What does it mean to say that God has male or female characteristics?

A visual essay, under development.

Is God male, or female? Or perhaps some combination of the two?  An English speaker, depending on English translations, often assumes that God is male. Consider Psalm 95, recited every Friday night at Kabbalat Shabbat.

Come, let us sing joyously to the LORD, raise a shout for our rock and deliverer;
let us come into His presence with praise; let us raise a shout for Him in song!
For the LORD is a great God, the great king of all divine beings.
In His hand are the depths of the earth; the peaks of the mountains are His.
His is the sea, He made it; and the land, which His hands fashioned.

Relying only on that English translation, some readers imagine that Judaism teaches that God is male. After, all, the text says “Him” and “He.”

But does Judaism really teach us that we should develop theology by using Christian English translations?

Compounding this issue, we live in a world filled with Christian-influenced art. Consider classical religious paintings and sculpture. These depict God as being literally male. Not surprising, as in Christian theology Jesus is one part of the Trinity, and is explicitly a man.

As such, many Jewish people living in Christian nations subconsciously think of God as something like this: an old, white man with grey hair, as painted by Michelangelo.

Creation of Adam (by God) Michelangelo Sistine Chapel Wikimedia
The Creation of Adam (Italian: Creazione di Adamo) by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

Unless one is totally closed off from secular culture, one can’t escape this imprinting.

Those of us of a certain age recall God as portrayed by George Burns in the movie “Oh, God!” (1977)

oh god - cinema quad movie poster (1).jpg

Those of us who are a bit younger remember Morgan Freeman as a male God in the movie Bruce Almighty, 2003.

Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman God

And no Jewish Monty Python fan can forget the image of God from Monty Python and Holy Grail. (By the way, this is actually the face of William Gilbert “W. G.” Grace, one of the founders of modern cricket!)

God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Vision of God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Both within and outside the Jewish community modern thinkers have become aware of this tendency.

As a course-correction to this trope, film-maker Kevin Smith cast Alanis Morissette as God, and Alan Rickman as Metatron, מֶטָטְרוֹן , the angel acting as the voice of God, in his 1999 film Dogma.

alanis morissette alan rickman God and Metatron Dogma
Alanis Morissette as God and Alan Rickman as Metatron in Dogma.

So this is where many people are at today. Due to cultural imprinting by English translations and (admittedly well-crafted) classical paintings, and much of today’s pop culture, many folks develop the mistaken belief that Jews view God as male.

Some people then decide that the (supposed) Jewish view of God needs to be “corrected” or “reconstructed.” This has resulted in Reform and Renewal translations that portray God as female, or as a combination of female and male.

Advocates of this approach correctly note there are references to God with grammatically feminine names:

Judaism sometimes refers to God as Rachum, which refers to the womb.

And in mysticism, the name Shekinah is used to refer to what is called the feminine aspect of God’s nature.

However, is that female counterbalance necessary or ideal? People may want to pause and consider that rabbinic Judaism never taught that God was male or female to begin with.  According to Judaism, God is not a person, and is neither male for female.

Historians and psychologists show that it is natural for humans to envision God as just a more powerful version of themselves.

Consider, how did the ancient Norse, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans envision their deities? As humans writ large.

Greek and Roman deities gods

In the Torah there certainly are many anthropomorphic descriptions of God, but

(a) the Torah is clearly writing with metaphors and poetic allusions

(b) the Torah itself says that even a prophet as great as Moses can’t actually understand God’s nature, let alone perceive God as a man or woman. Exodus 33 says

And the LORD said, “See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”

Clearly, God isn’t something that can be seen by a human, let alone be understood as something with a gender.

(c) the Torah isn’t the totality of our Bible. Consider for instance the prophecy of Ezekiel. Not only does he not describe what God looks like, Ezekiel only describes an appearance, of a semblance, or a presence. Certainly not a gendered view of God!

Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne,… and on top… there was the semblance of a human form. From what appeared as his loins up, I saw a gleam as of amber – what looked like a fire encased in a frame; and from what appeared as loins down I saw what looked like fire. There was a radiance all about.

Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the LORD.

Ezekiel's vision of the chariot throne by Vincenzo Maria Coronelli
I believe that this is by Vincenzo Maria Coronelli (1650 – 1718) , Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot-Throne, Haec est visio similitudinis gloriae dei quam vidit Ezechiel in curru cherubim

 

One should also consider that Judaism was never based on a literalist reading of the Bible. Rather, Jews believe that the Torah developed in a certain place and time: it had a context! This context, in broad form, is what we call Torah she’be’al peh תורה שבעל פה – The oral law.

Let’s look at some of the crucial texts. For instance, what does it mean when we say that God is melekh (מלך) “Lord,” or “Avinu Malkeinu ( אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ ) “Our Father, Our King?” Both of these terms are grammatically masculine.

What’s interesting is that both neo-pagans and some Jewish renewal adherents imagine that God is male, white, and anthropomorphic.

Yet the actual rabbinic Jewish image of God, among the vast majority of classical commentators, among kabbalists, and also among philosophical rationalists, is that God is not male, female, and in fact is non-anthropomorphic.

Here’s the situation: let’s learn some deep Jewish theology, including classical commentators, the philosophical rationalists, and the mystics who speak of God as Ein Sof, אין סוף ,the ultimate reality. [You, the reader, now presumably spends much time studying such texts.]

Now picture God based on all that we have learned. God isn’t male, or female, or even anthropomorphic. No body, no matter, and no size.  Got that? Now what image do you have in your mind?

Yup, this photo shows the basic difficulty of a person thinking about a non anthropomorphic deity.

God can't be seen drawn visualized

If you have a background in math, you might begin to think of God as the origin of all, but if you try to create an image, how would one do so? Perhaps show an empty X Y Z axis?

cartesian coordinate axes XYZ

Or perhaps we might think of God as a plot reaching out to infinity, or as a singularity?

singularity

How would kabbalists visualize God?

Kabbalah Sefirot Tree
he Zohar: Pritzker Edition

How would Aryeh Kaplan, a physicists and a kabbalist, visualize God?

tba – this section will describe the concept of forces, in physics, and the concept of the unification of force. This is an analogy to the kabbalistic idea of the sephirot and Ein Sof.

Electromagnetic weak nuclear forces unify Physics Unification
image from researchgate.net/ publication/ 281012346 International_Linear Collider Reference Design Report

or

unification Forces of nature

So how do we respond to new translations, or even new Hebrew names of God, from Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism?  Some of these prayers refer to God as a woman, or in the feminine, others alternate female and male images of God. Some Reform writers have recently claimed that Jewish women “need” to view God as a female in order to feel close to God.

We don’t need to imagine that God is literally in our image, sharing even our genitals, to have a meaningful spiritual experience. Men don’t need to picture God as male nor do women need to picture God as female. In fact, that’s literally one part of the classical definition of paganism.

Psychologically, such responses are understandable. Most people can’t help but create God in our own image.

My friend Stan, a native Russian speaker, observes:

Another, and the likeliest explanation is that the people who are making God into a woman simply don’t have the perspective of a true multilingual person who was exposed to the reality of syntactic gender. They think literally that some maleness is attributable to a Russian table or a stone or that femaleness is attributable to a Russian spoon. This is similar to how the Greek language created a biblical verse: “A virgin will conceive …”. So such Jews are following in the ancient footsteps of a Christian tradition.

We of course shouldn’t condemn folks for having that understandable emotional responses. But the point of becoming literate in Judaism is that we need to move beyond this. Sexualized images of God need to be left behind with the images of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians.

Let’s offer an analogy: The same is true when we speak of physics. Nothing could be more natural for folks than to perceive ourselves at the center of the universe. To feel as if the stars and sun revolve around us. We imagine that we are literal physical center of all creation.

Yet the point of physics isn’t to validate one’s emotional gut feelings, but to use our intellect to fully understand the universe as it really is. Earth, we discover, is not the center of the universe, even our galaxy is not the center of the universe.

As modern physics is to ancient conceptions of the world, Judaism is to ancient polytheistic beliefs. Judaism is a theological Copernican revolution.

So now let’s get back to Psalm 95, the text we started with at the beginning of this essay. With our new insight, reading iin the original Hebrew, we see that it is about God as God, not about God as a male. It’s theology is not related to gender! If we do have to use English, we now have options:

If using an old-fashioned, gendered translation, just take  realize that the Jewish Hebrew understanding is what matters, not the neo-Christian literalist misreading of it. Or use a gender-sensitive translation; this is the approach of the Siddur Sim Shalom series.

Come, let us sing joyously to Adonai, raise a shout for our rock and deliverer;
let us come into God’s presence with praise; let us raise a shout for God in song!
For Adonai is a great God, the great sovereign of all divine beings.
In God’s hand are the depths of the earth; the peaks of the mountains are his.
God’s is the sea, God made it; and the land, which his hands fashioned.

_______________________________

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