitude for his mitzvohs. A woman expresses her gratitude for her mitzvohs with the blessing, ". . . for making me according to Your will."
Now, you may still be wondering why all these blessings are phrased in the negative. Perhaps they could be phrased, "Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the Universe, for making me a man" or "...a woman." Rabbi Kohn of the Jewish Renaissance Center explained to me that this is because such statements would be arrogant on our part. The Hebrew word for "man" implies a high level of righteousness. (See Rashi's comment on the words "all the men" in Numbers 13:3.) Can we claim to be such righteous men and women that we deserve all implications of the term? Even people who are righteous enough to deserve the term would not proclaim it because it would be boastful. So, we bless Hashem for the mitzvohs he gave us and exist to help us reach our spiritual potentials without arrogantly claiming to have done so.
My husband taught me an additional reason women say, "...for making me according to Your will," while men say, "for not making me a woman." After the creation of Adam, Hashem said, "It is not good for Adam to be alone; I will make him a helper opposite him." (Genesis 2:18) That "helper opposite him" was Eve. Thus, man without woman was in an undesirable, incomplete state. Until the formation of woman was complete, Hashem's will was not fulfilled. Thus, women represent the fulfillment of Hashem's will while men do not, and our blessing reflects this.
I hope this clarifies the issue. As I said, it is one that troubles many people, so if you or anyone reading this has further questions about it, please email me.
Thanks for your question box. We have just been invited to a bat mitzvah for two little girls - can you educate us please - we believe it's a coming of age - commitment to G-d - a celebration of passage? Many Thanks.
When a girl becomes twelve years old, she is considered "bat mitzvah," which literally means "a daughter of the commandments." This means that she is obligated to keep all the commandments that pertain to Jewish women: observation of the Sabbath and holidays, the laws of modesty, kosher laws, etc. Everything she observed until then was part of her education to be a servant of G-d. At bat mitzvah, she "graduates", as it were. Her education is over, and now her performance of the commandments is her own responsibility. She has become an independent servant of G-d, exactly like an adult.
Similarly, all sins she did before bat mitzvah - like hurting other children, for example - are not considered her sins, but her parents', because they are the ones in charge of her education. The sins she does after bat mitzvah, however, are fully her own. She is now accountable for her own mistakes.
There need not be any ritual to make a girl into a bat mitzvah. No graduation ceremony is necessary. Party or no, a girl becomes "bat mitzvah" on her twelfth birthday.
I will always be proud of my Jewish identity. And I will always be proud to be a feminist. Respectfully, if it were not for the issues raised (and opportunities made available) by the second wave of the feminist movement I sincerely doubt that you would have your own web page. So, please, do not disparage feminism.
And, I am sorry, but "separate but equal" is no longer a convincing argument for me. As a Jew living in a post-Holocaust world, I believe it is essential that women, who, for example, have the talent to become rabbis find no discriminatory obstacles in their way. We need their spiritual and intellectual input in the Jewish community.
First, let me thank you for your voicing your dissent so politely. Unfortunately, that does not happen frequently on the Web.
Second, I would like to establish that I do agree with some points of feminism. I agree that women deserve equal pay for equal work, and that women should have equal opportunities to enter into secular careers like medicine, business, and law. However, for careers in religion, the issue of equal opportunity is not applicable.
That Jewish women are not allowed to bear the title of rabbi, be counted in a minyan, or put on tefillin, is not a matter of discrimination. These are mitzvohs - commandments from Hashem. The concept of rights does not enter into the performance of mitzvohs. We don't perform mitzvohs because it is our right to do so; we perform them as a matter of responsibility to Hashem's word. Hashem did not command women to do these mitzvohs, and it is our responsibility to serve Him in the way he has prescribed for us.
You said, "in a post-Holocaust world, . . .We need [women's] spiritual and intellectual input in the Jewish community." Why only in the post-Holocaust world? Why not for all time? Actually, women have exerted their influence on the Jewish community since the beginning of Judaism.
As we know, the first Jews were Avraham and Sarah. When Sarah perceived that Yishmael, Avraham's son through Hagar, could have a spiritually destructive influence on her son Yitzchak (Isaac), she told Avraham to send Yishmael and his mother away. Avraham did not want to do it, but Hashem told him "Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice (Genesis 21:12)."
The word "voice" seems extraneous here. The verse could also have read, "Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her." Why is the word "voice" added? The Torah commentator Rashi states that the word "voice" refers to prophecy and that this verse, "teaches us that Avraham was secondary to Sarah in prophecy."
Sarah's prophecy in the matter of Yitzchak and Yishmael was pivotal to the development of the Jewish people. She made certain that her son would have the purest of influences so that he would be worthy to become one of the spiritual foundations of our people. Similarly, our foremother Rivkah took center stage in determining that Yaakov, rather than Esav, received the blessing that established him as Yitzchak's spiritual heir.
Jewish history is full of examples like this. Women have always made a tremendous impact on the Jewish people, and the primary way we do this is in our roles as mothers, for it allows us to shape the future generation. Modern psychologists and sociologists recognize that what occurs in family life impacts on society at large, so shouldn't we as Jewish women also acknowledge the power of our role?
Of course, there are women who are blessed with natural leadership qualities which they want to use beyond their families. On that point, I would like to tell you a story. When I was in the beginning of the process of becoming Orthodox, I attended a beginners' learning program. My madricha, which is a peer counselor, was an alumna of the program, further along in her process than I. Before she attended the program, she had planned to become a Reform rabbi, but after learning more Torah and spending time in the Orthodox world, she decided to become Orthodox. After intensive learning in two women's seminaries, she was hired as a madricha. In that position, she taught and advised others in their growth as Jews. She said that she was doing everything she had ever dreamed she would do as a rabbi. A woman with a gift for leadership can find her niche without violating Jewish law.
True talent always finds a way to manifest itself. That is why I disagree with your statement that I would not have a website without the feminist movement. I have a website because the sophisticated technology of the late twentieth century allows anyone with access to a computer to have a website, regardless of their gender, age, level of education or skill. Furthermore, I do not owe the feminist movement anything for my ability to write. That is a talent with which Hashem blessed me. And just as my madricha's talents caused her to gravitate to positions of leadership, my talent has led me to use my life's circumstances to develop it.
Because I was born to a secular family after the second wave of feminism, I attended college. I may well owe my college education to feminism, and I used that education to perfect my writing skills, but had I been born into different circumstances and not attended college, my drive to write would have found another way to develop. The end result would have been the same; I would still be involved in writing.
In his book Endless Light, Rabbi David Aaron explains that it is incorrect to view talent as something that a person possesses. Rather, the talent "possesses" the person. Many artists attest that when they are working, they become channels for some higher Source. Creativity flows through them, and the art in effect creates itself.
The higher Source is Hashem. Hashem blesses people with talents to express His will in a particular way. When talented people gratefully accept their special role, they understand that they were not given their talent merely to pursue wealth, fame, and status. These blessings sometimes accompany talent, but they are actually external to its purpose. Its purpose is to allow Hashem's will to express itself.
A woman who is blessed with the ability to lead will inevitably find a way to implement it. If she recognizes that it is a gift from Hashem, she will also recognize that she must follow the boundaries of His Law. Furthermore, if she uses her gift to serve Hashem, she will not care about the status it brings her. Bearing the title "rabbi" will not make her more of a leader; her behavior as an example and guide for others will.
I enjoyed your views on staying at home with your children, but wondered if you had any thoughts on the roles of single-parents. While I LOVED staying at home during my marriage, (and I agree with you on the importance of home life) I have had to start a career after my ex-husband left. Having a job simply doesn't fit with mothering, yet here I am.
Furthermore, full-time work doesn't fit well with remaining observant - to have the luxury of cooking and cleaning on Friday in anticipation of Shabbat would be wonderful, but I've not been able to incorporate all these aspects of my life with balance.
Wow! That's a tough situation. If you have to work, you needn't feel guilty about it. In your case, you are doing the best thing you can for your kids. Supporting your family is undoubtedly a mitzvah. And as you point out, preparing for Shabbos is harder when the time crunch is on. But there are short-cuts you can take.
You don't say where you live, but even towns with small Jewish communities have some ready-made Shabbos food you can buy. Most have a bakery for challah and jarred gefilte fish in supermarkets. A bigger community will have stores which sell kugels, soups, and cholent. So you can always take advantage of those short-cuts.
Here are some of my time-saving tips:
SOUP: Get a huge pot and make enough soup to fill it. Then divide the soup up into enough portions that will feed your family for one Shabbos and store them in aluminum tins in your freezer. This way, you only have to make soup every few weeks.
KUGEL: Although I do not do this, I understand that kugels freeze well. So on a week that you're not making soup, make double, triple, or quadruple servings of kugel, and freeze for another Shabbos.
CHOLENT: A crock pot is a worthy investment! You can put all the ingredients for your cholent in the crock pot before work Friday morning, and it will be done for the Shabbos day meal. You may have to experiment a bit with the water and heat levels, but it's certainly a time-saving method.
Besides all this, you may have the option of going to friends for Shabbos. Again, this depends on the size of your community and whether or not your children are old enough to walk to other people's homes. If they are, then being a guest is a terrific opportunity to experience more of Jewish life. As you may already be aware, many Jews cherish the opportunity to have guests for Shabbos, and you need never feel embarrassed to ask. Many synagogues even have a committee for Shabbos hospitality. For more information about this, read my article The Kindness of Strangers.
And, you can always hire cleaning help, no matter where you live. That would be the first task I'd hire out if I could afford to!