God and gender in Judaism

Matthew Berke writes:

If “the universe and its processes are ‘birthed’ by the deity,” Rabbi Reimers argues, then nature and its cycles are “held to be an expression of the divine will.” In such a cosmology, good and evil lose all meaning, everything being good in its proper time. Suffering and death no less than flourishing and life are to be regarded as “necessary stations on the great wheel of existence.” In a “birthed” universe, moreover, “human beings are not qualitatively different from anything else that exists. They share in the divine essence, as children of the goddess, but only to the same extent that everything else does.

Rabbi Reimers contrasts the “inherent pantheism of goddess religion, rooted in the birth metaphor,” with Jewish monotheism, which “is rooted in the creation metaphor of Genesis.” In Judaism, nature and humanity emerge not as part of an undifferentiated birth of the universe, but through discrete acts of creation in which all things are appointed a place in the hierarchy of the world. Good and evil, right and wrong, are known not by reference to nature’s processes, impulses, and vitalities, but through the words and commandments of a transcendent God. Because God is not identified with the cycles of natural recurrence, but with unique revelations and mighty acts-especially the Covenant-time is given meaning by progressive development, and history is imbued with direction and purpose. Human beings are not permitted to view themselves or their impulses as divine; they are to understand themselves, rather, as creatures made “in the image and likeness of God,” with a dignity and worth above the rest of nature, and with free will to act according to transcendent laws concerning good and evil.

The Father-God metaphor, then, while revealing certain limits and imperfections of human language and understanding, provides a better symbolization than motherhood of the sense of distance in the divine-human relationship and is less likely therefore to invite a pantheistic cosmology. As Rabbi Reimers explains, “Those who want to use God/She language want to affirm womanhood and the feminine aspect of the deity. They do this by emphasizing that which most clearly distinguishes the female experience from the male. A male or female deity can create through speech or through action, but the metaphor for creation which is uniquely feminine is birth. Once God is called female, then, the metaphor of birth and the identification of the deity with nature and its processes become inevitable.”

Her last point is not a matter of mere conjecture or speculation: in ancient times female deities were in fact seen as having given birth to the world, with nature-worship following almost invariably. Today, too, feminist theology regularly falls back upon the birth metaphor, and, not surprisingly, often lapses into a pantheistic worldview as well (often under the guise of “deep ecology”).

In sum, according to Rabbi Reimers, “the composers and compilers of those [biblical and rabbinic] texts knew that the deity could be understood as female; many of the peoples among whom they lived worshiped goddesses” (and, she might have added, their societies were male-dominated all the same). “Our ancient teachers” used masculine language for God not so much as an expression of chauvinism as a means to prevent the “introduction of alien theological ideas into the heart of monotheistic religion.”

– Excerpted from “God and Gender in Judaism” by Matthew Berke

He is quoting from  Rabbi Paula Reimers, “Feminism, Judaism, and God the Mother”, Conservative Judaism, Fall 1993.

 

God and Gender in Judaism

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