shelo asani isha: the real problem

Many recent kerfuffles have no compelling reason to be a kerfuffle, and even less to be recent. Among these we can count the reigniting of the controversy over the blessing of Shelo asani isha. Last month, a Rabbi in LA shocked the world by revealing that he no longer finds himself able to recite this ancient benediction for having not been made a woman. Rabbi Asher Lopatin hastened to make the blowup even less timely and relevant by bringing in the ghost of the Rav. Religious extremist bourgeois blogs were quick to take umbrage and make bad jokes about the latest assault on God, his Torah etc. Some of us watching at home wondered who says all the prayers anyway and why someone would go out of their way to tell you something like that unless they were a bit sanctimonious or holier-than-thou.

A more measured and humorous response which antedated the controversy by a year but flew under the radar was brought to us by Berel Dov Lerner. In Philosophy and Literature Lerner sketches out a middle position which would allow one to recite the benighted blessing in good philosophical conscience.

Whats the problem with Shelo asani isha? It’s very simple.

it would be inappropriate for me to recite NW unless I thought it meaningful to say that—apparently with God’s help—I had managed to dodge the sexed bullet of womanhood. If it would have been impossible for me to have been created a woman, there would be no point in blessing the God Who, in fact, did not make me a woman. To put things positively: if I believe that it is appropriate for me to recite the blessing NW, I must also be convinced that I actually could have been a woman. In the jargon of John Searle’s work on speech acts,holding such a belief is a “preparatory condition” for there being a point to the illocutionary act of reciting the benediction. Mixing the terminologies of analytic philosophy with that of Jewish ritual law, one might say that if the preparatory conditions are not met, the blessing is a berakha levatala.

So could I actually have been a woman? According to the Ramak there exists a clear and present danger of changing genders every night.

The great 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Moses Cordovero thought that legitimate utterance of the benedictions of self-identity requires even stronger preparatory conditions. He argued that if NW merely related to a man’s good fortune in having avoided being born a woman—a onetime danger—it would only make sense for him to recite the blessing just once in the course of his lifetime. Men, however, are required to recite the benediction every morning, implying that the danger of being a woman is on-going and that men must thank God each day anew for having been spared womanhood. Cordovero explains this predicament in terms of the kabbalistic idea that one can suffer “impregnation” (Hebrew: ibbur) by an alien soul during sleep. Granted that danger, a man should give thanks each morning that no feminine soul attached itself to him during the night, making him a woman! Furthermore, Cordovero held that recitation of the blessings of identity can also exorcize unwelcome alien souls post-facto. Since Cordovero believed that “impregnation” by a female soul would feminize a man’s behavior but not his anatomy, one might say he thought NW is concerned with gender rather than sex.

Still, Saul Kripke disagrees with the Ramak. In naming and necessity, he circumscribes the notion of possible worlds with the argument that

How could a person originating from different parents, from a totally different sperm and egg, be this very woman? One can imagine, given the woman that various things in her life could have changed. . . . But what is harder to imagine is her being born of different parents. It seems to me that anything coming from a different origin would not be this object.

This belief, known as Origin Essentialism “holds that the fact that a particular material object originates from a particular bit of matter plays an essential role in determining the object’s identity.” Since sex is determined by the very sperm which hits the egg, it’s impossible for me to ever be a woman in any possible world.

How can we say the blessing if we never could’ve been a woman? According to Lerner, the middle position lies in embracing Kripke’s Origin Essentialism while rejecting contemporary science. Since the Rabbis say in BT Brachot 60 that “Until forty [days into the pregnancy] he may ask for mercy that it be a male” and they instituted the blessing, they obviously held that despite origin essentialism, any man could’ve been a woman.

One addenda to this argument could focus on the availability of surgeries to change one’s sex. Now that those are available, we can countenance a world where we go from male to female or vice versa. In that case, the blessing might be about not being possessed with the desire to cut off one’s genitalia.

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3 Responses to shelo asani isha: the real problem

  1. misspeapod says:

    gender trouble is the most insidious kind of trouble. anyone who feels happy and at home in their biological sex should indeed thank G-d.

  2. I know Lerner from his interesting/peculiar anthropological critique of Peter Winch, “Rules, Magic, and Instrumental Reason.”

    This passage from the introduction seems to reflect a similarly dry, acidic humor:

    “An evaluation of Winch’s exegesis would presuppose my own
    certainty regarding the message of Wittgenstein’s writings. Wittgenstein’s
    “canon” is a chaotic morass of personal notebooks, manuscripts some-
    times more and sometimes less prepared for publication, scraps of paper,
    and various types of students’ lecture notes. Furthermore, if Wittgenstein
    intended his later philosophical writings to serve therapeutic aims, their
    proper interpretation will reflect the particular conceptual disease with
    which each particular reader is afflicted. Not surprisingly, exceedingly
    intelligent and well-informed expositors disagree on many key points of its
    interpretation. I have no intention of entering these battles. “

  3. AS says:

    Considering the number of endocrine disruptors we are putting in the environment we should all be thanking the lord for not having ambiguous genitalia (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

    But what if contra Lerner one claims that even rejecting Cordovero (but accepting that the blessing concerns gender, not sex) that the very intent of the blessing is its the ritual performance itself in which men celebrate their manhood by effacing womanhood – sort of like making a chauvinistic joke about PMS or pregnancy. In which case it would not be levatala so long as it is sincerely performed.

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