Talking about Gender and God

This week in the Mitzvah Initiative, participants engaged in an incredible discussion about God. The discussion reminded me of a paper I wrote when I was in college, for a class on Gender and Judaism. It seems like a good time to share some of the thoughts that I wrote in this paper with you.

The paper wasn’t about the general concept of God. It was entitled “(Not) Just a Pronoun: Where Feminist Theologians Differ,” and explored the exceptionally varied relationships that individuals in the Jewish community have with God, specifically related to the pronouns we use when we do speak about God. Some use primarily masculine pronouns, some use “God-neutral” (never using pronouns), and others switch back and forth situationally. I interviewed twelve students from different walks of life and Judaism, different backgrounds, upbringings, and denominations, and compared their narratives to those of a couple of Jewish feminist theologians, most notably Judith Plaskow, author of Standing Again and Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (1989), Tamar Ross, author of Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism (2004), and Rachel Adler, author of Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (1998).

I began to wite the paper with a distinct problem: I couldn’t begin to talk about God without knowing what pronouns to use myself. Could I talk about Him (note the pronoun) at all? I asked the question, “How do I refer to God in a way that is respectful, yet inoffensive to my reader; grounded, yet does not give away my own bias before I have even penned my thesis?” I proceeded, of course, to admit my bias. I couldn’t have done it any other way. I admit it again: I’ve always used masculine terminology for God. It is the convention I have been taught, it’s a space in which I am comfortable, and it is not a convention that I’m willing to give up.

I also began with another distinct problem. What do I mean when I say “God”? While Judaism is a monotheistic religion and therefore I as a Jew believe in one God, and that God exists (though this is interestingly not necessarily required by Torah), it is clear that there are many versions of “God” which exist in the world. Others might say that all that exists in the world is a part of God — that God exists in everything, and beyond everything. This view is called pantheism, rather than monotheism. Another modern convention is to say that all monotheistic religions pray to the same God who goes by different names. Perhaps this is true. However, as one of my interviewees, a female Conservative Jew from Atlanta, Georgia, pointed out, “I feel like Jews talk about God, but they don’t really talk about God. It’s a problem.”

My interviews for this paper revealed that the distance we feel from God-talk isn’t just a Conservative issue. Many of my interviewees had never taken the time to think about God, let alone God’s gender. When forced to think about the issue, all but two said that God is and continues to be male both in our conception and convention.

Judith Plaskow remarks that “Exclusively masculine imagery for God […] tells us nothing about the deity, but it does say a great deal about an androcentric Judaism that regards female images as degrading precisely to the extent that it has degraded and marginalized women” (136-137). Just because we use masculine imagery for God does not mean that God has a particular gender, really. In fact, we as Jews pride ourselves in specifically not having a human-like image of God, and thus we can’t define God by sex. As for degrading and marginalizing women, perhaps Plaskow should give more credit to those lay-thinkers who can think beyond the masculine pronouns into a realm where language does not define being.

Tamar Ross addresses this very issue. She states, “While describing God in gender-neutral terms reflects a philosophical understanding that the divine force is surely abstract and ungendered, to appreciate this transcendance of gender human beings many need feminine imagery to counterbalance to the male use of gendered language, to preserve as ense of personal relationship with God that is not captured by abstract pronouns” (119).

It is important to note that the problem of engendering God stems from the lack of neutral pronouns in the Hebrew language, much like Spanish or Italian. Our Bible is written in Hebrew, and thus everything — every object, every animal, every being — is gendered. In modern Hebrew, cars are female, computers are female, sinks are male, tables are male. Et cetera. On the other hand, according to another of my interviewees, a male Reform Jew from Massachusetts, “gender is a social construct that we make up for ourselves, that really has no basis in the godly world.”

Ultimately what I learned while writing this paper was that we live in a society that openly challenges gender roles. In our American society, who says that a male cannot be compassionate, loving and kind; that male ballet dancers aren’t just as graceful on the stage as their female counterparts? And who says that women can’t embody a strong, “macho,” warrior-like hero, in addition to fitting the paradigm of the sweet, compassionate, kind girl? By saying that we must ascribe God any “inherently female” attributes and use female terms to replace the previously inherently masculine terminology, we are in danger of perpetuating negative gender stereotypes rather than positive ones, as we at the same time work hard to combat them in our secular and in our Jewish society. We should embrace the fact that we live in such a society, which allows us to talk about God openly and to perceive Him — or Her? or God? — any way that suits our needs.

Shabbat Shalom.