By Eden Farber
Working with younger children is always an eye-opening experience. This summer, I have the privilege to be a counselor at my local day camp, my bunk chock-full of creative, insightful third-grade girls. I sing and dance with the kids, laugh at their jokes and ponder their unintentionally brilliant comments. In every move they make I can see a glimpse of the future of the human race, and it gives me chills to think what these girls—all the campers, really—will do. That's why it's my job as their counselor, even role-model, to make certain every message we send and every nuance of the environment we create is fully beneficial for their growth as people.
So every day during the daily davening (prayer) service we run, when the leader stops and calls out “Boys only...” and the boys recite the blessing of “shelo asani isha”—“Thank you God...that You have not made me a woman,” and subsequently the girls recite “Thank you God...for making me what I am,” I feel a mixture of intense shame, disgust, and concern for the message we're sending about Judaism, and about the way these kids should see themselves in the larger world.
Before you say “Hey, but when I say this berachah (blessing) it has a lot of meaning for me!” I want to acknowledge that it can, of course, have a lot of personal meaning for people. Yet, that does not mean it is a blessing that should be said in synagogue every day from the bima (center podium). That does not mean it is not still offensive. That does not mean it cannot still hurt girls and women every single day. Being spiritually uplifting to an individual and being morally offensive to a community are not mutually exclusive ideas. Sure, there are philosophical arguments that one could make that makes the berachah meaningful and not offensive—but they only work on an individual level. When a young girl hears the boys, male counselors, camp directors thank God that they aren't women—it strikes a note in her whether she knows it or not. It sure did that to me.
The fact that the two respective berachot (blessings)—shelo asani isha and she’asani kirtzono—aren't parallel, the fact that the former is so fundamental in our morning prayers, and the fact that we cling to it so aggressively all sends a sour message: we're losing ourselves in the details and forgetting the bigger picture. Holding onto tradition is not bad—it's when the patriarchal consequences outweigh the halachic importance that we need to do some rethinking. This blessing is a passive aggressive slam to everything the Jewish community has done thus far—every morning, we still take time out of our day for men to thank God they aren't women. In some schools and synagogues, they don't even make a time for women to say their respective berachah—as if pretending the women just aren't there. Many times, I asked the rabbi of my old school if we could start the out-loud service after that berachah, or after morning berachot in general, because I, as a student at his learning institution, felt belittled and disrespected. And after a year and a half, he agreed to it (the fact that the boys that lead davening still started by saying the berachot anyway is an entirely different conversation). Why did it take so long? What about a student who was supposed to be in an environment conducive to her learning but instead is being turned away from Judaism due to this disrespectful tradition was so unimportant or easily dismissible?
I’ve grown up in a fascinating time of transition for religious feminism. The first ever graduation for Yeshivat Maharat (a school to ordain women as Orthodox clergy leaders) was a stepping stone I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for since I was nine and my father became a Rabbi. The first women's Torah reading in my synagogue was something I planned and worked on for half a year, because it wasn't something “normal” in my life, but rather something I had to create and fight for. My being able to learn or pray in an egalitarian environment is something I look for constantly, and find only sometimes. But my campers, they don't have that angst when they think of their Jewish identities. At young ages, they watched the first three Orthodox women be ordained, and heard their mothers read from the Torah, like it was as normal as anything else they've ever seen.
So when I fight for the end of communal recitations of “shelo asani isha” I fight from experience; I don't want to hear it anymore, I don't want to feel sub-par when I talk to God any longer. My campers haven't had that yet—or at least they've only had it minimally. Joss Whedon, screenwriter, producer, director, was once asked “Why do you write strong female characters?” His response, very simply, was: “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
Our religion is a great one, and a strong one, and there is so much value to being a part of a Jewish community. Yet that value is diminished when the community decides to keep reciting this berachah, to ignore the pleas of the offended, and to not bend itself for its members. There are many instances where the line between what’s essential to Judaism and what’s essential to a modern community is blurry; this is not one of those cases. This berachah should not be said out loud during services.
It's time to stop clinging to the offensive traditions and start looking for ways to break them. But if you're not going to stop saying it for the rabble-rousers, the offended participants, or the community's dignity, stop saying it for your children. They don't need to grow up with a bitter fight in their hearts, trying desperately to stay in their Jewish worlds even when their Jewish worlds aren't meeting them halfway. They can grow up with no unnecessary resentment, start feeling empowered from day one. Give them this opportunity to feel loved by Judaism—it's precious.
Eden Farber is sixteen, currently living in Atlanta, Georgia. She has spent time learning at the Dr. Beth Samuels Drisha high school programs, is a tutor for "The Leyning Partnership," Mazkira Galil (head) of the Bnei Akiva Atlanta branch, and is a regular columnist for the Atlanta Jewish Times. She has also been published on several other forums such as the F Bomb blog, Modern Hippie Magazine, Fresh Ink for Teens, and the JOFA Journal.