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Shoftim 5782 - God Beyond Gender

Saturday, September 3, 2022

In a Midrash from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, God appears at Mount Sinai as exactly what and whom each person in the crowd needs to see. That way, when God says, “I am Adonai your God (Exodus 20:2)” - אנכי ה׳ אלהיך, each person knows that God is speaking directly to them.

As Cadence Dodson taught us at her bat mitzvah last year, each of us has the opportunity to hold the image or sound of God that resonates most with us. No matter what translations we recited growing up, our conceptions of God transcend gender. No matter how many times we hear “The Lord is my shepherd” and “He makes me lie down in green pastures,” God is not explicitly male, in the same way that God is not only a shepherd. 

In recent decades, siddurim and mahzorim have begun to demonstrate the genderless nature of our God. While the siddur we use for Shabbat, Siddur Sim Shalom uses He in its translations, it strays from the gendered English word “Lord” and says the Hebrew “Adonai” instead. Siddur Eit Ratzon (the red Shabbat siddur), Mahzor Lev Shalom, the mahzor we use for the High Holy Days, and all of their associated publications use the word “God” instead of He. For reference, Siddur Sim Shalom was first published in 1985, Siddur Eit Ratzon was published in 2006, and Mahzor Lev Shalem was published in 2010. As more and more people who identify as a gender other than male have been welcomed into Jewish prayer space, our prayer books have been responding to their needs. In communal settings and beyond, in order to remind us all that we have the same access to the Divine, we must make it a priority to expand beyond male-gendered language for God.

As far back as our Torah, we have referred to a God without grammatical gender. Like Spanish, traditional Hebrew communicates using two genders - female and neutral. Yes, the neutral contains male, but also, other genders as well. (As a side note, the Hebrew Nonbinary Project is currently developing a third gender of Hebrew pronouns and verb conjugation to avoid the often incorrect assumption of masculinity that comes with the gender-neutral.) One example of the divide between feminine and neutral is how we refer to “them” in Hebrew. A group of men is referred to with the same pronouns as a group of people or objects of unknown or mixed gender - הם or אותם. When saying a word like “it”, without knowing the gender of the noun to which “it” refers, Hebrew uses the neutral words אותו or הוא. This is the same word used for “he” or “him”, and it is the same word used to refer to God by pronoun. While it is not incorrect to translate הוא or אותו as “he” or “him,” such a translation is not broad enough, grammatically or theologically, to capture what we mean when we say “God.” With the gender neutrality of God’s pronoun in mind, in prayer and study, our newest prayer books translate those words הוא and אותו simply as “God,” rather than “he/she,” “him/her,” or the even less attractive “it.”

Beyond pronouns, our next syntactical road block comes with the word Adonai. Despite the grammatical reality that אדון does not necessarily mean a male, our most direct translation for our widely used name of God is “my Lord.” As we don’t have an ungendered English translation for “my Lord” or “my Lady,” our modern prayer books simply say “Adonai” when we come to God’s name. Remember that even “Adonai” does not capture the complexity of God’s name. Rather, “Adonai” is a replacement for the unpronounceable four-letter combination that makes up the holy Name. Those four letters themselves, in different combinations and with different vowels, make up different conjugations of the verb “to be.” God is neither a fixed male nor a fixed female, but truly, a universal force of Being.

When we venture past the four-letter name of God, we come to words like “av” and “melekh,” often translated as “father” and “king.” Just as accurately, we could translate these words as “parent,” “sovereign,” and “ruler.” So, too, when God created us in God’s image in the book of Genesis, God created both male and female, with ancient midrashim positing that that first human being was both and neither.

As we begin to speak about God using different language, gender-neutral words may sound awkward at first. We are used to hearing Psalm 23 recited a certain way, and the text in front of our face may call out “He,” “Him,” or “the Lord.” However, when we start replacing “He” with “God,” we start opening up the ways in which we can visualize, hear, and communicate with God. Unless such an image is comforting and helpful to you, God does not have to be a man in the sky looking down; God can be an indescribable Presence, a whispering voice, or raging thunder  - all genderless images that appear in our Tanakh. And of course, as Cadence reminded us last year, when we need personal guidance, we can visualize or hear God in the form of a trusted parent, friend, or teacher.

Tomorrow morning, we will recite Psalm 8, in which we will remind ourselves that we as human beings were made just barely less than gods ourselves. With such a statement, we prepare the potential for the new Baby Orillion to grasp her infinite Divine Creativity and strength. When we shape our God language to encompass the dreams of children like her, we allow her to dream big about who she can become. We give her greater access to communicate with a God to whom she truly can connect. When we are at home, each of us has the opportunity to translate God and God’s name using the language we need, even if that language changes every day, at every moment. In community, we must stay aware of the diversity of people listening; in community, we translate God as expansively as we can - as “God,” “Adonai,” “Parent,” and “Sovereign.” Through our language, we ensure that every person in the room knows their own Divine potential and worth. Shabbat Shalom

Fri, January 27 2023 5 Shevat 5783