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The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship, and Identity in Jewish Liturgy, by Yoel Kahn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 244 pp. $45.00.
Perhaps no other liturgical rubric in the Jewish prayerbook has evoked so much intensive discussion in Jewish and inter-religious discourse as well as in academic inquiry, as this that is the topic of Kahn’s The Three Blessings. These blessings are: “Blessed are You Adonai Ruler of the universe, who did not make me a gentile / who did not make me a slave / who did not make me a woman.” They already appear in the Tannaitic literature and are recited at least from the ninth or tenth century as part of the early morning worship. They were the center of extremely heated debates within in the Jewish world and without.
Indeed, if you want to determine whether a certain Jewish prayerbook is Ashkenazi or Sepharadic, Orthodox or Liberal, if you want to inquire about its political orientation, the degree of its gender sensitivity and liturgical innovation—turn to the opening pages of the Siddur and note the way that these three blessings are treated. Observing their order, translation, commentary, font size, and actual wording may serve as a litmus test for a prayerbook’s theological, ideological, and aesthetic orientation. Kahn’s endeavor to examine closely these blessings from their first appearance in classical rabbinic literature to the liturgy created by gays and lesbians in contemporary North America, casts light upon these aspects of prayer and the worshipers who recited them.
Some say that the entire universe is reflected in and may be observed through a single droplet of dew. Reading The Three Blessings may be described as such experience—it teaches not only about the history of these specific blessings but also about wider questions of inclusion in a canon, authority, identity, and censorship from within and from without in Jewish liturgy. Kahn leads the reader on a journey beginning with the ancient origins of the blessings, which he identifies with Hellenistic statement attributed to Socrates or Plato, then moves to the early tannaitic formulation of the blessings, and then to their textual revision in the Babylonian Talmud. The journey continues with discussions relating to the blessings’ function in the Geonic literature, where they become part of the morning ritual in the synagogue, their special formulations in the Cairo Geniza, and the external and internal censorship that affected their form and performance in the middle ages. He carefully surveys commentaries from the mystical traditions, new adaptations in the Reform movement in Europe and finally new innovative uses and perceptions of the blessings in contemporary North America.
One of the important things that one should bear in mind when approaching ancient texts, and liturgical texts are certainly no exception, is that we usually know very little about their original sitz im Leben, their existential context. We have insufficient knowledge about those who created them and about the exact context and function they may have had. Kahn himself says about the blessings he examines: “there never was an ur (version) that all subsequent arrangements modified” (p. 40). However, in more than one case he seems to make some strong assumptions that cannot be proven. For example, he discusses the fascinating similarity between Hellenistic aphorisms, recorded in various forms, and the thanksgiving statement for being born a man and not an animal, a woman, a Greek or a Barbarian. The typological resemblance is indeed remarkable, but Kahn continues arguing (like some other scholars before him), that the Jewish “who did not make me” blessings are a direct response to the Hellenistic text. Kahn continues and cites the Apostle Paul’s call: “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all and in all” (I Colossians 3:11), maintaining that it is a response to an early Jewish formulation of the blessings. While it seems plausible that Paul knew of such blessings recited by the Jews in his proximity, and his statement may be a direct response to them, there is neither textual evidence nor historical reason to make a connection with the older Hellenistic phrase. Kahn mentions two scholars who criticized this theory for different reasons, but it seems that the problem with the “genetic” assumption is even more fundamental—both the Hellenistic and the rabbinic texts refer to the most basic traits of one’s identity: nationality, gender, and social status, and in the case of the Hellenistic formulation also one’s species (“man and not an animal”), which later appears in some medieval Jewish formulations, for example, in the Cairo Genizah. Don’t these traits define human identity to this day? Why do we need to postulate a “genetic” connection between the two texts, documented in distant times, places, and phenomenological nature? Nevertheless, this doesn’t overshadow the significant merits of book.
One of the most moving parts of the book is the description of the liturgy created in Sha'ar Zahav, a Reform congregation with special outreach to gays and lesbians in San Francisco. One of the blessings reads: “Blessed be You God, who made each of us unique, and all of us according to Your will.” Following the morning blessings is a silent prayer which begins with the following : “My God, I thank You for my life and my soul and my body; for my name, for my sexual affectional [sic!] nature.” Kahn vividly demonstrates how the liturgy may reflect the needs of the community who created it.
Both scholars and educated people will greatly benefit from reading The Three Blessings. It can serve as a wonderful tool for all those who wish to delve deeper into questions of liturgy and theory, the tension between the written word and religious practice, liturgical innovations as a form of linguistic resistance, and Jewish response to changing historical realities—all presented in a clear, well-documented, scholarly as well as religious voice. That being said, it would have been beneficial to add contemporary material from other Jewish centers other than North America and also a more detailed discussion of gender-sensitive texts and liturgies aiming to present an inclusive theology.
The story of the development of these blessings as it unfolds in this book teaches much about the collective identity of Jews. The author helps us see how these blessings inform our personal, individual journeys as well. When preparing his rabbinic thesis, he dedicated his work to a dear person in his life, using his initials only, writing: “At the time, for fear that speaking the truth openly would prevent my ordination as rabbi” but now “with pride and gratitude” he dedicates his book to his partner and husband (p. xi). Just as in the case of liturgy, here too, the personal is the political and the political may also be very personal.
Rabbi Dalia Marx
Hebrew Union College