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Thursday, November 27, 2014

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Siddur from 1471 reveals gender flexibility

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TORONTO — A 15th-century siddur offers an alternative to a traditional prayer for Jewish women, indicating that attempts to introduce egalitarianism in Judaism can be traced back many centuries, the Jewish Theological Seminary said earlier this month.

While observant Jewish men traditionally recite a morning blessing to thank God for “not creating me a woman,” the common counterpart for women is a prayer blessing God “for creating me as you wished.”

Instead, the 1471 siddur, part of the library collection at JTS, the flagship institution of the Conservative movement, has a morning blessing that says, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Master of the Universe, for you made me a woman and not a man.”

The siddur was written by the scribe Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Farissol, a French-born Italian rabbi, scholar, cantor and physician who lived from 1451 to 1525. JTS publicized the siddur in the wake of recent incidents in Israel involving haredi men who objected to what they called immodest behaviour by women and girls in public places, such as refusing to sit at the back of a public bus frequented by haredim.

Rabbi Martin Lockshin – professor of humanities at York University and spiritual leader of Toronto’s Partnership Minyan – told The CJN, “There certainly was a history of liturgical flexibility in Judaism in the past. It’s a shame – I’m saying this as an Orthodox rabbi – it’s a shame that so many people now define Orthodoxy in terms of no possibility of liturgical flexibility.”

The likely historical explanation for decreased flexibility, he said, was a feeling that the Reform movement had gone too far in liturgical innovation.

Rabbi Lockshin added that Rabbi Farissol was not seen as a “breakaway” rabbi.

Eric Lawee, professor of humanities at York University with an interest in medieval Jewish history, told The CJN in an e-mail that he would be cautious about imbuing Rabbi Farissol’s variation with “all sorts of intentions that, absent some corroborating evidence, are hard to verify at this historical distance.”

He added that the rabbi copied the text for a patron – a wealthy Jewish man who commissioned it as a gift for his wife – “so one wonders a bit whose views (or what liturgical traditions) this text reflects.”

However, it serves as “a good reminder that in a manuscript age in general, both among Jews and gentiles, there was inevitably a much higher degree of fluidity in texts of all sorts.” With the introduction of the printing press came “a certain rigidity,” he noted.

He added as well that Rabbi Farissol was not a halachic decisor. “Since traditional Jews will see the fraught issue of liturgical change as primarily or not exclusively a halachic one, the fact that a figure with no reputation or legacy as a halachist made a change in a siddur that he copied carries no weight, especially if the change is not reflected elsewhere.”

In a news release, JTS professor and librarian David Kraemer said the siddur showed “a tremendous amount of courage.

“Rabbi Farissol was a very well-known and appreciated rabbi, so one can assume that he wouldn’t have agreed to make such a change if he didn’t think it was appropriate.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice-president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said in the release there is “no chance that this kind of siddur from 1471 could be compiled and used today in the religious atmosphere we are seeing in much of Israel.”

She added that the siddur proves that “degrading attitudes toward women, which we are seeing in certain extreme religious communities in Israel today, are a modern distortion of Judaism… We can turn to Jewish history for examples of the flexibility of rabbis and scholars in striving to meet the religious needs of men and women.”

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