Thursday, July 10, 2008

Goy Bashing?

There are a few brachot traditionally recited in the morning whose language seems politically incorrect. One of those is "Shelo asani isha" (who has not made me a woman). Women recite a different bracha, "Sheasani kirtzono" (who has made me according to His will) instead. Another such bracha is "Shelo asani goy". Note, although the term is sometimes viewed as a pejorative, the word "goy" literally means nation and is used in the Torah to describe the Jewish nation as well, as in "goy kadosh" (a holy nation.)

The question is raised as to why the language of the blessing is set in the negative, i.e. who has not made me a woman or goy, instead of the positive "who has made me a man" or "who has made me a Jew."

Much has been written about these brachot, with many different explanations/approaches offered. In some Modern Orthodox communities "shelo asani isha", for example, is recited in an undertone. In some Conservative communities, it's simply omitted.
The general trend among traditional commentators is to view these blessings as a positive statement about being a Jew or man --depending which bracha is being referred to -- who has the opportunity to fulfill more mitzvot (since men have more commandments then women, being obligated in time-bound mitzvot) and almost as if the text had actually been written that way.

At any rate, the reason I bring this up is because on the new Lipa CD, there's a Yiddish song called "Shelo Asani Goy."

You can read a translation of the (mostly) Yiddish lyrics at the Lipa fan blog, Its unbeLIPAble!!!!!!!!!!

The chorus "Shelo asani goy" is a reference to this bracha. Lipa's additional lyrics seem to emphasize the positive about being a Jew, but the chorus, which quote the bracha, can similarly be interpreted by some in condescending or disrespectful way towards non-Jews.

This is an important issue to raise for several reasons. Firstly, because I wonder if teaching kids to sing/scream "Shelo asani goy" without addressing the issues of language, intent, and interpretation, might lead to them learning to look down on non-Jews, even if that's not the intent.

Second, because I wonder about the ethics of asking a non-Jew, who might have sensitivities about this matter, to play the song at a simcha. Many of us play with non-Jewish musicians at simchos. Is it right or fair to call this song without at least discussing the issues raised by it first?

To illustrate my point, here's a video clip of some kids from a Lubavitch day camp at a baseball game in Miami. In context, going out to a ball game where most of the spectators are not Jewish, it seems that the counselors, at least, do mean it in a somewhat pejorative way. In my opinion, this a huge chillul Hashem. (In general, the lack of consideration for the people around them is a chillul Hashem, IMO, but the choice of song makes this more offensive, I think.)

To be clear, I don't think Lipa's song is racist. It's reflective of a traditional text. The question is how to address the text in light of contemporary sensitivities and the Jewish role in contemporary society. And, there's a question of context too.

One final point.

In the past, I've received a critical email from a regular reader, albeit irregular commentor -- in fact, that might have been his only comment -- about raising sensitive issues because non-Jewish musicians might well be reading. I know that the blog has non-Jewish readers, and to the contrary, I believe that it is important for them to be aware of these kinds of issues, and that they are unsettled within the community. I think seeing that people address these issues, uncomfortable though they might be, is important, as is knowing that many commentators have raised the question too. I think it's important to have this happen publicly and I'd love to hear their perspective on this. What do you say, folks?