Sunday, August 07, 2011

What is the Real Chilul HaShem?

I sympathize with Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky. I too have had problems with the Bracha of Shelo Asani Isha – the Bracha men say every morning thanking God for not ‘making me a woman’. Women have an alternative Bracha – SheAsani Kirtzono thanking God for ‘making me according to his will’. I have never heard a satisfactory explanation for this. Not that there aren’t any that have been offered to me. More on that later.

On the surface the Bracha men say seems to indicate that men are superior to women. Men do not just thank God for making them men. They thank Him for not making them a woman! It is the negative spin that make this all the more problematic for me. By saying it this way we seem to be saying we are superior to women – that it is more important not to be a woman than it is to be a man!

The Bracha a woman makes seems to corroborate that. They do not thank God for making them a woman,. They simply thank God for doing His will… as though being a woman is nothing to be thankful for.

The most common retort to this is that these Brachos are in no way indicative of man’s superiority to women. In the eyes of God the sexes are equal but with different roles. What then are we really thanking God for? Men are really thanking God for giving them more Mitzvos to do. Women are exempt from all time bound positive commandments due to their special roles as women. The Bracha of SheLo Asani Isha is a reflection of all that.

How is that fair? It is fair because women don’t need to do as many Mitzvos. That’s because they are on a higher spiritual level then men. Men have to work harder to get there - so they have extra Mitzvos to do.

My retort to that is that if women are more spiritual than men, why are we thanking God for not making us women? Shouldn’t women be thinking God for not making them men who are on a lower spiritual level than them? The answer to that is that it is better to earn one’s spiritual level than to be given it automatically.

I have never been comfortable with these explanations. They all seem like apologetics to me. The bottom line is that men are thanking God for not making them women.

So I am very sympathetic to Rabbi Kanefsky’s dilemma. To bolster his feelings he cites numerous instances in Orthodoxy where he feels women are being short changed. He sees the Bracha of Shelo Asani Isha as reinforcing and perhaps even perpetuating those inequities .

As a result he has stopped saying it and even considers it a Chilul HaShem – in our day and age!

This is where I part company with him. It is one thing to question why Chazal instituted something or ask why it was instituted in a specific way – one which seems to contradict our modern day sensibilities. But to reject a mandate of Chazal as recoded in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 46:4) is more than just modifying tradition. It is more than simply having a Hashkafic difference with mainstream Orthdoxy. It is a rejection of a clear Halacha.

Not that he’s the first one to reject a Halacha that did not fit with modern sensibilities. There were people who did that well over a century ago. The Enlightenment caused the fathers of Reform Judaism to modify Halacha too for similar reasons. It did not fit with their modern sensibilities. That ultimately led to a rejection of all of it.

I’m sure Rabbi Kanefsky has no intention of rejecting all of Halacha. But is what he did any different than what the Conservative Movement does? They too see contradictions with the modern concepts of equality beytween the sexes and nibble around the edges of Halacha or do away with it entirely.

The Conservative Movement responded in ways similar to Rabbi Kanefsky. They saw women being treated as second class citizens in many areas and simply changed Halacha to fit the times. Women sitting behind a Mechitza was seen as sexist so it was removed. Ordaining only men was seen as sexist so they started ordaining women. Birchas HaMazon was modified to exclude the phrase ‘V’Al Brischa SheChasamta B’Vsorenu’ – ‘And on the covenant that was sealed upon our flesh’. It too was seen as sexist. And just like Rabbi Kanefsky they saw the Brahca of SheLo Asani Isha as sexist and changed it to say SheAsani Ish - that has made me a man. And the woman’s Bracha to SheAsani Isha – ‘that has made me a woman’.

Rabbi Kanefsky of course realizes that one cannot change the words of Chazal. So he chose simply not to say it. Shev V’Al Taaseh – sit, and do not do! A principle used by Chazal.

This is not a situation of Shev V’Al Taaseh. Chazal used this principle only when it would lead to the possibly of violating a serious negative commandment that has the death penalty attached to it.

So we do not blow the Shofar on Rosh HaShanna when it occurs on Shabbos for fear that someone may carry the Shofar to Shul. Carrying on Shabbos in a public domain carries the death penalty (as sentenced by a Beis Din of 23 judges - if done intentionally after being seen by 2 witnesses; warned of the consequences and testfied to in court).

But to refuse to say something because it upsets modern day sensibilities is far from the purpose of a Shev V’Al Taaseh. Not to mention that we have no right to utilize this principle in our day.

In my view this not only takes Rabbi Kanefsky out of the realm of Orthodoxy, it firmly puts him into the realm of Conservative Judaism. It is one thing to not understand the reason Chazal enacted certain things. But it is another to say that what they established is by today’s standards a Chilul HaShem. The only Chilul HaShem being perpetrated here is by Rabbi Kanefsky.