Oz Torah: God as a “He” – Ask the Rabbi


Question. Why do we call God “He”?

Answer.    Despite our post-feminist age, a crucial question remains: the Gender of God.

It is axiomatic that He has no physical form, and anthropomorphisms (applying human terminology to Him) are metaphors. So why do we call Him “He, Him, His” and maintain masculine metaphors?

There are three options; all inadequate:

* Use neutral language, but this seems to remove personness from God.

* Use feminine language, but: a. this merely reverses the axiom; b. male language may be better at denoting power and dynamism; and c. female language suggests reproductive capacity, which does not apply to God.

* Use joint terminology, but this is cumbersome and creates a new dualism.

Though in theory language has no inherent “politics of sex” and the symbols of monotheism are not automatically masculine, the pragmatic fact is that maleness is the common human and theological norm.

This emphasis on maleness cannot be defended on the basis of the Bible, where the God imagery is sometimes female, e.g. God as mother (Ezek. 16), midwife/nurse (Isa. 42:15), and birthing mother (Isa. 42:14, 66:12-13).

The oscillation of male/female God imagery reflects a tension between two dimensions of God – far/near, stern/kindly, etc.

Raphael Patai acknowledges this but separates male and female deities, arguing that until c. 586 BCE, polytheism included female deities, e.g. the “asherah” (sacred tree or pole), representing the consort of a national (male) deity and symbolising motherhood and fertility.

However, the female dimension in the Bible is not necessarily sexual/orgiastic but maternal, since the Torah opposes sacred prostitution (Deut. 23:17-18) but lauds motherhood. We should also note the use of the feminine in Wisdom Literature (“chochmah”, etc.).

The Talmud speaks of “Shechinah” (a feminine word) as a term for God even though He has no inherent gender. However, in Kabbalah, “Shechinah” has a feminine sense as “God’s daughter”, suggesting that our sins separate God and His daughter and our task is to reunite them.

This is a different question to God-language, in relation to which three points can be made:

* no adequate phraseology has yet been developed to recognise God’s lack of gender

* liturgical language is inherently conservative and prefers to retain masculine terms for God

* there is no real motivation  to change our God-language (and Rav Moshe Feinstein warns us against doing things merely to make a statement).


Question. Why are German Jews called Yekkes?

Answer.    Here are several theories:
1. In Eretz Yisra’el in the 1930s, it was only the German Jewish immigrants who insisted on dressing properly with jackets (“jacket” = Jacke).

2. In Eastern Europe, men wore long kaftans; only the German Jews wore short jackets.

3. The name is the initials of “yehudei kasheh havanah”, people who don’t understand quickly.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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