Orthodox Jews open their prayers every morning with a series of blessings. Some are bland enough. The first blessing thanks God for giving the cockerel the intelligence to distinguish between day and night. Fair enough. Myself, I cannot claim any special expertise on cockerels. When the Cockerel Fanciers Gazette is puzzled on some abstruse cockerel question, it is not to me that it turns for advice. On the whole, from my observations, feelings do not run high on either side of the cockerel barrier. Still I do not believe that even the keenest of cockerel-fanciers would dispute my questioning the prime place that this innocuous blessing occupies in the liturgy. Even if you have joined a party that believes that cockerels are hazardous to the environment, a strongly pro-cockerel blessing is unlikely to enrage you.
Cockerels may be uncontroversial, but you cannot say the same for some of the succeeding blessings. Several are downright repugnant to our most cherished beliefs. In the blessing that follows the cockerel blessing, you are expected to thank God for not making you a gentile. I see no way of defending this pernicious part of the liturgy. It appears to justify the worst myths of anti-Semitism.
Why don't we try to narrow down our prejudices and identify our targets more precisely? Why do we not thank the deity for not having made us a Frenchman? I am a sworn Francophile, but there are some aspects of Frenchness that can get up your nose. My own beef is with French, the language of which the French are justly proud. The French love their language and it distresses the reader of that lovely language to read of the inroads that English, the world's lingua franca, has made into the tongue of Montaigne and Voltaire. Franglais is the term that the French use for the barbarisms, like le weekend, that have been recruited for their lovely language. But the French, literary chauvinists to a man, will fight for their language though they freely but reluctantly employ Anglicisms.
Sometimes their refusal to acknowledge foreign languages is plain annoying. Despite their efforts to fight off Franglais, the French have an endearing way with internationally recognized acronyms. When a dread new disease becomes known to the world as AIDS, why do the French confuse the issue by calling it SIDA? International politics enables the French to reverse almost every abbreviation. Thus the USSR becomes the URSS and UNO turns into ONU. Our old friend the PLO sounds no more attractive when we turn round its letters to OLP. Other grotesqueries turn the internationally known "value added tax" into TVA, while the institution known to all as an NGO is reversed into the odd-sounding ONG. But what do you think an ATM becomes in France? It's called a GAB. And try to guess what an IVG can be. It stands for interruption volontaire de grossesse. And if you are still not with me, it means an abortion.
It is only in the admittedly important world of international sport that the French have widely accepted the dominance of English. Le football means what you expect it to mean; we know what a goal is whatever language we speak and we all understand what a match is. But one expression defies explanation. Surely, only Yiddish can be credited with the French for the Grand Slam: it is le Grand Chelem.
I have been unable to trace the origin of this curious expression apart, of course, from the Gallic habit of linguistic perversity that I have already mentioned. The expression is restricted to tennis championships. For example, French offenders are not thrown into the chelemmer.
But to return to our blessings. Nothing could be less offensive than the next blessing which, following the formulaic opening of each of these blessings, reads: "Blessed art thou, our God, King of the Universe, who hath not made me a slave." And so say all of us! Still, why slaves? There are plenty of other things one would rather not be. Why is there no benediction, for example, that reads: "Blessed art thou, our God, King of the Universe, who hath not made me a duck-billed platypus?"
It is with the fourth blessing of the day that we truly enter a minefield. Men say: "Blessed art thou, our God, King of the Universe, who hath not made me a woman." Women, on the other hand, are required to say: " ... who hath made me according to his will." Wow! How did we men get away with it for so long? Many of my readers are women and some of them say daily prayers. Do they pronounce this humiliating benediction? Do any of you know any woman, who is prepared every morning to say that she is, by nature, inferior and that she thanks God for it?
We should not be exercised at causing offense to an under-represented bunch like slaves. The slave vote these days is no longer significant. I have no statistics on non-Jews, but it seems to me that there are a lot of them to offend. When we start each morning by taking on two such powerful groups as women and goyim, we take on a lot. As for the apparent dual undesirability of being born a gentile woman, our liturgy stacks the cards against them. So does our upbringing. With the delicate phraseology for which the Yiddish language is notorious, they were referred to, in my youth, as female abominations. We apparently thank the deity twice over for not having been made one, but we were, in addition to the divine blessing, under a parental injunction not to associate with them.
Nothing, you might say, would be easier than changing those anti-gentile, anti-feminist blessings to something more in tune with our times. But it doesn't work that way. You cannot change any part of the liturgy, or rather you cannot subtract, but you may add. And beware what you wish for. An unwelcome addition to the liturgy, for me, is a new prayer in the memorial service that we say on festivals. The prayer mourns the victims of the Holocaust. It is, of course, very much needed. But its content is problematical. It is a prayer for vengeance. Inspired apparently by the thesis of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, it prays for sevenfold revenge against the German nation of murderers. If my mathematics is not letting me down, that would give us the right to kill 42 million Germans. Might we not have compromised with a blessing thanking God for not having created us German?
Jews who have been brought up with the liturgy seem to take its hyperbole and inconsistencies in their stride. Thus they pray for the restoration of the Temple, with its animal sacrifices, without fully meaning it. The same goes for the return of the messiah. So these strangely objectionable blessings need to be treated in the same way.
It is not easy to detect any true religious impulse in these blessings. After all, no one disputes that God created women and gentiles, even Germans and Frenchmen. As for the cockerel, who is singled out for special distinction, we should not forget that it is the national emblem of France. And coq au vin is one of France's contributions to civilization.
Vive le coq au vin!
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