I just saw your site. It’s pretty interesting. I had a question I thought you might be able to help me with. This morning, I read in the morning service something that said “Thank you G_D for not having made me a woman.” Why does it say that? Can you shed some light on this for me?
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 other nation in those times and, notably, more humanely than many other nations that held slaves centuries afterward, including America.
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. (The Biblical commentator Rashi explains this in his analysis of the use of 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 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.