I am a female rabbi. I am a feminist. I don’t believe that God is a man with a beard sitting on a throne. When I read an English translation in the siddur (Jewish prayer book) that uses a masculine pronoun, I (almost) always change the wording to eliminate the pronoun, as long as I can make it fit into the structure of the sentence. Yet, I still find it nearly impossible to refer to God using a feminine pronoun. (I’m still not very comfortable wearing a kippah either, but that’s for another post). I regrettably have to admit that more often than not, I use the pronoun “he” when talking about God. I am especially sad to admit that I fall into this habit when teaching.
Try as I might to take the gendered language out of my God-talk, or to at least balance it by alternating, I find these approaches cumbersome and awkward. Most of all, I find them dissatisfying because they feel incomplete.
From an intellectual and spiritual standpoint, the God in which I believe has no specific gender. God is everything. God transcends gender. God is transcendent. Yet, on a visceral level, God is an “other,” a “thou,” an immanently real presence in my life. The lack of an appropriate pronoun for God makes it difficult to verbalize that intimate relationship. When I talk about God without a pronoun, it feels as though I am exiling God to a space beyond my verbal grasp. It works okay for an intellectual conversation about God, but fails miserably as an approach to bringing others into conversation with God.
This is not a new problem, however, I think there may be a new solution. Perhaps one day we will realize that we owe a great debt to the transgender community for introducing the concept of a third gender pronoun or multiple gender pronouns into our vocabulary, not only for the sake of creating language that better affirms the complexity of gender in human beings, but also for transforming our theological language to better reflect the complexity of our relationship to God.
Recently I have read a number of articles about introducing more inclusive pronouns into our English vocabulary. One popular suggestion at the moment involves the singularization of the word “they” to refer to someone who does not identify with one of the gender binaries. While some have argued against this on the basis of its grammatical incorrectness, others say that it wouldn’t be the first time that a pronoun has taken on a different meaning. Some proposed words haven’t caught on quite as well, such as “xe” or “ze” as a third, non-binary gender pronoun. I am encouraged by the recent developments not only in English, but in other languages. According to Bitch Magazine: “Earlier this month Sweden’s online National Encyclopedia adopted the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” in addition to “he” [han] and “she” [hon].” I recently discussed this with a friend who is living in Israel and we lamented that, unfortunately, given the way gender works within the structure of Hebrew grammar, this kind of transformation will inevitably take much longer to develop in our holy tongue.
Undoubtedly, we will soon have a commonly accepted pronoun in our vernacular which will defy the gender binary and allow us not only to talk about God differently but even to imagine God in a more expansive way. Then, perhaps we can teach the next generation a concept of God that does not favor one gender over the other. Perhaps we can avoid inculcating them with that indelible image of a man with a beard on a throne. Maybe my children, or at least my grandchildren, will be able to have an intimate relationship with God that does not require subjugating their intellectual understanding of God nor ignoring their feminist ideals.
Lastly, I believe eliminating the gender-binary in our thinking about God will have a positive impact on the health of our theology. It will free us up to stop thinking of God in binaries in general. Rather than oscillating between the extremes of God as judgmental, exacting and punishing vs. all-loving, compassionate and forgiving, we will be able to relate to God more holistically. Instead of looking to God as a solution to our problems or an entity to blame them on, perhaps we will be more able to embrace the contradictions, the complexity and the unknowable parts of God. I hope that instead of worrying so much about how to talk about God, we will focus more on having intimate and personal conversations with God.