It is morning at the Guest House, a beautiful retreat center which describes its mission as "[creating] opportunities for transformational work and [providing] a nurturing environment for those seeking to develop human potential and enrich the world." I walk down to the Jewish prayer space, a library with a few couches and shelves of books, where chairs have been arranged in a circle and a papercut mizrach (the word means "east" -- it's a piece of art denoting the direction of Jerusalem) leans against one wall. I enfold myself in my rainbow silk tallit and wrap my arm and head, my strength and consciousness, in tefillin. And then I sit down to pray.
I forgot to bring a printed siddur, but that's okay, because I have a digital one. I don't use it often, but I like having it on my tablet and on my phone -- makes it easy to daven wherever I am! But the digital siddur has a few quirks to which I am unaccustomed. One of them is that it features the most traditional version of every prayer text, and that in turn means that as I'm davening the birchot ha-shachar, the morning blessings, I bump smack into "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who has not made me a woman." (And, of course, its companion blessing intended for women to say -- "Who has made me according to Your will.") The siddurim I typically use don't include either of those. In their stead is a single version -- "Who has made me in Your image" -- appropriate for all to recite, regardless of sex or gender expression.
As I encounter these words this morning, I wonder how the Muslim women here would respond to them. Already, on our first evening together, the small group I was facilitating entered into a free-flowing conversation about what women are and aren't traditionally encouraged (or permitted) to do in our traditions. We talked about how people read us as religious women -- how do people respond to a woman wearing hijab? a woman wearing a kippah? What do people project on us based on those signifiers? How are those two religious identifiers similar, and how are they different? How do we respond, as religious women, to places where our traditions have encoded patriarchy as normative? I think I know what rueful smiles I would see on the faces of (most of) my Jewish colleagues if this blessing came up in conversation. I suspect that the Muslim women here would empathize.
I've written before about reclaiming (and rewriting) the "Who has not made me a woman" blessing -- as "Who has made me a woman!" -- during menstruation. I return to that practice almost every month, when I catch myself thinking disparaging thoughts. ("oy, is it really time for this again?") I use the blessing in those moments to remind myself that this female body is sacred and holy and that I am grateful for its many possibilities -- including its capacity to bear and nurture life. When I use that blessing at that time, it's aspirational. The words are meant to remind me to cherish the body I have, even when it's inconvenient. But the rest of the time, I tend to forget that that old line of prayer even exists.
This morning, though, here at this retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders -- a retreat which this year, for the first time, was conceived and created as an explicitly all-female space -- I am struck by the sheer ridiculousness of that classical line of blessing. I know its historical context. I can cite the reasons why its authors thought it was entirely reasonable to thank God for not having been born female. But this morning when it pops up on my iPad I daven a blessing of gratitude to God for having made me a woman, and today, a woman surrounded by an exquisite, creative, and powerful ad hoc community of other religious women. Damn right I'm grateful to be a woman! And grateful to be able to learn from, and with, this extraordinary group. How blessed I am.
Deep thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation for their gracious support of this incredible retreat program.