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What Inspired the Rabbis to say, “Thank God for not making me a woman!”? (Part 2)

A Greek Should be Thankful for Three Things . . .

At this point one could ask: What sort of teachings might have inspired Rabbi Judah to formulate these three blessings? There may be two possible sources: Greek or early Christian writings. Of the two choices, I believe the Greek influence is more dominant. However, as we shall soon see, the liturgical texts found in the Cairo Geniza  suggest that the early medieval liturgical scholars may have had Christianity in mind, since the  Graeco-Roman culture was supplanted by the Catholic Church. This, I think, is pretty historically plausible.

The 3rd century biographer Diogenes Laertius  writes,  “In his Lives, Hermippus refers to Thales (what has been sometimes attributed to Socrates) . . . .He thanked fortune for three things: first of all, that he had been born a man and not a beast; secondly, that he was a man and not a woman; and thirdly, that he was a Greek and not a barbarian.” [1]

One could argue that the negative rabbinic statements concerning women must be seen within a broader social context; that is to say, the rabbis’ opinions were formed to a certain extent by the dominant cultural attitudes of its time, which happened to be decidedly Graeco-Roman.

Moreover, the originator of this liturgical blessing, Rabbi Judah HaNasi, (ca. 135-219) used to frequent the company of many of Romes’ high society members, and was believed to even been intimate with the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (ca. 122-180 CE.).

Charles Carlston sums up the Greco-Roman world’s view of women: “ . . . on balance . . . the picture drawn is a grim one. Women . . . are basically ineducable and empty-headed; vengeful, dangerous, and responsible for men’s sins; mendacious, treacherous, and unreliable; fickle; valuable only through their relationships with men; incapable of moderation or spontaneous goodness; at their best in the dark; interested only in sex–unless they are with their husbands, in which case (apparently) they would rather talk. In short, women are one and all ‘a set of vultures,’ the ‘most beastly’ of all the beasts on land or sea, and marriage is at best a necessary evil.” [2]

A Second Possible Source of Rabbi Judah’s Statement

As we mentioned above, Rabbi Judah may have been directing his criticism to new Christian faith. According to Paul, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian,  slave, free; but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11-13). In Paul’s vision of the new Christian faith, the traditional distinction that characterized the old rabbinic view of Judaism no longer applied. For him, the gospel doesn’t confer on one class of people a privileged position in the social order–God doesn’t play favorites; God saves us all in the same way and for the same end.

Do not think for a minute that Paul was necessarily a social liberal–he definitely wasn’t. But he did know how to appeal to perspective converts! For the record, Paul had no problem encouraging slaves and women to mind their societal places–all of which he wholeheartedly endorses. Paul was the world’s greatest salesman–he knew what to say in order to sell his faith–but we shall have to return to this point in another discussion.

This passage is interesting because if we read the Geniza texts of the Siddur, we find language that is very similar to the Pauline passage cited above: ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם אשר בראת אותי אדם ולא בהמה ואיש ולא  אשה וישראל ולא גוי מל ולא ערל חופשי ולא עבד “Blessed are You …who has created me a human and not beast, a man and not a woman, an Israelite and not a gentile, circumcised and not uncircumcised, free and not slave.”

Early rabbinic passages also do not reflect particularly well on women:

Sometimes I Think She’s a Spy–My Baby Got Distaff Eyes

It is hard to interpret the statement of Rabbi Judah HaNasi without taking into consideration the many other nasty aphorisms we find regarding women in the Talmud. That is not to say that all the statements regarding women were decidedly negative. There are many positive statements, which far exceed the negative ones. However, the negative attitudes do express a misogyny we dare not ignore. For examples:  “He that talks much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and will at last inherit Gehenna” (Aboth 1:5), or “Every man who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he taught her promiscuity” (Mishnah Sotah 3:4).

One of the strongest stories reads: “A matron asked R. Eliezer] ‘Why did the worshipers of the Golden Calf suffer from three kinds of death, since  they were all guilty of the same essential sin?’ However, Rabbi Eliezer dismisses the woman with a curt response].  He says to her a woman has no hokhmah (“wisdom”) except with her distaff as it is written, “And every wise-hearted woman spun with her hands” (Exod. 35:25).  His son replied, ‘Since you refused to give her a proper learned response from the Torah, you have gone and cost me an annual tithe of 300 kor.’ He said to him,”Let the words of Torah be burnt rather than handed over to women!’” [3].

When one considers how serious a crime willfully destroying God’s Name in a Torah, it is clear Rabbi Eliezer considered the possibility of a class of learned women an even greater moral affront to Judaism. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus probably would have found even today’s Haredi and Hassidic communities as being too liberal, for even they teach Torah to their female family members.

One of the leading Modern Orthodox theologians and Holocaust rabbis of the 20th century, Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz  candidly admits, “It is surprising that such negative opinions could find their place beside the most positive expressions of appreciation of the function of a woman in the life of the people.” [4]

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Notes:

[1] Diogenes Laertius, I, 33-34 [Life of Thales].

[2] Charles Carlston, “Proverbs, Maxims, and the Historical Jesus,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 99 (1980), 95-96.

[3] JT Sotah 3:4 [19a].

[4] Eliezer Berkowitz, Crisis and Faith (New York: Sanhedrin Press, 1976), 100.



Discussion

  1. Yochanan Lavie  March 7, 2010

    At what point do we hang on the rabbis’ every words, and at what point do we disregard them? They were not popes, but fallible human beings. Not every thing they said was torah m’sinai.

    Personally, I follow the Italian nusach of that bracha: men say “who has made me a man” and woman say “who has made me a woman.”

    (reply)
  2. admin  March 7, 2010

    You gotta admire the common sense of the Italian rabbis; they have always been the most practical minded leaders in Jewish history.

    (reply)

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