Last Wednesday night my wife and I saw the gripping Israeli film “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” about the years-long effort of a woman to receive a religious divorce from a husband she no longer can abide. On leaving the theater we heard a woman at the end of our row say in an accusatory way to a woman seated nearby, “I’m not Jewish but I understand that Jewish men thank God every day for not making them a woman.”
The woman she made the comment to — we couldn’t tell if they were friends or strangers — replied with a lingering, lilting “Well…” a kind of drawn out sigh, her voice suggesting an inner debate as to whether it was worth trying to offer a rationale or let it go. Their discussion may have continued, but my wife and I left, silently agreeing that the hour was late and this was not our battle, at least not one to barge into uninvited.
I am well aware, though, of a variety of explanations for why, as part of a group of 15 one-sentence declarations of thanks recited at the very outset of the morning service every day in Orthodox synagogues, men are commanded to say, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a woman.”
Most of those prayers resonate deeply with me as we start the day offering thanks to God for both universal blessings — the gift of sight, strength to the weary — and for being part of the Jewish people.
The most common defense offered for the “not a woman” blessing is that men express gratitude for having more mitzvot to fulfill than women, since women are exempt from a number of time-bound commandments.
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, the former British chief rabbi whose eloquence in interpreting the liturgy is unsurpassed in the modern era, notes in The Koren Siddur that this prayer is one of three mentioned in the Talmud (Menachot 43 b) — along with praise for not being created a non-Jew or a slave — that bless God “for the particularities of our identity. We belong to the people of the covenant, we are free and we have differentiated responsibilities as men and women.
“The blessings have nothing to do with hierarchies of dignity,” he continues, “for we believe that every human being is equally formed in the image of God. Rather, they are expressions of acknowledgement of the special duties of Jewish life.”
The day before I saw “Gett,” I led the morning service at a traditional synagogue to commemorate a yahrtzeit in the family. I chose to recite the “not made me a woman” passage in a softer voice than for the other blessings. It was a compromise of sorts, given that in the last few years I’ve opted to recite in its stead the prayer Orthodox women say, thanking God “who has made me according to His will.”
Personally, I think we should all say that blessing, men and women alike (and we could substitute the neutral-gender word “God” for “His” in this and the other male-gender blessings). But I went along with reciting aloud the “not made me a woman” passage as the price to pay for leading the service.
That decision was symbolic of choices many Modern Orthodox Jews make in choosing to remain as loyal to halachic tradition as possible and remain part of the community while struggling with the logic or morality of a variety of practices associated with ancient times, from praying for the return of animal sacrifices in the Holy Temple to the prohibition against drinking from a bottle of wine opened by a non-Jew.
But the larger issue that affects lives every day and accounts for so much silent suffering is that of the agunah, the plight of chained wives, as characterized so powerfully in “Gett.” The film is fictional but all too real in depicting how women often are marginalized in religious courts, given little or no voice in a system where the husband and male rabbis determine her fate.
No sensitive soul could walk away from this film and not be upset with the rabbinic court. Our sympathy is with Viviane, who keeps coming back seeking justice, complying with the rulings of the three rabbis who urge her to return to the home of a husband who barely speaks to her.
The biggest flaw in this harrowing tale is that no explanation is given as to why Viviane, who is secular, cares enough about rabbinic rulings to continue this charade year after year.
One of the biggest flaws in traditional Jewish communities today is that the agunah dilemma has not been resolved. Rabbis are angered when Blu Greenberg, a founder of the Orthodox feminist movement, insists that “when there is a rabbinic will there is a halachic way.” Most insist their hands are tied by Jewish law and resist the attempts of colleagues and others who have worked long and hard to find creative solutions within Jewish law. In the end, as long as women are made to suffer in loveless, sometimes abusive marriages, the shame is on our community for the failure to release them, and we are all diminished by a lack of communal compassion and resolve.