Everyone in God’s Image: Renaissance Blessings, Modern Zealots, Conservative Jews

JOANNE PALMER looks at an Italian Renaissance prayer book that has unusual wording for a standard blessing

by Joanne Palmer

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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 image.

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.”

Strong stuff.

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 of it?

“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 been so.