Saturday, October 29, 2005

A philosophical fragment on the benediction "shelo assani isha" ("Thank God I'm not a woman!")

(A couple years ago I thought that the idea described below could be turned into a full-scale article. However, after gaining a better acquaintance with the philosophical issues involved, I started worrying too much about how to deal with certain problems suggested by the relevant technical literature - a hint for philosophical insiders: think of Kripke's "origin essentialism.")

According to tradition, every male Jew is required each morning to recite the following benediction, which I quote in its full English translation:

Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman.[i]

Not surprisingly, this benediction (henceforth, NAW, “Not A Woman”) has, in recent years, become the most controversial sentence in the traditional Jewish prayer book, and has been deleted from the non-Orthodox liturgy. Rather than recite the various feminist attacks and Orthodox defenses of NAW, I would like to discuss the conditions and background assumptions under which utterance of the benediction can constitute an appropriate ritual act for a particular worshipper. The idea of appropriateness here employed derives directly from Jewish ritual law itself. Jewish law positively forbids the recitation of inappropriate, or so-called “wasted” benedictions. For instance, the liturgy contains a benediction that thanks God for having created grapes. This benediction may only be recited by someone who has just drunken wine. More generally speaking, a benediction of thanksgiving for some divine gift may only be recited by someone who, in fact, has benefited from that gift. My question becomes, what are the conditions and background assumptions that can make it appropriate for someone to bless God for not having made him a woman?

I will now introduce a fairly esoteric notion from the contemporary philosophy of language which can be applied with surprising results to the exegesis of NAW and other benedictions of similar formulation. The notion is that of essential qualities which can determine the identity of an object or person across possible worlds.[ii] "Possible worlds" are simply all of the ways that things could be. Identity is the property of a thing to be itself. When Tevye the Milkman sighed, "If I were a rich man", he was referring to the possible world (or rather, the set of possible worlds) in which he would, in fact, be a rich man. In one such world, Tevye might find a lost treasure, making him fantastically wealthy. In that case we would have no difficulty recognizing Tevye as Tevye; we can imagine him leading his horse to the village and discovering a pot of gold by the side of the road. But what of the possible world in which Tevye is a rich man because he has been born a Rothschild? Is it still clear that we are thinking of how the same person could have lived in different circumstances, or are we imagining a world in which the human being known to us as Tevye the Milkman simply does not exist, and in which there happens to exist another, completely unrelated person named Tevye, scion to the House of Rothschild? When philosophers talk about essential qualities which can determine identity across possible worlds, they are talking about the qualities which, for example, make Tevye Tevye in all circumstances which we could imagine befalling him. If having been born to a particular set of parents is one such essential quality, than talk about how our Tevye would have faired as a Rothschild would be self-contradictory. Furthermore, when we imagine a world where no one possesses Tevye's essential qualities (such as our own world, since Tevye is, after all, a fictional character) we are imagining a world in which Tevye simply does not exist.

We are now prepared to consider the philosophical consequences of NAW. Consider first a hypothetical benediction that does not exist in traditional Jewish liturgy:

Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a lobster.

It is not terribly surprising that the authors of the morning benedictions left this one out. Most people (and here I will leave believers in metempsychoses to work out their own metaphysical difficulties) do not think of the possibility of being created as lobsters as constituting a genuine threat to human well-being. It isn’t that people bear no objections to crustaceanism as an alternative lifestyle, or that, like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, they wished could adopt it. (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.")[iii] Rather, it simply makes no sense to say that a person could have been a lobster. People and lobsters are just too dissimilar. In the jargon of possible world semantics, one would say that we will never find a particular human being in World1 who may be identified with a particular lobster in World2. It makes no sense for me to think of what might have been had I been born (better: hatched) a crustacean. That possibility would be properly described as belonging to a world with one less human and one more serving of non-kosher sea-food! If, as in some fairy-tale, a wicked witch were to “change me into a lobster”, one of two things would actually occur: either 1) I would simply cease to exist, replaced by a lobster, or 2) horrifically, my human consciousness would somehow continue to function within a crustacean body. But surely, a lobster that is capable of bemoaning its own fate is not a lobster at all, but rather some kind of misfortunate monster. The upshot of my discussion of the lobster discussion is this: it is inappropriate for me to thank God for having saved me from logically impossible misfortune.[iv] I should only thank God for not having made me a lobster, if, in principle, I could have been a lobster. Since it was impossible for me to have been created as a lobster, I have nothing to thank God for on that account.

By now, the application of this idea to NAW should be obvious. In terms of Jewish ritual law, a man who thinks that gender constitutes an essential element of personal identity would be prohibited from reciting NAW; it would constitute a transgression of the rule against brakha levatala, the recital of an uncalled for benediction. For such a man, the very idea that he might have been born female is as illogical as the suggestion that he might have been born a lobster. Jewish law does not require – nor permit - one to recite a blessing thanking God for having been spared from involvement in a logically impossible predicament.

When the author of NAW thought of women, he could not, at pain of semantic confusion, have been thinking of beings radically different from himself. He must have thought of himself as someone who could have been a woman. That woman would have possessed all of his most vital, essential qualities, the qualities without which he would not have been the person he was. (But she also would also have suffered from the social disadvantages suffered by persons due to contingencies of gender. The blessing may thus be interpreted as, "Thank God I don't have to put up with the all the stuff that woman have to put up with!") Obviously, he could not have held that his masculinity constituted an essential element of his personal identity. Paradoxically, when a male possible-world-semanticist recites NAW, he implicitly announces that, in at least one other possible world, he is, in fact a woman.

Now that I have spun out the metaphysical consequences of NAW, let us examine the two benedictions which immediately precede it in the morning service:

Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a heathen.
Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a slave.

The application of the argument I have made concerning shelo assani isha to these two other benedictions results in a universalistic vision of humanity. If Jews and gentiles belonged to essentially different orders of being, there would be no point to thanking God "who hast not made me a heathen." Similarly, if the institution of slavery gave legal expression to intrinsic differences between human beings, it would be nonsensical for a freeman to thank God for preserving him from a plight logically incompatible with his very nature. In the light of these three benedictions, all of the major categories which have divided the human race, i.e. gender, ethnicity and economic status, are recognized as mere contingencies which have no part in defining the essence of the individual. This universality jibes neither with racialist interpretations of Judaism such as that expounded by Judah HaLevi in his Kuzari (or at least found there by some interpreters) nor with the classical attitude towards slaves enshrined in Aristotle's Politics[vi] ("All men who differ from others as much as an animal from a man are by nature slaves.")
Pretty good for "mere semantics".

© Berel Dov Lerner.

[i] Daily Prayer Book. (Phillip Birnbaum translator) (NewYork: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1977) pg. 18.
[ii] A general discussion of these matters may be found in R.Bradley and N. Schwartz's Possible Worlds (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979).
[iii] From "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Other Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1934) pg. 6.
[iv] Similarly, Jewish law prohibits a worshipper from reciting the special benediction of thanks giving for having survived an unusual danger (such as a traffic accident) unless the worshipper had, in fact, been involved in an especially dangerous situation.
[v]. Daily Prayer Book, pp. 16-18.
[vi]. Politics as appears in The Politics of Aristotle (Ernest Barker, translator & editor) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962) pg. 13.


Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

This is fascinating! I think I am going to put a link to your article on my blog.

11:36 PM  
Blogger GoldaLeah said...

I agree -- fascinating.

One question remains unanswered, however. There IS a prayer in the siddur that women say: thanking God for making them as they are. If your theory is true, why isn't the woman's prayer "Thank God for now making me a man"?

For me, this is a crucial difference and casts doubt on any positive-spin interpretation of NAW.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Berel Dov Lerner said...

I am happy to hear that you are fascinated! I would claim that the liturgy does not have Jewish women say "Thank God I'm not a man" because it assumes that women are not treated as well as men are, so they have no reason to be happy about not belonging to the better-treated sex. The blessing itself is not antiwomen, but it assumes that the world that Jewish women inhabit is antiwomen! So I wrote:

"The blessing may thus be interpreted as, 'Thank God I don't have to put up with the all the stuff that woman have to put up with!'"

My article "The Ten Curses of Eve" fleshes out my claim that the rabbis were perfectly aware that women get a raw deal in traditional Jewish societies.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Pragmatician said...

I know it's simplistic but when someone asks me about that benediction, I say it's appropriate because of bearing children..
Most people would like to have biological children, as men we are fortunate we do not suffer the physical hardships of bringing one into the world.

6:37 PM  
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Blogger ADDeRabbi said...

great post! i wrote about the issue here. Looking back, I avoided an essentialist read of the bracha, which i think is the only one supported by the Gemara in Menachot from which it's derived. i think it can also answer Golda Leah's question.

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Blogger Rozkaye said...

The article is interesting and in my opinion an apologetic for a prayer that specifically excludes women - because they are not men, because they are not permitted to pray in the same way or to share in the religion in the same way as men - they are isolated behind a curtain (probably as result of that very benediction), have to cover their hair in the presence of men (a man made restriction growing out of the same philosophy), considered "unclean" at certain times of month and I can go on and on as every woman versed in Orthodox Judaism knows well. Misogyny in Orthodox Judaism exists and Jewish women need to begin to recognize and fight it.

7:11 PM  

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