Nusach Feminist

by Gil Student

Prof. Daniel Sperber’s recent book, On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations, contains some radical liturgical suggestions. Given the timing of this post, before listing these suggestions let me make clear that this is neither an attack on Prof. Sperber nor his ideas. The title of this post is not meant sarcastically and its origin will become clear at the end of the post:

  1. She-lo Asani Ishah – Prof. Sperber does not technically recommend eliminating this blessing, however he defends the legitimacy of doing so. “Perhaps a more radical suggestion is simply to omit the benediction. Thus, for example, the Rambam strongly rejected birkat dam betulim… Similarly, the blessing magbiah shefalim… fell into disuse… Eventually, this may happen to שלא עשני אשה as well. It, too, may join the many benedictions that faded into oblivion.” (pp. 39-40)Surprisingly, when discussing explanations of this blessing he fails to quote the Tosefta (Lieberman edition, Berakhos 6:18, line 86 – link 1, link 2).He also defends changing the women’s version, albeit without advocating it. “Can we nowadays sit down and decided to add to, subtract from, change or formulate new berachot, such as she-asani ishah ve-lo ish (who has made me a woman and not a man) or she-lo asani amah (who has not made me a slave-woman)? Halachically, yes. Sociologically – will it be accepted, and by whom? That is a completely different question that a sociologist, not a halachist, will have to confront.” (p. 112)
  2. Tachanun – He advocates removing the phrase “ve-shiktzunu ke-tumas ha-nidah – They abominate us as much as the ritual impurity of a woman.” (p. 47)
  3. Amidah – He permits adding the names of the Matriarchs (Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah) to the opening blessing. “Therefore, when I am asked questions such as ‘To what extent may we add elements in our prayers?’ ‘Can we add new elements to existing prayers?’ ‘Can we mention the imahot (foremothers) in addition to the avot (forefathers)?’ I see the answer as very simple: It is all completely permissible.” (p. 111)I find this particularly difficult to understand because Prof. Sperber bases his halakhic argument on the Kessef Mishneh (Hilkhos Berakhos 1:5,6). But, aside from inexplicably quoting the Kessef Mishneh‘s rejected first explanation rather than his preferred second approach (p. 59 – this makes little difference for our purposes), the entire context is bedi’avad! If you make such an improper change, about which the Rambam says either “ein la’asos ken – one should not do this” or “eino ela to’eh – you are nothing but mistaken” (depending on the two explanations of the Kessef Mishneh), you nevertheless fulfill your obligation. How does that translate to “completely permissible”? I am at a loss to understand this argument. See also Responsa Radbaz 5:51 and R. Yosef Kafach’s commentary to Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Keri’as Shema ch. 1 n. 21. This Conservative responsum makes the same inference from the Kessef Mishneh as Prof. Sperber, failing to distinguish between instituting a change and tolerating an inappropriate change after the fact: link – PDF.His historical case is, of course, extremely well argued. I doubt whether there is a greater living expert in this area. Yet I see what I think is a glaring logical error in an important aspect of this argument. I want to check up a source in one of the footnotes before writing about this angle but if it confirms my understanding, I’ll turn this into a full-blown review for publication.
  4. In general, this book reads, perhaps unintentionally, like an extended argument against R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Prof. Sperber concludes his introduction with R. Soloveitchik’s view, as expressed in Ra’ayonos Al Ha-Tefillah and explained by David Hartman in A Living Covenant, forbidding changing the text of our prayers. The rest of the book is an extended argument to the contrary. I think R. Soloveitchik’s view is more complex than either Hartman or Sperber allow, but I will leave that for another time.

Prof. Sperber concludes: “It should be borne in mind that, in any case, there is no standard version of Jewish liturgy. Yemenites pray differently from Ashkenazim, and Halabim (Syrian Jews) differently from Moroccans… Let there be yet another nusah of tefillah, one that will be acceptable within the context of modern-day Orthodox feminist thinking, and which will hopefully gain ever wider legitimacy.” (pp. 124-129)

From Hirhurim – Musings

The original article may be found here.


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