Thank You God for Making Me a Woman:
Empowering Women for the 21st Century
Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin
© 2016 by Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin
Next Century Publishing
Las Vegas, NV
513-201-4140 X 107
Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW
Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin is a ChaBaD rabbi in Brooklyn Heights, NY. The title of his book is derived from a morning blessing — “…Sh’lo asani ishah:” “(Bless You, God), Who has not made me a woman.”
With the rise of the Feminist movement, this brachah attracted considerable critical attention. The explanation — that women were exempted from mitzvoth that required being done at a more or less specific time (putting on tefillin, for example) and that a man was therefore thanking God for placing such responsibilities on him — didn’t satisfy the critics.
The life of an Orthodox (or Hasidic) Jewish woman was also criticized as a subordinate role of oppression, overwork and misery. The aforementioned morning blessing was used as “evidence” of the inequality.
I spent the first of several Shabbatot with the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights in Fall, 1976. I stayed with a couple who had married only six months earlier. What I saw was a loving couple who were very happy with their lives and roles. The wife explained to me that while her husband had grown up Lubavitch, she had grown up in a traditional (presumably not Modern) Orthodox family. Her father was very comfortable with Hasidut, which made her own transition easier, too. To my surprise, I came away very uplifted by the experience. I did not see a downtrodden human being in the person of the wife.
(There would have been a lot of specifically Lubavitch minhagim/customs for her to learn, I’m sure. She mentioned to me that while she had grown up speaking Yiddish, it was a different dialect than the one spoken by the Rebbe, z”l. She could therefore not understand his talks until they were translated/explained by her husband. She also reported, with some humor, that when she attended a service at 770 Eastern Parkway, sitting upstairs in the women’s section, she could not locate or identify her husband, who was downstairs. All the Lubavitch men had beards and dressed in the same style! This didn’t seem to bother her at all.)
Some time later, I spent a similar Shabbat in Crown Heights. This time however, I went out there with a woman I was seeing at the time, with whom I was seriously considering marriage. We were “bedded” in separate apartments, of course, but reunited for meals at the home of my previous hosts.
Afterwards, my woman friend commented, “They have a happier, stronger relationship than anyone I know.” Most of our friends’ marriages I remember as unhappy ones at the time. Some survived. Some didn’t.
The point is: Both my woman and friend and myself initially chose our opinions of Orthodox life for women from its critics. We didn’t evaluate those criticisms with personal observation or other investigation. At the same time, it should be said that Orthodoxy in those days tended to ignore criticism “from the outside,” rather than respond to it at all. Rabbi Raskin’s book is an overdue response to the unsympathetic criticism leveled at his community.
On the other hand, I also saw some secular or non-Orthodox women and men attempt to become Orthodox or Hasidic and establish marriages and families. Some of those marriages thrived. Some asked more of the people than they were ultimately comfortable with.
So, while I can’t claim that an Orthodox or Hasidic lifestyle guarantees a happy marriage, neither can I say that it automatically mandates against it.
It is fair and fitting to examine both sides (as if there are only two) of a question. Even people with whom I otherwise agree often fail to look fairly at both sides.
Rabbi Raskin’s book, “Thank You God…,” is an argument in favor of Orthodox/Hasidic marriage and for the Jewish view of women as being fundamentally positive. It falls within that branch of philosophical literature called “Apologetics,” which is defined as “…defending a position (often religious) through the systematic use of information.”
It argues its points using references from Torah, Talmud, Zohar and Hasidut. The quotations are always cited in a footnote. This adds value to the book as reference material. Even where you might disagree with what Rabbi Raskin is positing, the quotes themselves have educational applications. At the same time, the book is lucidly written and easily read.
In support of the Jewish view of women as being a positive one, Rabbi Raskin gives examples of people changing their opinions during his counseling with them. My personal experience is that some people take a position and stick with it regardless of any contrasting information or evidence given to them. So — will his book change the opinion of anyone who approaches the topic of women in Judaism with a hostile, uncompromising attitude? I wouldn’t expect it to do so. If, instead, one reads this book with willingness to consider its viewpoint, some degree of change can occur.
The appendices to the main text include several pertinent letters from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z”l.
While Rabbi Raskin paints a positive picture of the role of women in Judaism, and supports it with valuable quotations, I don’t believe the topic is fully explored by any single point of view.
I also don’t underestimate the complications that personal emotional problems can bring to creating a happy, stable, long-term marriage. These aren’t automatically solved by doing more mitzvot. But perhaps observance can be something that a couple finds a comfortable, productive resolution about, rather than it being a long-standing source of conflict.
Everyone will find something useful in this book, even if you don’t aspire to an Orthodox/Hasidic degree of observance or agree with other of Rabbi Raskin’s positions.
I would recommend Rabbi Raskin’s book to rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators as source material for further examination of the whole topic — and of our individual attitudes about it.
I would also recommend it to any couple whose wedding I was helping to prepare — with the caveat, of course, that I’m only making known a good source for a (not necessarily the) Jewish view of women and marriage. “Take what you need and leave the rest…”