Mishnah: “WOMEN, SLAVES AND MINORS ARE EXEMPT FROM RECITING THE SH’MA, AND FROM PUTTING ON T’FILLIN. BUT THEY ARE SUBJECT TO THE OBLIGATIONS OF T’FILLAH AND MEZUAH AND GRACE AFTER MEALS.”
When I was in rabbinic school at Hebrew-Union College we spent a lot of time on the texts on this page, regarding the release for women from “time-bound, positive commandments.” Although the Reform and Conservative Movements had long been ordaining women as rabbis and cantors, our female colleagues at Jewish Theological Seminary knew that they might not be accepted in some congregations. Even the Reform Movement had not yet, at that time, seen a woman as senior rabbi of a major congregation. This “exemption” for woman from some of the mitzvot was seen as a requirement, in traditional Judaism, that they be excluded.
All this feels very quaint now – although the issue of how gay and lesbian Jews continue to feel excluded in the same way as all women did, is still very prevalent. And, of course, the exclusion of women from many aspects of religious life continues today in the traditional world and in some elements in Israel. This continues to be shameful.
Reading this page of Talmud today, though, I am struck by a different story. Everyone, women included, are required to say birkat hamazon the “grace after meals.” The story is told here that the ministering angels got into a textual discussion with G-d. They note that the Torah describes G-d as one who “shows no favor” (Deut. 10:17). Yet, the angels point out, the Torah also describes G-d as “bestowing favor” on Israel in the 3-fold benediction (Num. 6:26) (note: the Hebrew is the same in both – usually translated as “lift up His countenance.”) In the story, G-d replies to the angels “And shall I not show favor for Israel, seeing that I wrote for them in the Torah 'And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God' (Deut. 8:10) and they are scrupulous [to say the grace after meals] even if the quantity of the meal is [the size of] and olive or an egg?”
Birkat hamazon – a rule which applies to male and female Jews – endears our relationship with the Divine. If not literally, as in this story from G-d’s perspective, then figuratively from ours. After every meal we stop and say and extended “thank you” – and act which brings us to a place of gratitude and humility. More powerful in some ways after a meal, when we are sated, than before when we are holding back in anticipation. Just when it would make sense to walk away from the table, we linger to think beyond our belly. A discipline unlimited by gender, which we can all learn from.