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God and gender

This entry contains a discussion of how monotheistic religions deal with God and gender, and how modern feminism has influenced the theology of many religions.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all hold a belief in one God as their basic religious principle.

  • In Judaism and Islam, God is conceived of as without sex or gender.

  • In Christianity, God is thought to be a trinity in which there are three persons that are united in a single unit; two of these persons are usually said to be without gender; one being (Jesus) is male.

  • Polytheists (also: "pagans") generally believe in multiple gods, some of whom are male, and some of whom are female; female polytheistic deities are known as a goddess.

Table of contents

Biblical views of God

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1:26, God states "Let us make... (humankind) in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over... all the earth." "Male and female ... (God) created them." Exactly what Genesis means by the word "image" is not clear, but there clearly is an analogy being made between God and humans.

In some ways this passage is anthropomorphic; it is attributing human characteristics to God. However, less recognized is that the viewpoint of the Israelite biblical writers was theomorphic; human are seen as having Godly characteristics.

The Hebrew Bible often refers to God as a father; however it has a few references to God as a mother.

"As one whom his mother comforts, so I (God) will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem."
(Isaiah 66:13)

The Biblical Hebrew word for spirit is ruwach, meaning wind, breath, inspiration; the noun is grammatically feminine. In the "Odes of Solomon'; the oldest surviving Christian hymnal, the word for "Holy Spirit" is grammatically female. The Greek word for spirit, 'pneuma', has neutral grammatical gender. The Holy Spirit is translated in masculine terms only in languages such as Latin and English.

Jewish views of God and gender

In regards to translating Hebrew names of God into English, most Orthodox Jews and many Conservative Jews hold that it is wrong to use English female pronouns for God; their reason is not because God is of the male gender, but because doing so among English speakers tends to draw attention to God as having gender, Another reason is that the Hebrew Bible usually uses names of God that are grammatically masculine.

Among many Reconstructionist Jews and Reform Jews there has been an increasing tendency to stress feminine characteristics of God. In these communities God is sometimes spoken of as a "She". Classical Hebrew names for God such as HaKadosh Baruch Hu ("The Holy One, praised be He") are being rewritten in both Hebrew and English as HaKadosha Barucha He ("The Holy One, praised be She"). Those in Reform Judaism who hold more closely to traditional Jewish belief (as well as most Conservative Jews and nearly all Orthodox Jews) hold that this rewriting of Hebrew names for God is both a theological and linguistic error; it presupposes the belief that grammatical gender implies sexual gender, which it does not. As such, people who make these translations imply that other Jews worship a male God, which they do not.

Some Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis have experimented with incorporating explicit anthropomorphic characteristics into their prayers. Reform Rabbi Rebecca Alpert (Reform Judaism, Winter 1991) writes about a feminist siddur (Jewish prayerbook) she used:

The experience of praying with Siddur Nashim...transformed my relationship with God. For the first time, I understood what it meant to be made in God's image. To think of God as a woman like myself, to see Her as both powerful and nurturing, to see Her imaged with a woman's body, with womb, with breasts-this was an experience of ultimate significance. Was this the relationship that men have had with God for all these millennia? How wonderful to gain access to those feelings and perceptions.

Most Jews reject this theology as unacceptable, as well as being wrong in its description of what other Jews believe. Jewish theology forbids one to think of God as male; male Jews never felt close to God by imagining God as having male sexual genitalia or using such language in their prayers.

A number of Jewish prayers (piyuttim, religious poems) incorporate allegorical male images of God, such as a description of the beard of God Shir Hakavod, "The Hymm of Glory", and similar poetic imagery in the midrash "Song of the Seas Rabbah". Traditional meforshim (rabbinic commentators) hold that this is valid imagery, but purely metaphorical, and warn readers not to imagine that this describes God as actually being male.

Some traditional Jewish prayers refer to God as "Avinu Malkeinu", "Our Father, Our King". Feminine forms of this phrase "Our Mother, Our Queen" have traditionally never been used in Jewish prayers. There is no a priori reason why such terminology is not used, but most Jews today do not use this terminology, as (rightly or wrongly) they see these terms as being associated with polytheism.

Neopagan views of God and gender

Most Neopagan traditions, such as Wicca, believe in both male and female Deities. A few (especially Dianic Wicca) see the Divine as entirely feminine, and call her the Goddess.

Christian views of God and gender

In Christianity, one person of God, the Son, is believed to have become incarnate as a human male; however, the other two persons of God are generally considered without gender, since they are not considered as physical. The other two persons (the Father and the Holy Spirit) have traditionally been referred to using male pronouns and have primarily been associated with male imagery.

Some Christians today, especially those inspired by feminism, do not consider this tradition to be binding. These Christians claim that the first century church worshiped the Holy Spirt as a female deity. They point to numerous evidence from ancient archeology and gnostic gospels found in eygpt; as well as the original cultural language usage of the feminine gender noun when speaking of the Holy Spirit. For this reason some Christians feel that it is important to speak of the Holy Spirit, especially in the role of Comforter and Reconciler, with a feminine pronoun. Those who consider the Spirit to be feminine also point out that the functions of the Holy Spirit as characterized in Biblical texts are often those which have been associated with women: consolation, inspiration, emotional warmth, and birth of the spirit.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

In no way is God in man's image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the differences between the sexes. But the respective "perfections" of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother (Isaiah 49:14-15; 66:13; Psalm 131:2-3) and those of a father (Job 31:18; Jer. 3:4-20) and husband (Jer. 3:6-19)."

By calling God "Father," the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that He is at the same time goodness and loving care for all His children. God's parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood (Isaiah 66:13; Psalm 131:2), which emphasizes God's immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents,...[CCC 239]

Mormonism (which many Christians feel is outside the bounds of Christianity) taught that God the Father has a perfect body of flesh and bones, and that Jesus was also a male. In this theology, only the Holy Spirit is bodiless and without gender. Thus, in this faith God is a man, and can only be conceived of as such. Mormons controversially believe that God is married to a female god, but while official Church documents make brief mention of this female god, she plays no role in the Mormon faith and is not referred to in their prayers.

The Greek pronoun (ekeinos) translated "Him" in John 14, speaking of the Holy Spirit, refers to the masculine title Comforter (paraklitos). Otherwise the New Testament refers to the Spirit (pneuma) with grammatical neuter.

Translating the names of God into English

There are a number of ways that one can translate the names of God into English from Hebrew. The Tetragrammaton is composed of the Hebrew letters Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh. (If your web-browser supports a Hebrew font it is written thusly: יהוה. In English the tetragrammaton is usually written as YHVH. It is usually translated as "Lord" or "LORD" (in small capitals). A gender-sensitive translation of this is "Sovereign".

The Hebrew word "Adonai" is translated as "Lord" or "My Lord". A gender-sensitive translation of this is "Sovereign". The Hebrew names 'Elohim, "El", "Shaddai", "Elyon" and "Yah" are usually translated as "God".

There are a number of compound names for God. "YHVH Tzevaot" is translated as "Lord of Hosts"; a gender sensitive translation is "Sovereign of Hosts". YHVH Elohe tzevaot would be "Lord God of Hosts". Among non-Orthodox Jews, there is a growing tendency to avoid translation created gender problems, and to simultaneously reclaim the vocabulary of Hebrew itself, but not translating these names in English prayers.

Example of a traditional translation: "The earth belongs to the Lord, and all it contains; the world and its inhabitants." (Pslam 24)

An alternative translation "The earth belongs to Adonai, and all it contains; the world and its inhabitants."

Shekhinah is Hebrew for the immanent presence of God; this name of God appears in some traditional Jewish prayers. Within Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) the Shekhinah represents the feminine aspect of God's essence; other terms represent the male aspect of God.

Third person pronouns: He, She or It?

Many prayers use one or more of the names for God many times within the same paragraph. The first time it appears a proper name is used, while further instances use a third person pronoun. English speakers usually use masculine or feminine third person pronouns to refer to people, and the third person pronoun "it" to refer to non-people. Traditionally, in both Jewish and Christian cultures, the third-person pronoun "He" has been used to refer to God in English translations. Functionally, even in non-religious contexts, English speakers have generally used the word "he" as a substitute for a gender-neutral third person pronoun. While grammatically male, the word "he" is often functionally used in a non-male sense.

In all languages with grammatical gender, the grammatical gender of words often has little or no relation to biological or sexual gender. With regard to the pronouns employed in speaking of the Holy Spirit, in Indo-European languages (and some other languages as well), the masculine pronoun can be used in either a masculine or a gender indefinite sense, while the feminine pronoun is always feminine.

In English, it is improper to speak of a person with the neuter pronoun "it". Since the Bible teaches that God is in many ways like a person, English speakers have avoided using "It", and instead used "He".

The idea of God being an "It" rather than a "he" or "she" does have some support in Jewish, Christian and Islamic medieval thought, much of which was based on Neo-Aristotelian philosophy. The medieval philosophers of all three of these religions took great pains to make clear that God was in no way like a person, and that all apparently physical descriptions of God were only poetic metaphors. Given their description of God as a process, or as a prime-mover, or as an ultimate groundsource of reality, the reference to God as "It" could well be justifiable.

Mankind and Humankind

Translations of the Bible and prayerbooks traditionally have used words such as: man, men, his, mankind, brotherhood, etc., In their historical usage these words have always meant human, human beings, his and hers, humankind, peoplehood, etc. For a number of reasons women are frequently left out of both the mental structures and the social structures of many cultures. Some believe that the usage of these words when speaking of all people, and not men only, contributes to this condition, which they perceive as an injustice. As such, many liberal religious Jews and Christians now translate works in a more gender-neutral fashion.

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible tries to correct this by changing words like "man" to "person", and "brothers" to "brothers and sisters", in all cases where the text is not referring to specific individuals but to people in general, or to a group of people that is most likely comprised of both men and women. In keeping with this approach, the NRSV does not change the traditional male pronouns that refer to God.

A recent translation known as Today's New International Version (TNIV - sometimes referred to derisively as "The Neutered International Version") has attempted to make politically correct references to gender by replacing gender indefinite uses of singular masculine pronouns with plural pronouns (e.g. "he" becomes "they"), a practice which is becoming prevalent in spoken English. This is much criticized because, in addition to being improper grammar, it sometimes destroys the meaning of certain verses where it is significant that the pronoun is singular.

However, the continued usage of words as Father, men, mankind, brotherhood, etc., has been increasingly called into question by educated readers who mourn the loss of an historic and beautiful prose style found in the original Bible, prayerbooks, etc.

New translation solutions

Most modern day readers of English Bible translations are not familiar with Hebrew; they read the translations literally, through the view of modern feminist thought, and thus sometimes read the text as if it was describing a male God. Many readers feel removed from the text, as they either do not want to worship a male God, or they also want to worship a female God as well as a male God.

While this problem does not exist if one prays in the original Hebrew (or Arabic, Aramaic, etc.), many prayer-book editors in the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism, and in liberal denominations of Christianity, have become sensitive to this issue. Several solutions have been proposed:

  • Keeping the standard translation, which uses the term "He", and using commentary to explain the issue more fully. This is the approach used by Orthodox Judaism and most branches of Christianity.

  • Translating God as "It". For theological reasons, this has been rejected by all branches of Judaism of Christianity. But, see above for a discussion of why it could be considered legitimate.

  • Translating God as both "He" and "She". A few experimental prayerbooks by Reconstructionist Jewish feminists have tried alternating "he" and "she" within the same prayerbook, and sometimes even within the same prayer. This approach has failed to win widespread approval; critics object to it for many reasons, one of which is that this gives the appearance of dualism or goddess worship. (Are there any Christian uses of this?)

  • Rewriting all prayers in the first 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. (Are there any Christian uses of this?)

  • Gender-neutral translations involves rewriting prayers to remove all third-person pronouns; sometimes this involves changing sentence and paragraph structure. This approach has been adopted by most Reform and Reconstructionist Jews; some liberal Protestant Christians have rewritten prayerbooks in this way. Conservative Jews have rejected this approach because there are many cases where no such changes are grammatically possible without totally rewriting the sentence, and moving the English far from the Hebrew meaning.

  • 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. (Are there any Christian uses of this?)

Over the last 20 years many Jewish prayerbooks have been rewritten to be gender-neutral (Reform, Reconstructionist Judaism) or gender-sensitive (Conservative). As an example views these translations of Pslam 24. The following is a traditional translations excerpted from Siddur Sim Shalom, a Conservative siddur. (Ed. Jules Harlow[?])

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.

Criticism of feminine reconstructions of theology

Grammatically, most of the Hebrew names for God are masculine; a few are grammatically feminine; the grammatical form of words has no biological or literal significance. Many modern readers of the Bible, especially those influenced by 20th century feminism, often misread English translations of the Bible as literal translations of the Hebrew text; this leads to errors of understanding, as for grammatical reasons literal translations are not always possible. English does not have grammatical gender in nouns, but it does have grammatical gender in pronouns. In contrast, all Hebrew nouns have grammatical gender.

For example, the Hebrew words "yom tov" and "shavua tov" are grammatically male, and are translated as "day" and "week"; the Hebrew phrase "shanah tovah" ("Have a good year") is grammatically feminine. Both religious and non-religious Bible readers conversant in Hebrew should not imagine that days and weeks are conceived of by Jews as being male, and that years are thought of as female. However, when it comes to translating Biblical names of God this is precisely the idea that exists among many modern day English speakers. The reader often assumes that the Hebrew text is referring to a male God (which it does not). In response, some feminists have attempted to construct a female-God image, or feminine way of speaking about God, to rebut the male-God image that they perceive.

An argument for using female symbols for God arises from the practical effects of God-language on the readers. Imagery for God helps us understand the world. The way a faith community talks about God indicates what it considers the highest good, the profoundest truth. This language, in turn, molds the community's behavior, as well as its members' self-understanding. The fact that Jews and Christians ordinarily speak about God in the image of a male ruler can be problematic. For feminist theology, the difficulty does not lie with the male metaphors. Men as well as women are created in the image of God. The problem lies in the fact that the specific male images reflect a patriarchal arrangement of the world, casting God into the mold of an omnipotent, even if benevolent, monarch. God's maternal relation to the world is eclipsed.

See also: God, Feminism

External links

God as Mother (A Christian view) (http://net-burst.net/god/mother.htm)

Feminine images for God (http://clubs.calvin.edu/chimes/970418/o1041897.htm)

Bibliography

Elliot N. Dorff Male and Female God Created Them: Equality with Distinction, University Papers, University of Judaism, Los Angeles, 1984, pp. 13-23.

Paula Reimers Feminism, Judaism, and God the Mother, Fall 1993, Conservative Judaism

Jules Harlow Feminist Linguistics and Jewish Liturgy Conservative Judaism Vol.XLIX(2) Winter 1997, p.3-25.

Matthew Berke God and Gender in Judaism in First Things, June 1996 God and Gender in Judaism (http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9606/berke)

Bible Translation and the Gender of God, S. T. Kimbrough, Jr. Theology Today, Vol.46, No. 2, July 1989
Bible Translation and the Gender of God (http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jul1989/v46-2-tabletalk.htm)

The Incomprehensibility of God and the Image of God Male and Female, Elizabeth Johnson, Theological Studies, Vol.45, no.3, 1984, pp.441-465.
The Incomprehensibility of God and the Image of God Male and Female (http://www.womenpriests.org/classic/johnson3.htm)



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