Everyone in God’s Image: Renaissance Blessings, Modern Zealots, Conservative Jews
by Joanne Palmer
Right now, things don't seem to be going particularly well in Israel. And that’s not taking the beleaguered Jewish state’s situation with its neighbors into consideration.
Internally, the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox – the haredim – and everyone else is reaching
obscene new lows. Divisions between men and women are becoming so extreme that it all
seems like a tasteless joke – women have to sit at the back of the bus? Really? They have to yield
the sidewalk to men? They have to what?
One of the most dramatic differences between liberal Jews in general and Conservative Jews
in particular on one side, and the haredi world on the other, is the status of women. We are overwhelmingly (although
not entirely) egalitarian. We ordain women as rabbis and cantors. We have had mixed seating for decades. And we have removed from our siddurim the daily blessings
recited by men thanking God for not
making them women, and by women thanking
God for being created according to God’s
will. Instead, in one blessing, everyone
thanks God for being created in the divine
As it turns out, discomfort with that men’s
triumphalist prayer is not new. Dr. David
Kraemer, a professor of rabbinics and Talmud
at the Jewish Theological Seminary,
who also heads its library, says that a medieval
siddur made for a wealthy bride includes
a variant on the blessing. In her morning
prayers, she said “Blessed are You, Lord
our God, King of the Universe, for You made
me a woman and not a man.”
The manuscript was written in either
1471 or 1478 somewhere in northern Italy.
As was customary among rich Jews in that
time and place, it was the gift from a young
husband to his wife. “Jews who were financially
comfortable were very much part of
the broader Renaissance culture,” Dr. Kraemer
said. “You could see it in the way they
dressed, in the quality of their personal
objects, and in their manuscripts.”
This was before the printing press standardized
texts; variation was not only acceptable,
to some extent it was inevitable. Still,
there were forms, and for the most part this
manuscript adhered to them. The manuscript
is unusual only in this blessing.
“We have no idea where this alternative
version originated,” Dr. Kraemer said. “Did
she ask for it? Did the groom ask for it, knowing
his wife to be a free-minded kind of person?
Did the scribe – who was a rabbi – think
“It took a great deal of courage to write
this,” he said, answering his own question.
Although we don’t know much about the
manuscript, we do know that the young
scribe was Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai
Farissol, who lived from 1451 to 1525.
We know that Farissol was a community
leader, a scribe, and a hazzan, extremely well
educated in Jewish texts, although not a
halachist. He obviously was comfortable
with the change in the wording of a brachah.
“The fact that he wrote it means that he
approved it,” Dr. Kraemer said.
“In a world where versions of the siddur
could be fluid, this woman had the opportunity
to recite a very different blessing.
“This text is confrontational,” he said.
It doesn’t break with tradition simply to mirror
the men’s prayer, thanking God for not
making her a man. Instead she thanks God
for actively making her who she is, a woman,
not a man.
“This is evidence of the fact that throughout
the ages some women have had misgivings
about the traditional brachah,” Dr.
Kraemer said. In fact, he added, the National
Library of Israel holds another manuscript
siddur written by Farissol in 1480. It seems
to have been commissioned by a wealthy
women for herself, and it includes the same
version of the brachah.
As the ultra-Orthodox zealots in Israel
fight, sometimes with fists, sticks, and bags
of excrement, to keep women out of sight,
we should remember that it has not always