One of the common beefs atheists have with theists (especially Judeo-Christians) is when the latter say the former don’t have a moral compass by virtue of their nonbelief in god. But then the first thing religious people do is pick and choose which religious moral dicta they want to follow, and reinterpret the rest, according to their cultural sensibilities (or genetic predispositions) — in other words doing just what the atheists do in the first place.
This is true even of the more orthodox religious movements, the process is just a lot slower. Since I picked on the Pope and his crowd recently, here’s an example from my own, Judaism.
According to a guide from the orthodox Jewish Chabad website, every day, a person (man?) should recite the following, thanking God for (in this order):
Not making me a gentile (שֶׁלֹּא עָשַֹֿנִי גּוֹי)
Not making me a slave (שֶׁלֹּא עָשַֹֿנִי עָֿבֶד)
Not making me a woman (שֶׁלֹּא עָשַֹֿנִי אִשָּׁה)
It’s great to have an authoritative ancient source for the correct order for the inequality trinity, “Race, Class and Gender,” which has bedeviled American academics for several decades. In Biblical terms, this ordering makes perfect sense, representing distances from privilege in the eyes of god — in a nested hierarchy, from the most-fortunate (Jewish man), to the pretty fortunate (Jewish woman), the unfortunate (slave) and finally the likely-annihilated (non-Jews, when born in the wrong place and the wrong time, e.g., Joshua 6:21, or just in general, as in the orthodox Passover prayer: “Pour out your indignation upon them, and let the wrath of your anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord”).
This Biblical ordering fits with current academic usage, as shown here: the frequency of the following phrases in the JSTOR academic database:
Rules to live by
But back to the point. Each day orthodox Jewish men thank god they are who they are – or rather, they’re not who they’re not. This strikes some as old fashioned, especially the woman part (if you weren’t happy about being Jewish you wouldn’t be saying the rest of the prayers either; and being thankful for not being a slave just seems like common sense). But why be thankful for not being a woman?
Tzvi Freeman, head of Chabad’s “Ask the Rabbi Team” offers a commentary:
Why is our world this way? This is not just another injustice. It is a stage in humanity’s development, a reflection of the state of the general human consciousness: We — both men and women — are stuck within the perception of the masculine role as superior and the feminine as inferior. Our behavior only reflects our perception.
In other words, men are thankful they’re not women because women are subordinate, which is an injustice. Why doesn’t god fix this injustice – or even allow modern Jews to alter their daily prayers (and other practices) in the hope of moving their perceptions and the reality they reflect? Patience.
As with the general scheme of the cosmos, so with man and woman and the human consciousness. The history of humankind can be seen this way: A transition from male to female values, from authority to dialogue, from dominance to persuasion, from control to nurture. But we’re not there yet.* And the best evidence is that we do not have the power, according to Halachah [Jewish law], to change this blessing.
This is charmingly circular: when it’s ready to be changed, we will have the power to change it. What is that power? The emergence of a new Jewish governing body “greater in wisdom and in number” to change the old law. In practical terms, we’re back to infallibility. In response, Rabbi On the Beach Eliyahu Fink joked: “The biggest innovation in the history of orthodox Judaism is that there is no innovation in orthodox Judaism.” Of course there is lots of debate about rules, including over which rules are subject to debate. Whether this aspect of the liturgy should be off limits is itself debated.
Chabad’s type of explanation is not satisfactory, even to some orthodox folks such as Fink:
There are several apologist explanations for the blessing. They all basically say something along the lines of women are really on a higher level than men, they don’t need to do as many commandments, they can if they want, but they don’t have to, men need the commandments to lift men out of the abyss, the blessing recognizes that men are appreciative for having those commandment to elevate them and thanks God for that opportunity. It is not insulting to women because it is not about who is better, it is about appreciating having more commandments.
The idea of making a change now – within orthodoxy – bubbled up last fall, when a rabbi named Yosef Kanefsky, who leads a big
orthodox traditional Jewish community in Los Angeles, suggested making the “unusual halachik [legal] maneuver” of affirmatively thanking god for being Jewish, and then omitting the remaining thank-yous.
The kerfuffle over his original post led him to take it down, replaced by a more moderate one in which he wrote:
I believe fervently that Orthodoxy has yet to grapple fully or satisfactorily with the dignity of womankind. We know and understand, like no generation before us has known and understood, that women are men’s intellectual and spiritual equals. Our society has accordingly decided to treat both genders with equal dignity, and has opened all professional, political and communal endeavors to both genders equally. I believe that our community however, falls short of this goal in many ways. We are, of course, committed to operating within the framework and rules of halacha. But it is not hard to construct a halachik universe in which women’s physical space in shul [synagogue] and intellectual space in day schools and Study Halls are not lesser, but equal. It is not hard to imagine a halachik universe in which virtually all positions of leadership are available to all. And we must create a halachik universe in which the extortion of women by their ex-husbands as the Bet Din stands helplessly by, is simply unfathomable.** It’s not halacha’s fault that we are lagging. It’s our fault.
The cached versions of Kanefsky’s synagogue’s mission says “orthodox,” but now it says, “We’re traditional, but innovative, and deeply committed to strengthening the bonds of understanding among the different movements within the Jewish community.” I’m intrigued that B’Nai David-Judea doesn’t use “orthodox” in their mission statement anymore. Was Kanefsky’s kerfuffle part of a schism?
Kanefsky says “we are, of course, committed” to following laws with which he clearly does not morally agree. I’m sure I’ve lost some of the nuance of this debate, having jumped in several thousand years late. But what I like about the story I am confident about: It shows how people in tradition-based religions sometimes do hard work to live by traditional rules according to their morals, while believing — or insisting — that their morals come from those rules.
*Wait a minute: did Freeman just describe a future history that foresees The End of Men?
**This refers to the law requiring husbands to give permission for their wives to divorce them.