God's Gender: A Traditionalist View

If we reject male God language, we lose a powerful metaphor: the husband-wife relationship between God and the Jews.

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Many Jewish feminists have criticized traditional Judaism's pervasive use of male God language, in the belief that language shapes not only individual consciousness, but the culture from which it springs. As expressed in the words of post-Christian feminist theologian Mary Daly, if the God is male, then the male is God. That is, depicting God in male terms inevitably is tied up with a privileged social and cultural position for men and for those qualities associated with maleness. In the following article, Tamar Frankiel responds to this critique by discussing the importance of the use of traditional Jewish language for God. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Feeding Among the Lilies, edited by Baila Olidort and published by Kehot Publication Society.

Over the past few decades, a new and distinctive movement has emerged among Jews who are attempting to reclaim some kind of spiritual meaning for their lives. The question has been: If we are recovering our connection to the Divine, can we find that connection in traditional Judaism?

Confronting Divine Imagery

The question has been particularly difficult for many Jewish women because of the picture of G-d we inherited. The G-d we learned about as youngsters, that distant, kingly figure who watched over us seemed, for women discovering their feminine consciousness, too blatantly male. In popular feminism, the G-d of the Hebrew Bible, of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition, has gotten a bad reputation as the patriarchal G-d of Western culture. Some turned to other religions in search of a G-d beyond gender or a philosophy that did not require a belief in G-d at all.

Is it true that G-d in Jewish teachings is patriarchal, that is, thoroughly imbued with male characteristics and values?

On first glance, it would seem so. After all, G-d appears to be male. The siddur (prayer book) and the Bible refer to G-d only as He. Traditional Jewish teachings point out that G-d is really beyond all attributes, including those of gender. But, feminist writers have argued, while that is a nice theory, we as human beings need to use symbols and words to express our experience of the Divine.

Can we not call G-d She? […]

Actually, there is nothing wrong with an individual's using feminine words for G-d to address her as mother or imagine oneself talking to an intimate female friend. For some individuals, this helps to develop a richer and more intimate relationship to G-d. We can also write and share our own interpretations of G-d's compassion, G-d's judgment, G-d's creative work in the world in feminine terms. This may help us to come to experience the fullness of G-d in our lives.

Changes in the Realm of Public Prayer

But this is not a full answer, for there is still the arena of public prayer, [for] which tradition insists that we should adhere to the established text of the siddur. Here many feminists are eager for changes in language and substance. Some Jewish organizations have rushed ahead to revise translations of the prayer book, eliminating gender references, sometimes eliminating portions of the prayers themselves.

We must say, first of all, that this does injustice to the Hebrew language itself, not to mention the centuries of prayer of the Jewish people, who cherished these words as the channels by which we might address G-d. The issue is not merely introducing some feminine language for our personal enrichment, but our relation to the whole of Jewish tradition and the whole Jewish people.

Nor is it only a matter of dutifully respecting the communal tradition. We are easily led astray here because of our cultural disposition to value individual self-expression. We tend to honor the tradition only so long as it feels authentic to us. But what this really means is that we do not well understand communal expression, so we tend to brush it aside.

We must ask: are there not some powerful reasons why our sages have, through the centuries, kept a certain kind of language for our address to G-d, and have been very careful about what comes to be included in our siddur?

Indeed there are.

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Dr. Tamar Frankiel

Dr. Tamar Frankiel is the Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Comparative Religion at the Academy for Jewish Religion in California. She taught the history of religions at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism.