Rabbi Nina Mandel admits her discomfort with a line from Birkhot Hashakhar, the morning blessings, and examines why thanking God for making her “a Jew” brings about such complicated feelings.
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ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוקינו חי העולמים שעשני ישראל
Blessed are You…who made me of the People Israel/who did not make me a gentile.
Birkhot Hashakhar, the Morning Blessings, are recited each morning to take us through the process of facing a new day in gratitude. We express thanks to the Source of Life for our strength, the ground beneath our feet, our vision, the sufficiency of our resources, and a variety of other blessings that we might otherwise take for granted. Midway through this litany we say the blessing: she’asani yisra’el; who made me “Israel.” Each time I recite this, I experience a moment of dissonance and distraction. In its earliest iteration, and in some current siddurim (prayer books), it is represented a bit differently: shelo asani goy; Blessed are you…who didn’t make me a goy (non-Jew.) As this version triggers a discomfort outside of Orthodox settings, it has been changed in most liberal siddurim to the more affirmative gratitude for being Jewish. Or a Jew. Or “of the people Israel” as the Kol Haneshamah siddur translates the Hebrew.
In Siddur Hadash, which we use in the synagogue I serve, the English translation is starkly: “…for making me a Jew.” Since it is our minhag (custom) to chant the first part of each of these blessings in Hebrew and finish with the English, we get to affirm our Jewish identity in no uncertain terms. And each time we chant that line in English, I hesitate, and think of all the loved ones, relatives and friends in the kahal (congregation) who are not Jewish. How do they experience this line? How does it reflect on us? Why am I so uncomfortable about such an unapologetic statement? I know that in other faith traditions, liturgy includes statements just as particularist, and I wonder if people in those communities worry about how they are received by non-co-religionists.
Though I struggle with the English translation, I feel less discomfort with the Hebrew. In English, “Jew” comes out like a sharp rap. It simultaneously carries echoes of anti-Semitism and zealotry. It claims an ethnic identity that feels at odds with the universalist world in which we live, and it reminds us of all the times the word is preceded by a slur or curse. Saying “of the people Israel” softens the rap and extends the welcome beyond the halakhic borders implied by “Jew.” Yet it remains more than an affirmation of faith. It is a statement of affiliation and of loyalty, something many of us are not used to doing publicly.
This moment of liturgical discomfort challenges me every time to think about why it bothers me and why it is nevertheless important to say. I could just skip the line, or gloss over it in Hebrew, or just change the English. Instead, I affirm my Jewish identity because it reflects the principles by which I organize my life: to be engaged in a communal and personal struggle about how to be in the world. For me, this is what it means to be Jewish: to struggle with an issue, often without resolution, and be grateful for the opportunity to do so.
Nina H. Mandel has served as the full-time rabbi for Congregation Beth El in Sunbury, PA, since her graduation from RRC in 2003. A former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, she teaches as an adjunct professor at Susquehanna University.