Equality for Jewish women is not a 20th century invention. A siddur, or prayerbook, from the year 1471 contains an alternative text to the much abhorred "shelo asani isha" blessing that thanks God for "not making me a woman," a text that is not only misogynistic in content but assumes that the person holding the prayerbook is male. In this 15th century book, the text reads, "Baruch she'asani isha v'lo ish," "Thank God for making me a woman and not a man."
According to Professor David Kramer, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the "siddur was produced by the scribe and rabbi Abraham Farissol for a groom to give to his bride in 1471." Farissol lived in Italy from 1451–1525. The siddur, housed in JTS’ library archives, can be viewed here.
This is a significant discovery for several reasons.
First, it demonstrates the flexibility and ongoing evolution of the prayer texts, even when it comes to issues of gender. It is perhaps obvious that prayers are not fixed in stone — after all, there are so many variations in “nusach,” or version, that it would seem difficult to make the opposite argument. Yet, the staunch opposition in even the most liberal Orthodox circles to the slightest textual changes can be astounding.
In one partnership synagogue that I wrote about in my new book, "The Men’s Section,"* when a woman made a one-word change to the liturgy for the purpose of gender equality, replacing the Hebrew word for husband "ba’al" (literally "owner") that appears in Lecha Dodi for the less degrading "ish" (literally “man”), she was effectively ostracized from the congregation. Similarly, the opposition to changing "shelo asani isha" is confounding. Indeed, when a young Orthodox rabbi recently wrote about his own decision to stop saying that blessing, the attacks on him were fierce. At least he now has some support from at least one like-minded rabbi, even if he’s been gone for a while.
This discovery also disproves the notion that history has some kind of linear progression. The medieval Italian rabbi was pre-modern, pre-feminism, and even pre-industrialism. And yet, he executed what was arguably a great feminist act. Orthodox women are so often told by rabbis that change takes time, that we cannot rush history, that social understandings have to evolve at their own natural pace. (This argument is heard so often in dealing with the agunah problem.) It seems this 15th century rabbi had a basic understanding of humanity that is lacking in so much of the Orthodox community today.