Are Jewish Blessings Racist or Gender-biased?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Sharon: I am very concerned with the blessing Jewish men recite, “Blessed are you God, for not being created as a gentile, a slave and a woman.” I was informed that these blessings were formulated by the Sanhedrin. I noticed that most blessings in the morning prayer are stated in positive terms, like blessing God for providing for one’s needs, giving man sight, clothing him, erecting the hunched, spreading out land, etc., except for the above blessings which in the negative: blessing God for “not” making one a gentile, woman or slave. Why didn't the Rabbis formulate it in more positive terms, like “Blessed are you God for giving me the opportunity to be in your covenant and to take on the Torah”?

Rabbi:  The gentile, woman and slave too must follow Torah. So blessing God for “Torah obligations” misses the mark. When blessing God for not being created a gentile, woman or slave, the Rabbis intended man to be thankful for having a greater “quantity” of commands, not just having the “quality” Torah obligation. We first praise God for the greatest goodness we received, that being not created a gentile, who has the least amount of commands. We progress to a slave who has more commands than a gentile, and then to a woman who has even more, but not as many as a man (Rabbi Israel Chait).

Although only God knows why He created one person a gentile and another person a Jew, be mindful that being created a gentile, woman or slave in no way precludes these individuals from attaining the same perfection as the Jewish male. We each possess free will, the ability to discern Torah as the best life, and follow it fully. One born a Jew can live evilly, and one born a gentile can study Torah, convert and surpass the born Jew.  

Sharon: I highlighted these queries in a counter-missionary blog. I also asked the following questions:

a. Is the formulation of this prayer consistent with Gen. 1:27, that all man (and woman ) are created in His image?

b. I learnt that Hillel, a Jewish sage taught the essence of the Torah to a Gentile: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others, the rest is commentary, go and learn.” I asked, “Is the formulation of the blessing by the Sanhedrin consistent with Hillel's teachings? Why say one thing and do another thing?”

The response I got is this:

“These blessings are formulated in the spirit of humility and do not denigrate the non Jews. Reciting these prayers daily does not affect how Jews (Jewish men) see non Jews and women. The Rabbis probably thought that there is very little likelihood that a non Jew will come across these blessings. In addition, these blessings were formulated at a time when non Jews were probably more pagan than today. Based on this, the non Jew should not be concerned.”

However I am not satisfied with this explanation. In my opinion these blessings have the potential to marginalize large sections of humanity. I tried to explain how this is so from a human perspective.

Rabbi: The prayers do not denigrate, and do not conflict with Gen. 1:27  “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Man and woman—gentile or Jew—possess the same soul (“God’s image”). This verse refers to the human “design.” But the prayers you questions refer to “obligations.” That a woman and gentile possess fewer obligations is no reflection on the equal potential of literally ever human being: gentile, Jew, male or female. Gentile and Jew equally descend from Adam and Eve, mentioned in this verse. Thus, we are all equal. 

The blessings you question intend to imbue man with appreciation for how God created him. Similarly, we don’t praise God only for how we are created, but for events as well. If we escape a major mishap, or death, we are obligated to praise God. The answers your received above, “little likelihood that a non Jew will come across these blessings, and it was a time when non Jews were more pagan” are mere conjecture and fail to address the wise formulations of the blessings, as Rabbi Chait shared, and I urge all readers to study his very thorough and insightful essay: 

Sharon: In addition, the people I was conversing with in the blog did not answer my question on Genesis 1:27 and Hillel's teaching.

Rabbi: A gentile requested of Hillel, “Teach me the Torah as I stand on one leg.” Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others, the rest is commentary, go and learn” (Sabbath 31a).  

I don’t see how Hillel’s response relates to the blessing which thanks God for not creating one a gentile. The gentile wished to know the primary fundamental of Torah, expressed as “Sum-up Torah’s message as I stand on one leg for a brief moment” (Ibid., Meharsha). Hillel meant that much of Torah commands man to overcome his egocentricity living for the self first, and instead, treat others as equals, just as Abraham lived. Overcoming self-importance is a primary theme in Torah. This was Hillel’ answer. As far as I see, the blessing of not being created a gentile is unrelated to Hillel’s lesson: Hillel addresses a summary of Torah, while the blessing thanks God for how an individual was created. 

That talmudic section shares numerous cases where Hillel patiently answered the gentile’s questions, and then convert them. Hillel viewed gentiles as equals, fit to follow the same Torah Hillel followed. 

Sharon: I then stated that I doubted the credibility of the Jewish people as God's witnesses, because the Rabbis did not consider non Jewish sensibilities and Torah when formulating these blessings.

Rabbi: I believe I resolved this concern: this answer is conjecture.

Sharon:  I then was accused for judging Judaism harshly and for employing double standards when it comes to Judaism. I was accused of having anti-semitic attitudes. In my defense, I can only say that I am using the same standards to assess Judaism as how I did in assessing Islam. I merely compared the Scripture of Judaism to its practice (Gen. 1:27 versus the blessings) and found Scripture is not the same as practice.

Rabbi: I believe I resolved this concern too, and you are fully justified to inquire, just as the gentile in Hillel’s cases inquired. I always say, “There is only one bad question: it is the question one doesn’t ask.”  But as long as one genuinely searches for truth, the teacher should be as patient and devoted as was Hillel, and seek to answer any person, even many times and on many questions.