Feminist Linguistics and Jewish Liturgy

The following has been excerpted from Feminist Linguistics and Jewish Liturgy, by Rabbi Jules Harlow
Conservative Judaism Vol.XLIX(2) Winter 1997, p.3-25


Rabbinical Assembly publications

When we want to address or speak about God we are confronted by problems engendered by the limits of language. Language about God is a compromise between the impossibility of saying anything about the ineffable and the desire to express our praise and our gratitude, our pleas and our questions to and about the source of all creation. Religious traditions in their sacred scriptures provide a basic vocabulary which enables us to speak about God even though we are conscious of the limitations imposed by language. That very vocabulary has given rise to a problem for many contemporaries, a problem based upon grammatical reality. Beginning with the Bible, references to God in monotheistic religions are expressed in the masculine gender. The use of the pronouns “He,” “Him,” and “His,” and the nouns “King,” “Lord,” and “Master,” for example, is upsetting to those who believe that the use of such words leads people to form a male image of God.

….Other people contend that speaking of God in the masculine gender, which begins in the Bible, is simply a convention built into language, which can only be symbolic in referring to God. Therefore, nothing derogatory about females is implied. Furthermore, Jewish tradition has always taught that all people are in the image of God, following the verse from Genesis, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created He; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:27)


….Many communities have instituted changes affecting women’s participa- tion in synagogue life. A significant number of people feel that justice for women in the synagogue demands something more – changing the language of liturgy. Among the advocates of this position there is no unanimity as to what specific course should be taken, what specific changes should be introduced into what is referred to as God language, although there is a clear consensus on the need for action. Many, both men and women, are adamant that change is required, and changes have been introduced into hard-bound new editions of prayerbooks as well as experimental booklets. In the English translation of Hebrew words referring to God, for example, these advocates avoid using the words “King,” “Lord,” and “Master,” “He,” “Him,’ and “His.” Some of the advocates of change would refer to God as She or as She/He, as Parent or as Mother.

….The Jewish prayerbook contains liturgy (fixed texts for formal, repeated public worship) and words of personal prayer. Each of us is entitled to formulate his or her personal prayers, or to apply our personal interpretations of the fixed texts when we pray by ourselves. In Hebrew, which is the language of Jewish prayer, a community of Jews in public prayer refers to itself in the first person plural. Praying as part of a community which embraces all times and all places is one of the strengths of Jewish liturgical tradition. Unfortunately, advocates of what is identified as a feminist position introduce many changes that disrupt the integrity of Jewish liturgy which is so intimately connected to the language of the Hebrew Bible. (To cite but one example, the Hebrew Bible refers to God using the masculine gender, and the changes introduce language which is gender-neutral and sometimes even female gender-specific.) Such changes break the connection between the language of the Bible and the language of the prayerbook, a close connection which is a basic feature of Jewish liturgy. Large numbers of Jews are unable to participate fully in public prayer at congregations that include such changes. The use of gender-neutral God language, often referred to as “inclusive language,” excludes many Jews.

Those who disagree with this position can, of course, argue that the lack of change is what reads them out of the community at public prayer. I do not believe that liturgical language should be used as a litmus test for Jewish piety. My concern is that changes based upon gender language referring to God disrupt the integrity of the classic texts of Jewish prayer, drive a wedge between the language of the Bible and the language of the prayerbook, and often misrepresent biblical and rabbinic tradition.

….An example of gender specificity is found in passages that refer to God as “He”, “King,” “Father,” or “Lord.” Many consider the use of these words in referring to God as undesirable in any context, not only in liturgy. Remedies abound, with “corrections’ of innumerable texts from both the past and the present introduced in many publications, not only in prayerbooks.

Let us first consider some non-liturgical texts. The examples are representative and their lessons are applicable to liturgy as well. Our first example is taken from the most recent book that I read before first sitting down to write these words. “Journey of the Soul” presents the translation of seven traditional Hebrew texts on repentance in one volume(15). In the first source presented in that book a classic author (16) cites a verse from the book of Job, a verse from a passage in one of Job’s replies to his friend Eliphaz the Temanite.

The standard contemporary Jewish translation of the Bible preserves the integrity of the Hebrew text with its masculine pronouns: “He is one, who can dissuade Him?”(17) (Some translations read “…who can turn to Him?”)

The translation of that verse by the editors of Journey of the Soul reads, “But God is at one with Godself, and who can turn to You” (Job 23:13).(18) The editors here prefer “God” to the gender specific third person masculine of the Hebrew ‘hu’ (which means “He”).

The word “You” at the end of the verse in their translation is another misleading representation of the Hebrew text, which refers to God in the third person – “Who can dissuade [or turn to] Him?” (mi y’shivenu) The verbal contortions that produced “Godself” apparently were also felt necessary to avoid the forbidden masculine “Himself.” The editors explain the reasoning behind their English presentation of the verse from Job in their preface:

“… we have sought to make the texts as inclusive as possible, generally transcending the gender specificity of the text when the context allowed for such liberties.”(19)

Poor job did not suffer enough! He not only had to transcend the tragedy of his suffering. He now must have his use of gender specificity transcended. For the sake of their stated principle, would the editors also “correct” the entire text of Job to avoid the third person masculine pronoun in referring to God?(20) If they leave the Hebrew text of Job untouched, how important is their principle?

….Very often, however, the attempt to be egalitarian in matters of language when referring to people yields unfortunate results. The use of gender neutral language in at least one instance erases the category of joy for an entire group of women. Thus, at the end of Psalm 113(29) the Hebrew which celebrates a childless woman who has become a happy mother of children is translated into the neutral “turning the childless household into a home rejoicing with children.”(30) The specific joy of once-childless women who become mothers, and all that this implies, are out of bounds for those who depend upon that particular translation of a verse from the Book of Psalms.

….Some people consider the neutral “Parent” to be inadequate since they prefer to address God as “She.”….

Among those who question the advisability of such freedom is Paula Reimers, Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Burbank, California, who writes that “The use of God/She language, by conscious design or not, leads inevitably to the introduction of alien theological ideas into the heart of monotheistic religion.”(34)

….Addressing God as Queen has also been suggested.(36) Among the responses to that suggestion are the words of Debra Cantor, formerly Rabbi of the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, New York, and now Director of Camp Ramah in New England.

I really get nervous when I hear people praying to the “Queen of the Universe.” I understand the motivation but to me it sounds like a slide down the slippery slope toward paganism. “Queen of the Universe” reminds me of Diana, not of the God who created the world.(37)

….In the Bible references to God as Father are not used to reinforce oppressive parental authority, for the image of the father conveys compassion. The verse “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear Him,” (39) is but one example. It is a misleading cliche to confine the attribute of judgment to fathers and the attribute of compassion to mothers. The text of the Hebrew Bible makes no such distinctions. A source cited above declares that “gender specificity must be transcended.” What really must be transcended is thinking about parental roles in gendered stereotypes!

….Still, if God is genderless, how can it matter if female imagery is used as well as male imagery? “If we do not mean that God is male when we use masculine pronouns and imagery, then why should there be any objections to using female imagery and pronouns as Well? (43)

One answer to this question has been presented by a translator of the New American Bible, Richard J. Clifford. He defends the use of inclusive language for human beings in Bible translation. Nevertheless, he declares: “Introducing feminine references to God in Bible translations for the sake of equality, e.g., ‘father-mother’ for ‘father,’ runs the risk of attributing gender to God and undoing the biblical portrait of God.” (44)

In calling God Mother or Mother/Father, “The sexist component in both terms is stressed, so that the non-sexist character of the father image is obscured.”(45) Such changes make those who see them quite conscious of sexist categories. “A change like this does not substitute inclusive for exclusive language; rather it replaces non-sexist metaphors with sexist metaphors. “(46)

….Hebrew in its grammatical structure is gender specific, referring to God in masculine gender. Those who focus upon gender problems in English translations are ignoring the problems raised within their system for those who pray in Hebrew and study the Bible in Hebrew. If the change in English is a matter of principle, then the same principle should be reflected by changes in the Hebrew texts of the Bible and the prayerbook. If you avoid the use of gender specificity in referring to God in English, what do you do with the Hebrew text as a matter of conscience and justice?

Forthright advocates of change in this particular area are not forthright in terms of the Hebrew text, which is the authentic language of Jewish liturgy, even for those Jews who advocate changes in English gender language referring to God. Why do they avoid inclusive language while praying, studying or teaching traditional Hebrew texts? They appear to be living a spiritual double life, maintaining the tradition of being gender specific when they pray and study in Hebrew while proclaiming their principled devotion to inclusive language through gender-neutral and gender-sensitive terms in English.

15. Leonard S. Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky (translators and editors), The Journey of the Soul (Northvale, New Jersey and London: Jason Aronson Inc., 1995). The editors are to be congratulated for their idea of producing such a volume.

16. Isaac Aboav, in “Lamp of Light” (Menorat Ha-maor).

17. Tanakh, The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia, New York, Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1988).

18. Kravitz and Olitsky, op. cit., P. 5. In the Hebrew Bible this verse is preceded and followed by verses in which Job refers to God in the third person masculine. Verse 12: “I have not deviated from what His lips commanded; I have treasured His words more than my daily bread.” Verse 14: “For He will bring my term to an end, but He has many more such at His disposal.” If the editors were asked to translate the Book of Job, would they adjust the entire text (not only verse 13) in order to “transcend gender specificity”?

19. Kravitz and Olitzky, idem., p. ix.

20. See notes 18 and 19.

29 This is the first psalm in the liturgical compilation of psalms known as Hallel, recited on Festivals.

30 Kol Haneshamah, op. cit., pp. 358-359.

34. Paula Reimers, “Feminism, Judaism and God the Mother,” in Conservative Judaism, Volume XLVI, Number I (Fall, 1993), p. 25. Rabbi Reimers continues: “Judaism and goddess religion represent two diametrically opposed world views, the essential characteristics of which develop from their respective mythologies of cosmic and human origins. The most common metaphor of origin in goddess religion represents the goddess giving birth to the universe and everything in it. This necessarily implies that everything in existence and all the processes of nature share in the divine essence, which is a pantheistic view…. Judaism’s uncompromising monotheism, by contrast, is rooted in the creation metaphor of Genesis, in the conscious activity of God upon the natural world.” (pp. 25-26)

36. See, for example, Ellen Umansky, “(Re)lmaging the Divine,” Response 13, 1-2 (Fall-Winter 1982).

37. ‘Reclaiming Religious Tradition for Women’s Perspectives,’ a lecture for the American Jewish Historical Society delivered in October of 1986. Cited in Sylvia Barack Fishman, op. cit., p. 238.

39. Psalms 103:13.

44. See Richard J. Clifford, “The Bishops, the Bible and Liturgical Language,” America, May 27, 1995, p.15.

45. Paul S. Minear, “Changes in Metaphor Produce Changes in Thought,” Presbyterian Outlook, 19-26 December, 1983.

46. Ibid.

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