Q. How can we justify the early morning blessing in the Siddur recited by men that praises God “Who has not made me a woman”? Isn’t this derogatory towards women?
A. Together with the blessings praising God “Who has not made me a heathen” and “Who has not made me a servant”, this blessing has been part of Jewish liturgy for two millennia. Even earlier, Plato (or, according to some, Socrates) used to express gratitude for three things: that he was man and not animal, man and not woman, Greek and not barbarian.
But between the Jewish and the Greek attitudes there was a fundamental difference. The ancient Israelite lived in a male-dominated society, yet Jewish teaching concerning women was enlightened. What do the rabbis say? “He who loves his wife as himself, and honours her more than himself, will know peace and harmony in his home.”
Jewish life rests on two pillars – the home and the synagogue. In the synagogue, man is high priest; in the home, woman is high priestess. It is she who ensures the Jewishness of the home and ensures the harmony of the home and unity of the family. (It is only because we tend to be Jews in synagogue alone and nowhere else that we get the mischievous impression that man is all-important. If we were also Jews at home, we would know that there is nothing second-class about women’s place in Judaism.)
She is exempt from certain positive commandments which have to be carried out at set times, such as tefillin and tallit: she has competing responsibilities arising out of bearing and rearing children, and maintaining a Jewish home and a harmonious family life.
The author of the “Who has not made me a woman” blessing implies that one has had no personal control over having been created male or female as the case may be, not over whether one bears the special tasks of a man or a woman.
The man has a greater number of religious duties and he acknowledges that God ordained it so.
In blessing God, a man is not asserting any real or imagined superiority, but expressing deep humility. He is spared so much. He does not go through child-bearing and child-birth. He does not know the physical and psychological strains of a woman. For that too he says shelo assani ishah – in humble acknowledgement that his may be the less difficult task.