I was born the oldest daughter of a mostly secular Jewish family and became observant in my early adulthood. I love everything about Judaism and my new life. However, to this day I am bothered by the blessing men recite daily in their morning prayers – “Blessed are You… who did not make me a woman.” It just seems so demeaning! How does that jibe with everything else Judaism teaches about the importance and special role of women?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
I definitely sympathize with your frustration. After teaching us so many positive messages about the central role women play in Judaism, the Sages go ahead and institute a blessing for men telling them to thank God they were not created women! How does that fit with everything else we are taught? Are the Rabbis really chauvinists in disguise?
However, most people badly misunderstand the meaning of this blessing. I feel when they hear the correct answer, they will appreciate that there is nothing demeaning about it – as well the profound wisdom of our Sages.
The idea is as follows. Kabbalistically speaking, a woman’s body is considered spiritually higher than a man’s. At the creation, Adam was created directly from the earth. Eve, by contrast, was created from a part of Adam – one step further removed from the physical world.
As a result, a woman’s physical side is loftier than that of a man, a closer reflection of the spiritual world from which it derives. This can be borne out in many ways. Here are a few examples:
(a) Women tend to be more repulsed by disgusting objects or vulgar behavior than men – such as insects, blood, and obscene behavior. Being more spiritual, they find the coarsest aspects of the physical world more repellant.
(b) Women are typically more attractive than men – meaning, their physical side is a closer reflection of their spiritual. The Torah likewise tells us that most of our foremothers were beautiful. Their inner spiritual beauty was more strongly reflected on the physical plane than that of their male counterparts.
A different way of stating this is that women have greater body-soul harmony than men. Their bodies are naturally closer and more attuned to their souls. Conversely, men, in spite of the loftiness of their souls, have bodies much more liable to stoop to the most vulgar, depraved behavior imaginable. A casual reading of the news on any day will readily confirm that men are far more likely to be involved in vicious, sordid crime than women.
However, as with all issues, there are two ways of looking at this. Because women have more body-soul harmony, their bodies will typically not tempt them to stoop as low as men. They have a more natural inclination towards the spiritual. But as a result, they do not experience the same challenges men have. It comes easier for them.
Men, by contrast, have a much greater discrepancy between their souls and bodies. It is much harder for them to control their bodies. But as a result, if they do, they have accomplished much more mightily than women – and have perfected their souls much more in the process.
Getting back to our question, the blessing “who has not made me a woman” is part of a series. Men recite three blessings, in the following order – “who has not made me a non-Jew,” “who has not made me a slave,” and “who has not made me a woman.” This succession reflects who has more mitzvot (commandments). A non-Jew was only commanded in a few mitzvot, a slave in more, and a woman yet more. Men were given the most mitzvot because of their body-soul discrepancy. Since their bodies may fall lower, they were given more mitzvot to overcome their weaknesses – enabling them to sublimate their physical sides.
Men are thus more challenged than women and as a result are given more mitzvot. Now there is a rule about challenges in life: We do not ask God for them, but if we get them we are thankful. We do not ask G-d, say, to get stuck in an airport for Shabbat and have to observe it under very trying circumstances. But if that is our fate, we thank God for giving us such a challenge to rise to. Women may be thankful God created them “according to His will” – as they bless, making them naturally closer to Him and more in touch with “His will.” Men, on the other hand, recognize that God made life much harder for them. We do not ask Him for the trials of male hormones and masculine tendencies, but if we were granted them we are thankful He saw us up to the challenge.
(Part of above ideas based on thoughts read in article by Rebbetzin Devorah Heshelis.)
I cannot fathom how 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. Can you explain why so many people wouldn't fight for their life? They all heard the stories and some even managed to relay first-hand what they themselves had seen. I understand that many put their trust in God, but after so many bad things continued to happen, why not try to protect yourself? It seems that many people died because they believed that nothing bad could happen to God's chosen people and that “works makes one free!"
Can you help me understand how all this happened?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Regarding the issue of why the Jews did not rise to action, let us clarify:
1) Did any other group persecuted by the Nazis successfully rebel? Every group followed the Nazi's beck and call. Some of these groups even had weapons, unlike the Jews who were civilians (many women and children) and untrained in combat. By the end of the war, a few million Russian POW's had been killed by the Nazis. Why didn't these soldiers resist?
2) How could Jews rebel, knowing that any infraction of Nazi law was punished with the torture and murder of hundreds of other Jews in retribution. Who could risk that?
3) In truth, there were incidents of Jewish rebellion all over Europe. The famous examples were in the Warsaw ghetto and the death camp of Treblinka, where the inmates revolted and destroyed the camp. The few dozen survivors of Treblinka (of the 750,000 who entered) lived to testify against Eichmann in Jerusalem. There were also groups of Jewish partisans hiding out in practically every forest in Europe. They often had to fend off not only the Nazis but their former friends and neighbors as well.
A survivor of Auschwitz, Edith Reifer, writes in The Sun Will Rise (ArtScroll):
"This familiar accusation – that we were led to our deaths like sheep – makes me want to weep. We had no weapons, we were not organized. We had undergone months, in some cases years, of ghetto life, starvation, brutalization, terror, uncertainty. And they were so clever, so diabolically clever. The concealment lasted up until the very last moment. We knew that death was their ultimate intention for us. But the gas chambers were disguised to look like shower rooms? Notices, in many European languages, exhorted the victims to hang up their clothes, tie their shoes neatly in pairs, as they would need them afterwards. It was only once inside that they realized...
"The nauseous, sickly-sweet smell, which we later knew to be 'death,' hung over the camp like a pall. It was with you every waking moment, and settled over you as you slept. We all saw the black vans, the flames, although we tried to convince ourselves that it was rubbish they were burning. The fact is that this truth was always known to us, but there is a certain safety device which will not allow one to internalize 'too' much of the truth. It is this that keeps one alive."
One final idea: Ingrained in Jewish consciousness is the knowledge that we will survive against all odds. This trait leads to optimism that the situation will improve and a disbelief of such tragic reports as the existence of "death camps." This consciousness may mean that less risks were taken. But it also enabled many to hold tenaciously to their will to live – when others may have given up.
The whole argument is designed to turn the tables and make the Jews to blame for their own fate in the Holocaust. It is a great dishonor to the memory of the Six Million. In the end, given the choice between being a Holocaust victim or being a Nazi, I know what I would pick.
I have a difficult issue that I wish to discuss with a rabbi. I am a female-to-male transsexual. My soul and self-identity feels male, yet my body is biologically female. Every time I look in the mirror, ever since puberty had its way with me, I am shocked and disappointed that the body I feel within me is not represented by my physical female body.
The pain of being a transsexual is deep and constant. This is especially true when I interact with people who treat me as a woman, such as using feminine pronouns.
My question is: Do Jewish sources discuss this issue? I do not want to violate God's law. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
I feel your pain and the deep feelings you have about the incongruence between what you feel in your soul and what you see in the mirror. It must be a most difficult test and only the Almighty knows why you are being subject to it.
First of all, regarding sources: Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 542, 543) and Maimonides (at the end of Hilchot Akum) articulate the Torah prohibition of men dressing as woman and vice-versa.
In other words, God created men and women. He wants there to be clear boundary between the sexes. From the fact that there is such a commandment, it means that some people have a desire to do just what the Torah forbids. It means there are men who would like to be women, and women who would like to be men.
God does not make mistakes. If He gave you a female body, it means that he wants you to live your life as a Jewish woman, not as a Jewish man.
If you were to undergo an operation to try to change your sex, you would be trying to escape from the responsibilities that God has entrusted with you. If you underwent an operation, you may look more like the way you feel, but in God's eyes you would still be a Jewish woman and be expected to act that way. No amount of operations or name changes (a name change, by the way, is not advisable) can alter the metaphysical reality, nor it's implications, that was imposed upon you by your Creator, along with it's incumbent responsibilities.
Consider the person who was born with an unusual ability to perform on the violin. God has given him this talent to bring peace, tranquility and joy to his fellow humans.
Now let us say that this person has no desire to give other people pleasure. In his heart he does not feel like playing. However, the obligation to give others pleasure is still incumbent upon him. Even if he were to cut off all his fingers, it would not change the obligations that he has, he would simply be unable to fulfill them.
This does not negate your feelings in any way. It is your right to feel like a male inside. This, however, does not affect the expectations that God has of you as a Jew with a female body.
Undoubtedly, this is a great challenge on many different levels and you were chosen to be the one to face this.
I know this is a very major problem. I suggest that you discuss this with an Orthodox therapist. If you tell me what city you're located in, I'll be happy to recommend someone that you could contact.