Who am I? Who am I not?

Who am I? Who am I not?

“Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has made me a woman and not a man.”

This radical reformulation of one of the most controversial of the series of morning benedictions that are incorporated into the daily Jewish liturgy is not the product of second-wave feminism. It is much older.

We find it in a manuscript siddur written in Ferrara, Italy, in 1471 by Rabbi Abraham Farissol (1451-1525), a well-known scholar. Actually, there are two such manuscripts, one in the Jewish Theological Seminary Library in Manhattan and the other in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. Both were written by Farissol, and both include this somewhat unusual formulation. Further, there is a less well-documented prayer book, written for a woman in Shuadit, a Judeo-Provencal dialect, that praises God for having created her a woman, without mentioning that in so doing God did not create her a man. We cannot tell from these books if these formulations were widely used. After all, these texts were intended as gifts for women who could read, presented by people who could afford to hire a scribe.

Both the time and the place are worthy of mention because women in Renaissance Italy, including Jewish women, had more prominence and power than they did in some other parts of Europe. The time is just before the advent of Hebrew printing, which standardized texts, making it unlikely that anyone would scribe a siddur just to have an innovative text. Paradoxically, in our digital age we are able easily to personalize our texts, creating family and group haggadot and grace-after-meals booklets, perhaps even siddurim.

How could this proto-feminist formulation be recorded in a traditional siddur? Famously, Jewish men praise God for not having created them women, while women praise God for having made them according to divine will. This Italian formulation does not reflect the resignation to a secondary status implicit in the blessing said by women according to the classic liturgy. The Farissol wording boldly challenges the men by adding “and not a man.” And because it is in a siddur intended exclusively for use by a woman, the blessing said by men – “Who has not made me a woman” – is nowhere to be found.

Keeping this in mind, there are a few other observations to make about this text. Before printing was invented, liturgical texts had been evolving. This blessing traditionally appears in the context of a series of about 15 praises of God, most of which are discussed in the Talmud (bBerakhot 60b). Most were included not as part of a synagogue-based prayer service but as an accompaniment to getting up in the morning. Starting with a line praising God for having given the rooster the wisdom to distinguish between day and night, they go along with the acts of opening our eyes, getting dressed, standing up, and, finally, removing slumber from our eyes and commanding us to study Torah. Although the wording of many of these statements is biblically based, few of them refer overtly to Jews. As humans we all hope to awaken each morning, open our eyes, get dressed, and stand up, ready to greet the day. There is a lot about our return from sleep that we tend to take for granted; these brief texts make us stop and think about these positive things, even in the most basic areas of our lives.

Praising God for not having created him a woman also goes back at least as far as the Talmud (bMenahot 43b), where it is recorded as one of three blessings that must be recited0 every day, praising God for having made him an Israelite, not a woman, and not an ignoramus. As Yoel H. Kahn points out in his careful survey of the development of these brachot over time, they were in a state of flux even in the talmudic period. Further, the version in the printed Talmud we use today was probably influenced by the need to censor derogatory remarks about those under whose rule Jews lived. Thus, whereas the standard formulation today casts all three in the negative, the talmudic text presents the first in the positive, “Who has made me an Israelite,” that is, a Jew. That was certainly less likely to engender a negative reaction than rejoicing in not being a non-Jew, which was probably the original text and has been reinstituted in traditional siddurim today. What non-Jews, women, and even slaves – who have taken the place of the ignoramus cited in Menahot – have in common is that they are not obligated to fulfill as many commandments as are free Jewish men. Fulfilling commandments is a privilege limited to those of high status.

Ironically, the threefold identification in the Jewish tradition parallels a Greek text attributed to Diogenes Laertius, who probably lived in the third-century C. E. He expresses his gratitude to fortune for having been born a person and not an animal, a man and not a woman, a Greek and not a barbarian. Self-definition in opposition to something else apparently was not limited to Jews.

Virtually all the Genizah fragments that include these identity formulae use the same double formulation: Who has made me X and not Y. This was apparently the Palestinian Jewish practice. The Babylonian practice, reported in the Babylonian Talmud, used a simple negative. Since Italian Jewish liturgies were linked to the practice of the Jews of Palestine, it is not surprising to find the double formulation in the blessing to be recited by the woman. What makes it stand out is that it is not used for all three of these blessings, but only for praising God for having created her a woman and not a man. This doubling formula emphasizes the in-your-face quality of the Ferrara text regarding gender hierarchy. The other two blessings are formulated only in the negative, praising God for not having made her a “maidservant and a woman slave” or “a non-Jewish woman.”

Further, although these texts clearly have been adapted for a woman, they retain the standard praise of God for having commanded us to study Torah, something that women often were barred from doing. That may have been an artifact, carried over from the usual text or retained because it was in the plural, but the possibility exists that it is quietly making the case for the connection between women and Torah study. There is, of course, no indication of whether this formulation was composed by a man or a woman, or under what circumstances. We do not know how widespread its use may have been or where or when it originated. What is clear is that Farissol was comfortable with it.

In 1946, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of America Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book rephrased all three in the positive, praising God for having made us Jews, free, and in God’s image, without a distinction between women and men. It allows us to declare who we are as a group and as individuals without denigrating others.

While I cherish the power of the Ferrara formulation for women, I think that the world would be a better place if we could clearly define ourselves positively, without feeling compelled to stipulate who we are not.