Women have won a record number of primaries this summer, which has “led to more focus on the underrepresentation of women in public office.” Although there are many factors contributing to this problem, I wonder if God is partially to blame. Not God, per se, but the way we conceive of and talk about God.
The “default” approach, found in most translations of the Bible and in most prayer books, refers to God in the masculine. When we describe God using male pronouns, we learn to associate positions of power with maleness.
So, as the high holidays draw near, when conversation about God spikes, I think it’s worth asking: what pronoun should we be using to describe Him / Her / It / God / Them?
Below is a brief analysis of three alternatives to using male pronouns for God.
1) Use female pronouns for God.
Let’s call this the “Ariana Grande approach,” inspired by her latest single, “God is a woman” – from her upcoming album “Sweetener”, set for release this Friday.
This concept of a feminine God has roots in traditional Judaism. Although God in the Hebrew Bible is predominantly described using masculine imagery and pronouns, there are several instances where feminine imagery and pronouns are used. As Professor Marc Brettler writes, “the Bible speaks with multiple voices and holds differing conceptions of God.” Centuries later, Jewish mystics explained God as containing both masculine (the Holy One) and feminine (the Shechina) aspects. In theory, then, it’s no better or worse to refer to God as “She” than it is to refer to God as “He”, since both are incomplete approximations of the divine.
Still, referring to God as “She” may be distracting. According to Miriam Webster, “he” can be “used in a generic sense or when the sex of the person is unspecified.” While this itself reflects the privileging of male over female in the English language, the result is that referring to God as “She” draws more attention to God’s “gender” and can distract from the subject, God.
There’s also the danger or reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes by referring to God as “She” only in a nurturing or caring context.
But these concerns may be outweighed by the significant downside of using exclusively male pronouns for God, articulated by Professor Judith Plaskow:
“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 values, and exclusively male imagery exalts and upholds maleness as the human standard.”
When femininity isn’t represented in the divine, it is harder for women to be seen as equally valued and important. And the opposite is also true.
As Rabbi Rebecca Alpert writes in her 1991 article “What Gender is God?”: “To think of God as a woman like myself, to see Her as both powerful and nurturing, to see Her imaged with a woman’s body, with womb, with breasts—this was an experience of ultimate significance. Was this the relationship that men have had with God for all these millennia? How wonderful to gain access to those feelings and perceptions.”
Describing God in feminine language, while potentially jarring, might be an effective way to elevate the role and status of women and femininity.
Option 2) Abolish all pronouns when referring to God
This approach prevents us from assigning gender to a genderless being. But, while transcending gender may technically be the most accurate way to speak about God, it can be linguistically challenging, as Rabbi Harold Kushner explains in “Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life”:
“To speak of God as “He” misrepresents what I believe, but I am a prisoner of the English language, which lacks a neutral pronoun. (I refuse to speak of God as “it.”)… I’m not about to write a sentence like, “Here God tells God’s people that God will punish them if they reject God’s demands.”” (p. 18-20)
The use of genderless pronouns can also make God feel less personal and thus harder to relate to. This, according to Maimonides, is precisely why the Hebrew Bible uses anthropomorphic language to describe God:
“… because the multitude of people do not easily conceive existence unless in connection with a body, and that which is not a body nor connected with a body has for them no existence.”
Nevertheless, avoiding gendered pronouns may be the best way to disentangle God, and, by extension, conceptions of authority, from destructive affiliations with a particular gender.
Option 3) Use the singular “they”
Using a traditionally plural pronoun to describe Judaism’s monotheistic God might seem strange and confusing. Yet, thanks to a growing sensitivity towards the way we speak about genderqueer folks, the word “they” is increasingly being used as a nonbinary, singular pronoun. Using this pronoun for God could help us accustom ourselves to this important shift in language, and, in turn, help us speak about God in non-gendered terms.
After all, the first human – made in the image of God – is referred to as “them” (Genesis 1:27). Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman understands this to mean that the original human was androgynous (Genesis Rabbah 8:1). So, referring to God as “they” accurately conveys the androgynous nature of God, who, like the first human, is of indeterminate gender.
Some final thoughts
Yes, changing the way we speak about God can feel daunting. So much of our tradition uses gendered God language. Some may fear that this type of change is a slippery slope and could dismantle our entire tradition.
There’s another way to look at it, though.
Maybe these changes can be viewed as progress, moving us away from a flawed conception of God as “masculine.” Maybe these changes can bring us closer to the fulfillment of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below…” (Exodus 20:4).
And perhaps this shift will “trickle down” and promote greater gender equality among humans, too. God created the world with speech; Jews believe that language matters. The gendered language we use to talk about God affects the way we think about God and the way we think about leadership and even worth. As we head forth into the Jewish New Year, this might be one small way we can help promote greater equality in our communities and the larger world.