Glory and Egalitarianism

I want to share, with permission, the following exchange I had with Ellen Rosen, a member of The Mussar Institute.

On Thu, Dec 30, 2010 at 09:15:00AM -0800, wrote:

I have a question that perhaps Rabbi Berger might consider.

And so, [Dr.] Alan [Morinis] forwarded me your email.

This is: Why does Jewish tradition glorify men?

Let me start a little afield…. [This background is an approach I picked up from an article by Rav Herschel Schachter.]

There is a halakhah that when a man is asked to be chazan, he should decline. When asked a second time, he should again decline, and only when pressed a third time should he agree.

Being a chazan is not considered a positive thing. Being in the limelight in general isn’t a positive thing. This is the middah of Tzeni‘ut, of Modesty. (Not to be confused with Anavah, Humility.)

The problem is, though, that someone has to bite the bullet and assume the responsibility of being chazan. Sacrificing personal spirituality for the sake of the community.

That’s the attitude the Torah would like us to take toward leadership, or doing things that attract attention in general. From the ideal perspective, it is better to pursue a role that is indispensable to the community but does not remove one from being seen as just one of the masses.

In short, I’m saying the cultural difference isn’t really about how Jewish tradition perceives women in contrast to today’s more egalitarian attitude, it’s in the difference in how we define “glorify”. People seek fulfillment in high-profile roles. Those men who think of themselves as being good chazanim don’t turn the gabbai down. But that’s just us, being people with healthy egos, living in a society that lauds such initiative. It doesn’t mean things are supposed to be that way.

So then, why is it that when someone does have to sacrifice their tzeniut and assume the limelight, is the job so often relegated to men?

Well, men have a countervailing need. Healthy women are reminded about the transitory nature of life and the power to create biologically, every month, for at least 33 years. It is notable that the extra rites that are obligatory on men are a subset of those “mitzvot of obligation that are caused by the time”. Those of us who can’t hear the ticking of a biological clock are given more rituals that are tied to the clock or calendar.

And yes, that does translate to more privileges. Because men are obligated in thrice-daily prayer, while the obligation on women is less specific, men can only count each other — fellow duty-bound people — toward a minyan.

In the Artscroll weekday siddur, we read that males give thanks to God for not making them women, that “nations abhor us like menstrual impurity,” and that a quorum of ten men is required for a minyan

I don’t know why you blame Artscroll for that first one. Here’s a comment I submitted for inclusion in the forthcoming RCA siddur.

The blessings were are attributed to Rabbi Meir. (R Meir was a student of R Aqiva; 1st cent CE Israel.) He coined three blessings:

  1. … who did not make me a gentile.
  2. … who did not make me a slave.
  3. … who did not make me a woman.

Rashi, commenting on the talmud where we find R’ Meir’s coinage (Menachos 43b), says that these blessings refer to the greater number of commandments incumbent on the Jewish community, the Jews within that community (as opposed to any non-Jewish slaves owned by a Jew) and men, respectively. Rashi lived in the 12th century. He had no social pressure forcing him to a more PC spin on the text.

But here is some external evidence: R Meir had a famous contemporary who left the fold, a fellow who came to call himself Paul. In a letter to the Galacians (3:38), he writes, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law… There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor freeman, male nor female…”

So it would seem to have been part of the Jewish culture of the time that these three distinctions were made specifically about different levels of duty within halakhah.

The custom in Italy is to say these blessings in the positive:
1- … who made me a Jew.
2- … who made me a freeman.
3- … who made me a man.

This was actually rejected by the other communities (Askhenaz, Sepharad, Yemen, etc…) as being more prejudicial against the excluded classes. I know, it doesn’t sound that way to our ears. It seems to be another cultural difference. But to the authors of the liturgy, the contrast emphasized the increased number of mitzvot, whereas saying “thank G-d I’m an X” would imply that being a not-X would be valueless.

Note that the corresponding blessing said by women is actually more demeaning toward men. “… Who made me according to His Will.” Womanhood is actually less of a compromise between holiness and the reality of living in this world than Masculinity is. Thus, women are closer to reflecting His Will than men are.

… that “nations abhor us like menstrual impurity,” …

This is actually a hopeful thing… An observant couple could cease to have relations for one of two reasons: either for the 12 days or so for which the wife is a niddah, or because of divorce.

We are saying that the nations avoid us now, but we know that this is temporary. There will be a reconciliation of the split between peoples caused by the Tower of Babel.

Again, part of the problem is looking from the outside in. “Impurity” is a poor translation of “tum’ah“. “Tum’ah” is caused by an encounter with human frailty — most notably when in contact with the dead. It is an impurity, but impurity of the Will. When we adulterate our awareness of being in the image of G-d with the misconception that we are animals. (Rather than souls that happen to be living in animal bodies.) Menstruation reinforces that illusion by being a “betrayal” by one’s own body.

… and that a quorum of ten men is required for a minyan

I mentioned this already… it’s because women are obligated to pray daily. Most do not rule that the obligation is of any particular liturgy or at any time of day. Therefore, they aren’t among the fellow obligated, who can work together for fulfilling their obligation.

So, at the end of the day, I am blaming two things for that which looked to you like chauvinism:

1- The problem men have developing tzeni’ut because we have a greater need for communal rites and rituals. Man praise G-d for being given these extra mitzvot, women praise G-d for not needing them. We today place great value on fame, so we see this compromise men are more often forced to make as a positive thing. We’re wrong; and our egos make it hard to admit this to ourselves.

2- We lived in societies where women were kept in the private arena for less positive reasons. That’s first now starting to end, but since at least the Greek conquest (before the story of Chanukah), this was the surrounding culture for most of us. We therefore got used to hearing item after item being explained with a negative spin. As I tried to show you with regard to the notion of the impurity of menstruation. To the point that my explanation of how things sound “from the inside” probably sounds like apologetics.

Tir’u baTov!

Micha Berger             A sick person never rejects a healing procedure        as "unbefitting." Why, then, do we care what   other people think when dealing with spiritual
Fax: (270) 514-1507      matters?              - Rav Yisrael Salanter

So, in short: It’s not that Judaism glorifies men over women. It’s that our intuitive definition of glory is not the one maintained by the Torah.

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  1. Bob Miller says:


    About the beracha “… Who made me according to His Will.”—

    1. Who wrote it and when?

    2. If this was later than those authored by Rabbi Meir, why the delay?

    3. Do we believe that men have more aptitude than women for high-level Torah study (incl. Gemara, etc.), or only that, typically, they and not women have the time available to do it right?

  2. micha says:

    WRT men, the siddur was written and we were told to say it. WRT women, there is no obligation to daven the siddur — any adaptations would be post-facto.

    The Tur (OC 46) says “she’asani kirtzono” is something women were nohagos (“ונהגו הנשים לברך שעשאני כרצונו”). IOW, a grass roots coinage for the women by the women. The SA (46:4) describes it as though it’s halakhah (“והנשים מברכות: שעשני כרצונו”); so it would seem to have become minhag slightly before the Tur and finalized as inviolate minhag Yisrael by the SA’s day.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    What about my item 3. ?

  4. micha says:

    Who said either? Men are obligated in Torah study. Who said we do it any better or that we have more time for it? What would be implied is “only” that souls that require study in a more fundamental role for accomplishing their goal in life are those born as men.

    I did write a while back about how women tend toward more binah and less da’as makes them less prone to being good poseqim. In the hands of Qabbalah, da’as is the synthesis of chokhmah and binah, and thus something learned or deduced, but also an alternative to Keser — shadowing the source of chokhmah and binah. I therefore suggested that da’as is learned thinking skills. As opposed to binah, which is understanding one thing from another. Thus, women are less constrained by da’as, the norms of the discipline, which gives them more room for putting ideas together. But that’s not what pesaq requires. Pesaq requires developing the halakhah as per the halakhah’s own rules for and style of development.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    How would you deal conceptually with “outliers” , namely, those women who are daas-oriented? Can you conceive of an outlier in this sense at all? Should an outlier be under social pressure to submerge individuality?

  6. micha says:

    I’m not sure what the conceptual problem is… Halakhah can’t be based on exceptional cases, so they can’t have formal authority. If their argument has merit within the halachic system, someone who formally has that authority will be convinced by it and thereby make it law.

    Sociologically, the special cases did find ways to express themselves.

    I also think that a daas oriented woman learned to compensate for an underlying lack more than an outlier in terms of natural ability. I’m speaking as someone who is inherently dyslexic, but read well above grade level all through school, and have few problems with reading speed or comprehension today. It doesn’t mean I’m no longer dyslexic.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    I see no reason to grant the daas-oriented woman halachic authority. But can we permit her anyway to learn at the level she can handle?

  8. micha says:

    We have from time immemorial. But Beruriah, the Maiden of Lumzer, or Rebbetzin Kaniefsky aren’t held up as examples for a new norm. (For that matter, Prof Nechamah Leibowitz didn’t personally believe many of the feminist notions she is cited as an example of. She didn’t even vote, as she held like Rav Kook that it would be a violation of “‘melekh’ velo malkah”! I think she saw herself as an exception, not a role model for the majority of women.)


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