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.

Can You See Me? Do I Want You To?

As I spend time traveling back and forth between Boston and New York, I’ve seen a lot of people of different experiences. Black, white, doctor, lawyer, accountant, musician, rich, poor; I’ve seen them all. Each person is the product of his or her own unique history.

As I see each of these people, as I travel with them and share the streets on which I walk with them, I often feel like I want them to recognize me. I see Jewish couples walking down the street, clearly religious Jewish couples (the women in skirts and hats or sheitels, the men in kippot), and I wish that they could just as easily recognize me as Jewish. I stand next to a man boarding the bus with his trombone in tow, and I hear the echo inside of my head, “I’m a musician, too! I love music! I wish he would see me and talk to me.”

I am a young woman who loves being Jewish, who loves music, who loves art, who loves being silly and talking to people. At this point in my life, the only part of that whole set that strangers can outwardly see is that I’m a woman. And even then, in this day and age, does not mean that I have anything in common with the woman next to me. Yes, I frequently wear a necklace around my neck that has my name spelled in Hebrew; and on Shabbat perhaps I’m recognizably Jewish (though strangely, based on the kippah that I often wear). I occasionally wear earrings with music notes dangling from my ears. I sometimes rehearse music riding the subway on the way to a rehearsal. I have also had to travel with my guitar recently, back and forth from school this semester. All of these identify who I am; but what about when I am not defined by all of that? What about when I am walking down the street in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt? How recognizable am I? And would it be to my advantage or disadvantage that others could recognize me and place me into a category like the categories in which I have placed the people who surround me?

For a while in high school and at the beginning of college, I toyed with the idea of wearing long skirts all the time, adopting garb that would identify me, on the outside, as Jewish. Ultimately for practicality’s sake, I decided against converting my whole wardrobe in the end. However, I am left with a fascinating insight into the world in which I live, after meditating on my own thought process:

The fact that I could even consider consciously identifying myself in public as Jewish says something profound about the American society in which I live: I do not have to fear that others might recognize me as Jewish.

For whatever reason, I often have great conversations with cab drivers, internationally. In one such interesting conversation, sometime this fall, I asked a cab driver in Boston if he could please drive me to the Jewish Community Center in Newton, MA. He asked me if I was Jewish, to which I honestly answered, “yes”. Turns out, this cab driver happened to be a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, having survived Nazism and Communism in Russia. He said to me, “You don’t know how lucky you are. Someone asks you if you are Jewish, and you don’t worry that the one who is asking is going to beat you up if you say ‘yes’. That is why I moved here. Because that it what I want for my children.” As he drove, he and I continued to talk about the virtues of having grown up in a world that allows me to be fearless, that allows me not to assume the worst when someone simply questions a part of my identity, as they had to in Eastern Europe just sixty years ago.

As usual, the question remains unanswered. Do I want to be recognizable? In this day and age, I can be, without being terrified that something awful will come of it. Do I want people to be able to look at me and read my identity like a piece of newspaper? Well, maybe not. Perhaps that is the joy of getting to know people: you can’t really tell who they are without exploring a bit under their skin first. You can’t easily assume anything about others before you have said “hello”. Maybe, then, in different contexts it is nice to be identified, but in other contexts, it’s good just to have something to say after you’ve made first introductions. In a day and age that I sit and ponder how society looks at me, I am thankful that at least it isn’t any cause for concern.

A Woman in T’fillin: Must She Be a Lesbian?

One of the things I love about my classes at Boston University is the time it gives me to think about interesting philosophical issues, many of which have a very personal reality in my life. You’ve seen the fruits of these thoughts in some of my previous posts. This time was one of many times I’ve found myself writing little comments in the margins of my class notes, in “Gender and Judaism” with Professor Deeana Klepper.

In class, we’ve been discussing a fascinating issue: Torah as the “Other Woman”. Contrary to mainstream religious Christian beliefs that chastity is the ideal, Talmudic and Kabbalistic literature indicate that sex is not just a “necessary evil,” but that it is rather a duty that a husband performs for his wife. Sex, when done properly and with the correct intent, of course, brings new life into the world, and is therefore an inherently holy act — one of the holiest in which a layperson can engage. However, Torah is still the “Other Woman”. Or is a man’s wife the “Other Woman,” with whom he cheats on Lady Torah? It’s a fascinating discussion, completely unanswerable. But, once again, fun to think about.

But of course, that isn’t my point in this musing, as you may have already noticed in my title.
The dangerous question: Must a woman in t’fillin be a lesbian?

You may be reading this and asking, “What the H–?”. The question is designed to do that, I’ll admit; I mean it to elicit that response because that’s precisely the response I had when I first read our class materials and found this to be a necessary question. You may say to me, “Hinda, what does Torah as the ‘Other Woman’ have to do with women laying t’fillin, and being lesbians?” I’ll tell you.

Check out the series of b’rachot [blessings] and quotes a man traditionally says in the morning when putting on t’fillin:

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציונו להניח תפילין

Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us in His mitzvot and has commanded us to lay our t’fillin.

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציונו על מצוות תפילין

Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us in His mitzvot and has commanded us in the mitzvah of t’fillin.

ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד

Blessed is the name of the honor of His kingship for all time.

The above statements seem self-explanatory. The first occurs while wrapping the shel yad t’fillin on the arm, the second and third while he places the shel rosh t’fillin between his eyes and aligns the knot on the base of his skull. But take a look at the psukim that are said when he wraps the shel yad t’fillin around his middle finger:

וארשתיך לי לעולם

And you are betrothed unto me forever.

וארשתיך לי בחסד וברחמים

And you are betrothed unto me in kindness and in mercy.

וארשתיך לי באמונה וידעת את י-הוה

And you are betrothed unto me in belief and the knowledge of God.>.

Well that’s interesting! Using the word וארשתיך [ve’erastich], meaning “and you are betrothed,” grammatically must have a woman as the indirect object. Who is being betrothed to whom in this case? It seems that the act of laying t’fillin, and specifically wrapping the leather strap three times around the middle finger, is a “renewal of vows” that occurs daily in the life of a male Jew. Given that the time of prayer is traditionally regarded as a time to push all sexual desire from the male mind, perhaps it is here that the male pushes the thoughts of his wife from his mind and is free to allow and affirm his desire for Lady Torah, his mistress.

Perhaps I’ll develop this thought more at a later date. However, I do wish to explore what the above problem means for those of us women who lay t’fillin every day (or who feel obligated in the mitzvah). What does it mean for us? Clearly we as women have a great commitment to Torah and t’filah [prayer], but the idea that we must be betrothed to Lady Torah in order to fulfill the mitzvah, or as a result of fulfilling the mitzvah, is problematic. On the one hand, I am a proponent of sticking to original liturgy. I do not like the addition of the matriarchs into our Amidah prayer, and I don’t condone a change in the Hineni on the High Holidays when I lead those services, even though it professes that the ideal leader of a congregation has “a pleasant voice,” a “long beard,” and is “learned in the ways of the world.” I don’t like when our lengthy tradition of blessings and prayers is tainted by the ungendering or, worse, the change of gender of God in our prayers from Male to Neuter (the so-called “God tense”) or from Male to Female, respectively.

Calling God “He” does not upset my concept of Him, nor my concept of my own self-image as a woman who believes in God. In fact, I might say that if male and female are made to complete each other, then perhaps I as a woman fulfill a role that completes God. While both versions of the Creation story in our Bible (Genesis 1-2:4, Genesis 2) are significantly different from each other, they both culminate with the creation of Woman; perhaps this is the key support for Woman’s ability to be God’s complement as well as Man’s.

All the ranting in the world won’t solve the problem I’ve posed. Am I, in my own love affair with Torah, proclaiming myself a lesbian? Must Torah be “Lady Torah,” as I have labeled it, my tongue in my cheek? What is our intent as Jews in laying t’fillin? More importanty perhaps, what is our intent as women laying t’fillin? Is it just because men told us in the past that we couldn’t, or shouldn’t, and we use it as a form of rebellion? If that is a woman’s rationale for laying t’fillin, perhaps she should reconsider. If I as a woman, in laying t’fillin, am renewing my vows of betrothal with Torah and/or with God, how do I express that as a woman, without being problematic?

As I have already stated, I am not one to advocate for change in liturgy, most of the time. But perhaps, in this case, if we want to find a way for women to ceremoniously lay t’fillin without needing to step out of some proverbial closet, we need to find a different recitation to replace these inherently heterosexual, masculine vows.