God, gender and translation issues

“G-d has no body, no genitalia, therefore the very idea that G-d is male or female is patently absurd. Although in the Talmudic part of the Torah and especially in Kabalah G-d is referred to under the name ‘Sh’chinah’ – which is feminine, this is only to accentuate the fact that all the creation and nature are actually in the receiving end in reference to the creator – and as no part of the creation can perceive the Creator outside of nature, it is adequate to refer to the divine presence in feminine form. We refer to G-d using masculine terms simply for convenience’s sake, because Hebrew has no neutral gender; G-d is no more male than a table is.”

– Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Aryeh Kaplan Reader

Hebrew names for God are usually grammatically masculine, only a few are feminine.  How should one translate those names?

In paragraphs where a name appears more than once, proper English writing says that we use the proper name only once, and then  a third person pronoun (he, she or it) for the rest of the paragraph.  But what third person pronoun should one use for God? English speakers use masculine or feminine third person pronouns to refer to people, and the third person pronoun – “it” – to refer to non-people. Thus, traditionally,  “He” has been used to refer to God in English translations.  English uses “he” as a gender-neutral, third person pronoun.

However, Jewish theology teaches that God is not male, so thinking about God using English translations have an unintended effect of describing God as male. Describing God with almost exclusively male translations, and prayerbooks filled with “King”, “He”, and “Him” have an unwanted effect. This may even reinforce cultural norms where women have less rights then men.

The idea of God being an “It” rather than a “he” or “she” does have some support in Jewish rationalist medieval thought, based on neo-Aristotelian philosophy. Some medieval philosophers took great pains to make clear that God was in no way like a person, and that all descriptions of God were only metaphors. However, many parts of Jewish theology hold that God has a personal relationship with humanity, and most Jews feel uncomfortable calling God an “it”. So how do we translate Jewish prayers into English?

It should be noted that Hebrew is a gendered language. Rabbi Rahmiel Travitz writes:

Even the word ”it” in Hebrew uses the same words as ”he” and ”she”! They switch according to whether the nouns they are connected to are feminine or masculine. And there are places in Tanakh where God is referred to using the feminine. Also, in Birkat haMazon. That is the biggest proof that God is gender neutral too – the words connected to God change according to context. Sometimes, for instance ”lekha” (”to you”, masculine), sometimes ”lakh” (”to you”, feminine.)

Note that there are many references to God with feminine names: We sometimes refer to God as Rachum, which is feminine, which refers to the womb. Shekinah is used in mysticism to refer a feminine aspect of God’s nature.



People in the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism have become sensitive to this issue. Several solutions have been developed for translations in our siddurim (prayer books.)

  • Translating God as both “He” and “She”. A few experimental prayerbooks by Reconstructionist Jewish feminists have tried alternating “he” and “she”. This approach has failed to win widespread approval; critics say that this gives the appearance of dualism or goddess worship.
  • Rewriting all prayers in the second person, only using the term “You”. A few experimental prayerbooks by Reconstructionist Jewish feminists have tried this, but this approach has failed to win widespread approval or use.
  • Gender-neutral translation involves rewriting prayers to remove all third-person pronouns. Sometimes this involves changing sentence and paragraph structure. This approach has been adopted by the editors of all new Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish prayerbooks, and some Conservative prayerbooks.  Conservative Judaism’s Siddur Sim Shalom series has rejected this approach, because there are many cases where no such changes are possible without totally rewriting the sentence, thereby moving the English far from the Hebrew structure.
  • Gender-sensitive translation. This approach is a modified form of the above. In this approach, one rewrites most sentences to remove third-person pronouns, but occasionally the pronoun “he” is allowed in order to preserve readability and the original sentence structure. This is the approach taken by Conservative Judaism in the four most recent editions of the Siddur Sim Shalom prayerbook family.
  • Some liturgists groups have created a new pronoun: God (subject or object), God’s (possessive), Godself (reflexive).

Here is an example of a traditional translation of Psalm 24, excerpted from Siddur Sim Shalom, a Conservative siddur. (Ed. Jules Harlow)

Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays

A Psalm of David.
The Earth belongs to the Lord, and all it contains; the world and its inhabitants.
He founded it upon the seas, and set it firm upon flowing waters.
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may rise in His sanctuary?
One who has a clean hand and a pure heart, who has not used God’s name in false oaths, who has not sworn deceitfully.
he shall receive a blessing from the God of his deliverance.

A modern gender-sensitive translation of Psalm 24 now appears in the revised editions of Siddur Sim Shalom.

A Psalm of David.
The Earth and its grandeur belong to Adonai; the world and its inhabitants.
God founded it upon the seas, and set it firm upon flowing waters.
Who may ascend the mountain of Adonai? Who may rise in God’s sanctuary?
One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not used God’s name in false oaths, who has not sworn deceitfully.
shall receive a blessing from Adonai, a just reward from the God of deliverance.

^ The above text article comes from an early version (2005) of the Wikipedia article on ‘God and Gender. Later editions became the subject of editing wars between religious fundamentalists, students, and others. What is presented here has been edited with an eye towards academic honesty and linguistic clarity.

What is grammatical gender? Where did this concept originate?

The following was written by Andrew Livingston on Nov 26, 2013 on the website “What The French?”  Ask a Linguist: Why do languages have grammatical gender?

One of the most fundamental of these gripes is about French’s grammatical masculine/feminine distinction; the argument goes something like this: “Giving nouns genders is arbitrary (OK, most whiners don’t use the word ‘arbitrary’, but that’s what they mean) and requires effort without serving any apparent purpose.” Actually, that usually just comes out as, “Waaah, learning genders is hard.” Just observing that isn’t particularly admirable, but then some students ask this question: “Why would that even exist in a language?”

It’s interesting enough to be worth a discussion, I think. Why does French make use of an arbitrary distinction between masculine and feminine nouns, when doing so appears to give no benefit to speakers and is cognitively costly for learners?

Before we can look at some possible explanations, let’s talk linguistic typology (please? this is my favorite stuff¹).

First: grammatical gender is different from natural gender. Natural gender describes actual gender distinctions in living beings, like humans or lizards or whatever. English makes some distinctions of natural gender (here are some examples on Wikipedia). Grammatical gender is part of a broader phenomenon of noun classes which exist in many of the world’s languages.

Noun classes divide up a language’s nouns into groups, often with different agreement patterns on related adjectives, pronouns, verbs, and even prepositions. (Example from French: the grammatically feminine Rose (as a name) takes a feminine agreement on its adjectives, so “Rose is mean” would be Rose[+feminine] est méchante[+feminine].) French is pretty tame about agreement; some Bantu languages have up to 16 noun classes and they have to agree their noun classes on pretty much everything else in the sentence (including prepositions). Are you still whining about French?

Sometimes noun classes are logically connected to some idea; for example, in Tshiluba (a Bantu language of the Congo) there’s a noun class that means the noun in question is small. Some nouns are always in this class (like peanuts) and other nouns can be taken from their normal class and made small by marking them with the ‘small’ class. But then again, others classes can be completely arbitrary, and nouns inside the classes might have nothing at all in common.

Alright, I can hear you saying (those of you who have indulged me this far), maybe I can see the logically-connected-to-meaning noun classes being useful to humans, what with our tendency to classify and analyze the world around us. But what about the systems with no apparent motivation (like French)?

Well, there’s one problem we face when trying to figure this out: lazy scientists still haven’t invented time travel.² You see, a lot of these noun class/gender distinctions go back to before the historical record began. Even the historically-reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language (the ancestor of languages as distantly-related as Hindi, Farsi, Greek, Lithuanian, French, and English, to name a few) is believed to have made a noun class distinction. According to some researchers, this was probably a distinction between animate (usually this is a class including humans and other animals capable of movement) and inanimate nouns (plants and other things). Hey, look at that: it started out as a non-arbitrary, motivated distinction. So what happened? Later, a lot of Indo-European languages for which we have historical records can be seen to have three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter (many languages still have this, e.g. German). The neuter gender is close to what they think used to be the inanimate class, while the animate class split off into masculine and feminine by analogy to natural gender.

All that basically goes to say that, as time goes on, languages change and split off into multiple languages, and then those languages change, and so on. English used to have grammatical gender, but gave up on it sometime between the 12th and 15th century (good for us, right?). What probably began as a motivated distinction underwent changes that removed the original meaning of the distinction. By this view, grammatical gender in French and related languages is essentially like human vestigial parts such as the appendix: it used to serve a purpose, but no longer does; the organism (/language) keeps it because it gets passed on from parent to child. This may come as a surprise to you, but no one really cares about adult language learners; you just have to deal with all the irregularities and weirdness. Crying about it takes up valuable memorization time, unless you manage to look at your flash cards through the tears.

This brings me to a final point, going back to the idea of cognitive cost. One argument against keeping no-longer-functional noun classes is that it takes effort to learn and use these forms. But here’s the thing: child language learners don’t care. They seriously do not care. English has hundreds of irregular verbs, but by they time they hit puberty, cognitively normal native English speakers have no problem with them. Or how about the fact that something like 80% of Arabic nouns have an irregular plural form? No problem for a human child. They start to figure this stuff out while they’re still pooping in their pants. Given that capacity, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal for a kid to classify every noun in their language by two, three, or 16 different classes. It’s a relatively small task in the grand scheme of acquiring a human language.

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