Recently, a blog post published by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky concluded that we should no longer recite the blessing שלא עשני אשה and that, in fact, to do so constitutes a חילול השם. The author adduces several questionable sources to support his proposal and which can be debated and addressed by more competent scholars elsewhere.
What is most noteworthy and disturbing about the article is not its source material, argumentation or conclusion. What is of greatest concern is the ideological bias that seems to direct the “innovative” reasoning and to undermine the independence and rationality of the halakhic process. Most striking about the blog post is not the unusual recommendation that emerges from it but the problematic methodology that leads the author to that recommendation.
The Talmud in Masekhet Menahot and Masekhet Berakhot clearly and unequivocally mandates the daily recitation of the blessing of שלא עשני אשה . Millennia before the advent of modern feminism, the Rabbis were already careful to point out this blessing was not intended to imply the innate superiority of men. The Tosefta in Masekhet Berakhot simply and elegantly explains that the blessing is said because women are obligated in less mitzvot than men. Since one who is commanded to fulfill a mitzvah receives greater reward than one who is not thus commanded, this means that men have a relative advantage when it comes to שכר מצוה. There is nothing chauvinistic or misogynistic about the blessing, it is merely a reflection of the fact that women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments.
Ironically, the Rabbis did not need 20th or 21st century feminists to pressure them into developing this interpretation of the blessing. It is not an apologetic that was introduced after the fact or under duress. It is the primary and authentic explanation for the origin of the blessing, straight from the mouths of the Tannaim who instituted it.
Despite this seemingly unequivocal picture of the basis for the blessing in our tradition, it does not “sit well” aesthetically with many modern liberal thinkers who respond to its meaning with their hearts rather than their heads. Such thinkers have determined that the blessing has much broader ramifications than its creators ever imagined. Their feeling of distaste toward the blessing inspired them to seek a way to nullify their obligation to recite it.
Misinterpretations and errors occur in halakhic discourse all the time, and we cannot condemn a rabbi too harshly for making a mistake in his analysis – as David Hamelekh said, שגיאות מי יבין. Had the Open Orthodox writers merely failed to understand the halakha properly, this could have been pointed out to them and they might have retracted or corrected their views accordingly.
This is where the fundamental problem with Open Orthodox halakhic analysis reveals itself. It evinces a fidelity to halakha, up to a point. When push comes to shove, however, the “smell test”, the subjective feeling and the personal intuition override the demands of halakha. Instead of a dispassionate and honest analysis of the traditional sources in light of the mesorah, founded on a conviction in their absolute truth, we find the “use” of an array of sources that, carefully organized, reach a predetermined objective or quell an inner “emotional discomfort” in the analyst.
Eliminating one blessing from the siddur, in and of itself, seems almost harmless. But it will not be long before this kind of subjective halakhic methodology leads to further, and more disastrous, innovation. Will sympathy with the plight of homosexual Jews inspire Open Orthodoxy to find a halakhic basis for sanctifying their marriages? Will Kohanim be offered permission to marry divorced women or converts? Surely, the same incessant tug at the heartstrings of these rabbis that convinced them to discard a blessing enshrined in our tradition for generations will, one day soon, convince them that the Torah’s restrictions in these areas (and perhaps others) are just too offensive to our sensibilities and must be “reconsidered” in light of the values of modernity and inclusiveness. Of course, these rabbis will find the sources they need to back up their claim, they will fashion carefully constructed arguments לטהר את השרץ that appear to validate their preconceived conclusions, and they will be מחבל את הכרם in short order.
The mainstay of our mesorah has been the objective reality of halakha and the dispassionate study of its principles. Allowing our sentimentality to guide our analysis of the Torah is a recipe for disaster that places the direction of our eternal religion in the hands of the eternally shifting attitudes of the society in which we live. The blog post about שלא עשני אשה is not just an error about one halakha. It is the articulation of a methodology of halakha that has been the defining feature of every deviant sect of Judaism from the time of Korach until the present day.