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Is God male, female, both or neither? How should we phrase our prayers in response to God’s gender?

Ahuva Zache / God and Prayer / August 20, 2006

August 20, 2006
Week 75
26 Av 5766

Is God male, female, both or neither? How should we phrase our prayers in response to God’s gender?
By Ahuva Zache

How often do you think about God’s gender while praying? Frankly, I don’t give it much thought. Although I consider myself a feminist, I have never stopped in the middle of chanting a Hebrew prayer and thought, “Wait a minute, all of these Hebrew pronouns are masculine. As a female, I feel alienated from this religious experience!” Generally, I think nothing of the masculine wording because the Hebrew prayers have always been worded that way and because gender in the Hebrew language works differently (there is no gender neutral pronoun). Yet, when I read English prayers responsively, I can’t help but notice that the old blue Gates of Prayer frequently uses “He,” rather than “She” or some sort of gender-neutral term for God. The rabbis at my home synagogue replace “He” with phrases like “The Eternal One” when they read the English aloud, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Hebrew text almost always describes God with masculine terms.

We know from texts like the hymn Yigdal , which reflects the great Maimonides’ theological teachings, that God has no body. This prayer states, “He has no bodily form.” If God does not have a body, then God cannot have a sex. Sex is a physical attribute; it comprises biological categories like male and female. Gender, however, is a social construct that consists of the characteristics, expectations, assumptions and cultural meanings associated with sex. Gender and sex don’t always line up; sometimes men are “feminine” and sometimes women are “masculine.” Because gender is not the same thing as sex, it might be possible for God to have a gender, even though God does not have a sex. In our tradition, God demonstrates characteristics of more than one gender (kind of like the human being God created in Genesis 1:27, which according to a literal reading was both male and female). Sometimes God is described as, “King of glory, mighty in battle” (Psalms 24:8) and other times God is depicted as a compassionate Source of life. If asked to identify these descriptions of God with a gender, most people would probably consider the former description masculine and the latter depiction as feminine.Some people feel threatened by feminine depictions of God, believing that they diminish the awesome, powerful and fear-inspiring aspects of God. Rabbi Paula Reimers notes that using masculine language for God not only reinforced the concept of God’s power, but also helped prevent the, “introduction of alien theological ideas [such as pagan goddesses] into the heart of monotheistic religion.” Now that Judaism is firmly established, we no longer need to be concerned about our religion dissolving into paganism. Feminine imagery of God does not in any way threaten Judaism. On the contrary, it enhances the Jewish understanding of God, which should not be limited to masculine metaphors. All language that humans use to describe God is only a metaphor. Using masculine and feminine metaphors for God is one way to remind ourselves that gendered descriptions of God are just metaphors. God is beyond gender.

Related Questions
How can our prayers use gender-neutral language?
We want to talk to and about God in our prayers. We pray in English, Hebrew and other languages. Fortunately, it is not difficult to be gender-neutral in English. We have started to change the English interpretations of traditional prayers so that they do not portray God as only masculine. In Hebrew, however, it is impossible to be gender-neutral. Every word is gendered, either masculine or feminine. There is no middle ground with Hebrew. The same is true for many other languages that Jews might want to pray in. Perhaps the non-English prayers can alternate between masculine and feminine language. One prayer can describe God with masculine language, and the next prayer could use feminine language. I have already seen attempts to transform some Hebrew prayers which substitute, B’rucha At Yah ," for, " Baruch Atah Adonai ." Personally, I find it a little difficult to read the feminine versions, but I imagine it would get easier each time I practice saying it the new way. Although it would take time for us to adjust to some feminine renditions of our liturgy, the alternation of masculine-feminine language may be a powerful way to resolve the gender contradictions between the Hebrew and English texts.
Can changing our language about God change the way we think about people? If we understand God differently, then we will also come to understand people of other genders differently (maybe even better than we do now) because they are made b’tzelem Elohim , in the image of God. Plus, language is important. If we become conscious of the way we speak and the way we pray, we may also become more aware of the way that we think in general, and not just about God.

Taking Action
Examine the Texts
Look through the prayer book and other Jewish texts, including the Torah, and try to find as many masculine and feminine descriptions of God as you can. Do you notice more masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral depictions of God? Jewish tradition includes both, and it can be interesting to explore the different ways that God is described throughout Jewish tradition.

Write Your Own Prayers
Compose your own prayers that describe God in feminine, masculine, or gender-neutral terms. You can do this on your own or you could make it a group project with your youth group or other groups at your synagogue. You can even compile these prayers into a prayer book for either your youth group, for your congregation or for yourself.

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Do you think of God as having a gender? When you think about God, does that conjure up images of a man with a long white beard in the sky? Do you ever imagine God as a mother? Can you think about God without picturing a body or any physical form? If so, what are your thoughts of?

Inspired by this week’s iTorah? Want to learn more? Check this out… Mishkan T'fillah is the new Reform prayerbook and includes both faithful and creative translations for each prayer includes this piece on gender and God language

Ahuva Zaches is a sophomore at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. She takes pride in being an alumna of the Brandeis Collegiate Institute and the American Hebrew Academy, where she was an active member of AHATY (the school's North American Federation of Temple Youth [NFTY] group) and took a leading role in Reform Shabbat services. Currently serving as Religious Chair of Occidental’s Hillel, Ahuva enjoys singing, swing dancing, improvisational comedy, and sharp cheddar cheese.

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