Have you ever felt misunderstood? Mis-characterized? Mis-judged? Yeah, so that happens to all of us, and probably almost every day.
Do you think God has ever felt misunderstood? Well, if we accept for the moment the anthropomorphic projection of human feelings onto God, absolutely. (Let me say right up front here, and many of you know this already, but I have some fairly unorthodox ways of understanding God, so I will be the first to say that it is extraordinarily unlikely that God “feels” like humans do. We’ll come back to that.)
Earlier this month, the Church of England’s General Synod announced that they are currently evaluating ways of referring to God which reflect contemporary perspectives on gender. Now, for the Jews, this is nothing new or surprising. If you have been paying close attention, you might have noticed that the siddur/prayerbook we use here at Beth Shalom, Siddur Lev Shalem, avoids using gendered pronouns when referring to God in English, and avoids gendered terms such as “King,” “Lord,” and “Master,” instead using “Sovereign,” or leaving the Hebrew untranslated. I have tried to avoid gendered terms in English when referring to God. This was actually something I first heard my childhood rabbi, Rabbi Arthur Rulnick, do when I was in high school, all the way back in the 1980s.
But of course, the reality of Jewish text is that in Hebrew, the vast majority of references to God are undeniably masculine. And not only the names or descriptors for God, but every adjective, verb, pronoun including suffixes is gendered as well. And there are no gender-neutral forms in the Hebrew language. (The English use of “they” as a non-gendered pronoun does not work in Hebrew.)
Just as a quick example, consider the berakhah recited before engaging in the mitzvah of Torah study:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּ֒שָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ לַעֲסֹק בְּדִבְרֵי תוֹרָה:
Barukh Attah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha’olam, asher qiddeshanu bemitzvotav, vetzivanu la’asoq bedivrei Torah.
Praised are You, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to be engrossed in the words of Torah.
Of the 13 Hebrew words in that berakhah, seven of them, more than half, refer to God as masculine. Changing them to, for example, feminine language would require major surgery, and would be quite awkward. And no non-gendered terms exist. While we may choose to translate to English however we want, in Hebrew there is no getting around God’s apparent male-ness, at least as far as our ancestors understood God as they wrote these words.
And yet, despite the language, can we really think of God as masculine?
In the first Creation story of Bereshit / Genesis (1:27), when humans are created betzelem Elohim, in God’s image, they are created as “zakhar uneqevah” – male and female. There is even a midrash which describes the first human as having a male side and a female side, which were subsequently split apart (an idea also presented, by the way, in Plato’s Symposium in Aristophanes’ speech on the origin of love).
So if people were created in God’s image and as both male and female, we can only deduce that God certainly has male and female aspects as well, and therefore God can be considered neither entirely male nor entirely female, so neither feminine language nor masculine language accurately applies to the Qadosh Barukh Hu*, even if all three of those words are decidedly masculine.
As the Talmud mentions from time to time, “Dibberah Torah kilshon benei adam.” The Torah speaks in human language. Since our language is limited, and Hebrew has no neuter forms, the default for God became masculine. The human mind has this silly habit of wanting to compartmentalize, to categorize neatly. But God, unequivocally, cannot be put into any kind of box.
But one of the most marvelous things that I learned in rabbinical school from my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman z”l is that God language is by necessity metaphorical. God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm”? Metaphor. The noise God makes while walking through the Garden of Eden during the breezy time of the day (Bereshit / Genesis 3:8)? Clearly metaphor. God’s voice when “speaking” to Moshe at the beginning of Parashat Terumah (Shemot / Exodus 25:1)?
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
Vaydabber Adonai el Moshe lemor.
God spoke to Moses, saying…
This one is so metaphorical that the second verb, lemor, to say, reinforces the fact that God is not speaking in any conventional way. God is communicating with Moshe, but since God has no mouth as we understand mouths, the Torah adds the second verb lemor / “to say” to demonstrate that “vaydabber” / “speaking” does not actually mean speaking the way that humans speak.
Ein lo demur haguf, ve-eino guf, we sing cheerfully during Yigdal, which is a summary of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. God has neither the form of a body, nor any kind of physical body at all. Lo na’arokh elav qedushato – we cannot even estimate the extent of God’s non-physical holiness. It is unlimited, unfathomable, unconfined.
If all God language is metaphor, then clearly God’s gender is also metaphorical in addition to being limited by human language. In a conversation I had with Rabbi Rachel Adler, whom you heard in this space last week, I suggested that we could understand that God has no gender; she replied that God encompasses all genders.
And in her landmark book from 1998, Engendering Judaism, Rabbi Adler also speaks of the power of metaphor. Metaphor is ideal for tefillah / prayer because it is, she said, “complex, multi vocal, full of resonances, because it is the language of discovery and metamorphosis, the language that points toward the unknown, the language that lights up the darkness.” The metaphorical language we use for God leaves room for human creativity in interpretation. It creates a space for us.
And while wrestling with the challenges of masculine God-language and in particular the archaic nature of the ancient metaphors which we still use, she also concedes that these metaphors continue to hold their power because they point beyond themselves and are incomplete. “Incompleteness,” she writes, “preserves metaphor’s truthfulness; rhetorical processes that distort metaphor are those that hide or deny its incompleteness.”
In other words, the moment we understand the language as making God male, we have limited and thereby weakened God. The incomplete metaphor retains its mystery and its power.
By instead reaching out to God with our imagination, which transcends language, we are drawn closer. By leaving space in the metaphor, we can ascend higher.
I remember so clearly when Rabbi Gillman, speaking about the language of tefillah, distinguished the Conservative movement’s approach from that of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who created the first Reconstructionist siddur. Rabbi Kaplan simply changed the Hebrew in passages which challenged his theology, substituting for the second paragraph of the Shema, and the blessings over the Torah, and parts of Aleinu.
Rabbi Gillman characterized Rabbi Kaplan’s approach as, “If I don’t believe it, I don’t say it.”
And then he added, “I’m a liturgical traditionalist.” I’ll tinker with the translation instead. And that has been the Conservative movement’s philosophy regarding liturgy for nearly a century. Perhaps 97% of what we say in our tefillot here at Beth Shalom is exactly the same as what they say in Orthodox synagogues; where we differ more concretely is on the English side of the page, and in our hearts and minds.
What Rabbi Gillman taught, and Rabbi Rachel Adler also addresses, is that the ancient Hebrew has power, even when the literal translation does not work for us. But we use our imaginations to get to the place where those metaphors continue to function in our contemporary spiritual landscape.
And that is an essential message of Jewish life. What did we read about today in Parashat Terumah? That we must build a mishkan, a dwelling-place for God on Earth. And that metaphor is presented to us in the Torah in excruciating detail, spreading over five parashiyyot. And what will this mishkan do? It will enable the in-dwelling of God. Shemot / Exodus 25:8:
וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃
Ve’asu li miqdash, veshakhanti betokham.
Make Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among the Israelites.
More metaphor, of course.
And where is this mishkan today? Where is the Temple, the Beit HaMiqdash today? Where are the sacrifices that much of this central part of the Torah reference? We build it inside ourselves, and that is where God dwells.
Even in its great detail, the idea of the mishkan is fundamentally incomplete in the Torah.
It described a place for worship, but did not capture the entire range of how we can understand the mishkan and the sacrificial mode of worship. Parashat Terumah speaks, silently and with no physical mouth, about the way we worship today; about prayer and synagogues and moments of silence and joyous singing and wailing grief and beating our chests and prostrating ourselves and all the imaginative ways in which we reach toward God.
We have dramatically changed the mode of worship, but we are still within the Torah’s metaphor of the mishkan. And we see this over and over in rabbinic Judaism: re-imagining the Torah’s language so that it applies to us here and now, wherever “here and now” has been throughout Jewish history.
In reading these passages, we must concede that our ancestors have re-imagined so much in Jewish life. And we continue to re-imagine God, the God in whose image we are all created, the God who cannot be limited to a body, or a single gender. The mystery is more powerful when we lean into our imaginations, and do not toil in the mundanities of inadequate human language. How dare we even think that masculine terms for God can limit the Qadosh Barukh Hu to such a narrow understanding of masculinity?
Our intellect and creativity must be greater than that. Human language is limited; but metaphors leave space for all of us to be seen within. God encompasses all genders.
So is God misunderstood? Clearly. But in not entirely understanding God, we leave room for an inestimable holiness, one which is only limited by our imagination. It is in that realm, and beyond in the infinite, where God dwells.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/25/2023.)
* הקדוש ברום הוא/ haQadosh Barukh Hu, a term for God, literally means, “The Holy One, Blessed be He.” Both qadosh and barukh are also male-gendered terms. Some translate this term as “the Holy, Blessed One.”