God: Some Feminist Questions

Why female pronouns for God may not be enough.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma (17/325), January 9, 1987.

An extraordinary passage in Pesikta Rabbati (21.6) describes the many guises in which the one God has appeared to the children of Israel. God spoke to the Israelites on Mount Sinai not "face to face" (Deuteronomy 5:4) but "face after face." "To one he appeared standing, and to one seated; to one as a young man and to one as an old man." Showing them a plurality of aspects, each appropriate to some part of the divine message, God revealed a threatening face and a severe face, an angry face and a joyous face, a laughing face and a friendly face.

 

This midrash at once points the way out of the feminist dilemma of God-language and simultaneously illustrates its most trying aspect. It acknowledges the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, of plural ways of perceiving and speaking about the one God. It asserts that multiple images of God are not contradictions of monotheism but ways in which limited human beings apprehend and respond to the all-embracing divine reality. And yet, while the passage authorizes theological and liturgical inventiveness, the many faces of God it describes are only male ones. God is an old man or a young man, a man of war or a man of wisdom, but never a woman.

This unyielding maleness of the dominant Jewish image of God is not the end of the feminist critique of God-language, but it is its beginning. The absence of female metaphors for God witnesses to and perpetuates the devaluation of femaleness in the Jewish tradition. The God-language of a religious community is drawn from the qualities and roles the community most values, and exclusively male imagery exalts and upholds maleness as the human standard. It belies the biblical insight that God created human beings, male and female, in God's image. It denigrates women's lives and experiences as resources for knowing the sacred.

Transforming Meaning, Not Just Old Terms

As this language has become increasingly alienating to large numbers of women, those committed to shaping a living Jewish spirituality and theology have looked for ways to change it. They have sought a richer and wider range of images for speaking about and to the sacred. The Pesikta Rabbati passage seems to suggest that of those who saw God on Sinai "face after face," it was only the men who recorded and passed down their experiences. Feminists have taken on the task of recovering and forging a female language for God, female not simply in its metaphors but in its mode of religious apprehension and expression.

But if feminist attempts to find a new vocabulary for God began in the concern with gender, they have not resulted in a uniform response to the oppressiveness of traditional language. Rather feminist explorations of God-language have gradually opened up deeper dimensions of the problem of God. Early feminist efforts to make God a mother and give her a womb, to praise her as birthgiver and nourisher, performed important functions. They validated women's sexuality and power as part of the sacred. They pressed worshippers to confront the maleness of a supposedly sex-neutral liturgy. Yet at the same time, these efforts often left intact images of dominance and power that were still deeply troubling. If the hand that drowned the Egyptians in the Red Sea was a female hand, did that make it any more a hand feminists wanted to worship?

The issue of the maleness of God-language has thus ineluctably moved to the question of the nature of the God feminists want to pray to. Where do Jewish women find God in our experience, and what do we find there? What images most powerfully evoke and express the reality of God in our lives?

The Guises of the Empowering Other

While these questions lend themselves to unanimity even less than the issue of gender, there is a theme that seems to sound strongly through a range of feminist discussions of God-language: the need to articulate a new understanding of divine power. If the traditional God is a deity outside and above humanity, exercising power over us, women's coming to power in community has generated a counter-image of the power of God as empowerment. Many Jewish feminist arguments about and experiments with God-language can be understood to revolve around the issue of how to express this new image and experience of power in a way that is Jewishly/feministly authentic.

For some Jewish feminists, for example, it is non-personal imagery for God that most effectively captures a conception of divine power as that which moves through everything. Metaphors for God as source and fountain of life evoke the deity that is the wellspring of our action without tying us to gendered language that channels and confines. For other feminists, the question of divine power lends new interest to the continuing debate about viability of the image of Shekhinah in a feminist Judaism. This image, which at first seemed to promise such a clear Jewish way to incorporate female language into theology and liturgy, also has been resisted by many feminists as part of a system that links femaleness to immanence, physicality, and evil. In the context of the quest for new metaphors for power, however, this image of deity provides an interesting resource for feminist thinking about a God who dwells in the world and in the power of human relation.

For still other feminists, it is incorporation of the names of goddesses into feminist liturgy that best conveys multiple images of female power, images that may have had power to our foremothers and that thus connect us in community to them. Use of these images does not constitute polytheism any more than do the multiple images of Pesikta Rabbati. Rather, these images fill out the traditional record, exploring and recovering faces of God that have been forgotten or expunged.

The Old/New Search for the Ineffable

These forays into new imagery are experimental and tentative, and there are many Jews for whom some or all of them will seem shocking or foreign. Yet if we attend to the roots and intention of these lively experiments, we can find in feminist experience a potentially powerful resource for the revivification of Jewish religious language. The feminist experience is one of finding in community both a sense of personal identity and power, and the power and knowledge of God. This experience may not be so different from that of the early Israelites who found together in community both a new national identity and connection with the God who gave it.

From a feminist perspective, the problem with traditional Jewish God-language is that the initial experience of empowered community found expression in images that established hierarchy within the Jewish community and that marginalized or excluded half of its members. The challenge to women as we seek to name the God we have experienced "face after face," is to find a language that carries through the experience of divine power in community and that evokes the living presence of God in the whole Jewish people.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Judith Plaskow

Judith Plaskow is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. She is the author of the landmark work Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, and has written and edited a number of other volumes on the topics of contemporary religious thought and feminist theology.