The Gender of God
The Church of England has announced that it is evaluating the language of gender with relation to God. While they recognize that God is neither female nor male per se, the dialogue came up in a recent exchange in the General Synod, the governing body of the Church, when a priest sought options to speak of God in a non-gendered way.
While this is an interesting theological discussion within the Church, answers have been given about God’s “gender” in Judaism for millennia. There is no need to start a “gender inclusive” description of the Almighty and become pronoun conscious in order to satisfy the desires of modern gender activists. The understanding of God’s “gender” can be easily understood and explored through an understanding of Hebrew; and in so doing, we can avoid surrendering the infinitude of Divinity to a populist desire for gender inclusion in language.
The main name of God found in the Bible in the original Hebrew is “YHWH” (the four Hebrew letters of Yod, Hey, Vav, and Hey; and often pronounced as Yahweh, Jehovah, etc. and referred to by academics as the Tetragrammaton). Each of these four letters is “soft” and can be pronounced in a multiplicity of ways. Additionally, in the original Hebrew of the Torah, there are no vowels, so in theory, the name could be pronounced as “JoHoWaHa”, “YaHWaH”, “JeHoVaH” or any number of other ways. Because we don’t want to mispronounce the name of God, Jews often refer to this word as “HaShem” (meaning “the Name”) or “Adonai” (meaning “my Master”). But the name itself is a hidden key to understanding God’s Presence in the physical world. In order to use this four-0lettered name as a key, we need to take a moment and understand Hebrew grammar.
Like many languages, Hebrew often has two or three root letters that compose the root of a word, that can then be conjugated into varying forms of a word, tense, and gender. When the letter yod is placed before the root letters, the word becomes conjugated as male future tense. As an example, the root of the Hebrew word meaning “to speak” is d.b.r., or “daber”. If a yod is placed in front, we have the word Y’DaBeR, meaning “he will speak”. Similarly, if the Hebrew letter hey is placed after the root, the word becomes past tense female: “D’BRaH” is translated as “she spoke”.
Now let’s look at God’s personal name of YHWH. Grammatically, the root letters of the word are Hey and Vav, the middle two letters. These letters form the root of the Hebrew word which means “to be” or “to exist”. It is here that we see the insights into God’s “gender” and pronouns.
Since the root of the word YHWH means “to be”, by placing the yod at the start it becomes future tense male. Simultaneously, by placing the hey at the end of the word, it becomes past tense female. This means that the literal and grammatical understanding of God’s name is the simultaneous conjugation of “to be” in both male and female, and in both future and past.
Simply put, God’s name according to the Torah in the original Hebrew is the simultaneous existence of future, present, and past in both male and female. All times, and all genders. It is yet another reason for us to refer to God as “HaShem”, rather than label God with a fixed time or specific gender.
Additionally, throughout the history of Judaism, the Presence of God in the physical world is often referred to as “The Holy Spirit” (“Ruach Ha’Kodesh”) or “the Presence” (“Shechinah”). Again grammatically, these phrases are male and female in linguistic conjugation respectively. When God is acting in the physical world in a “male” way (moving outwards, paralleling yang energy) we use the term Ruach HaKodesh, and when God is more receptive in the physical world (yin energy), the term Shechinah is utilized. These terms and understandings predate the Anglican Church, and would have been used by Jesus himself, who refers to God as “abba”, meaning “father” (John 14:20 and 17:22 as prime examples, as well as God is referred to as “father” in Hosea 11:1, Isaiah 63:16 and more). In the Jewish High Holiday liturgy, we specifically refer to God as “Avinu Malkeinu”, meaning “Our Father, Our King” as we beseech the masculine aspect of God for forgiveness in the honest way a loving child asks his father to be forgiven.
The English Church does not need to look very far to utilize these understandings into their liturgy and should in no way ever succumb to the popular idea of multiple genders in labeling God in anthropomorphic terms. They could simply use an English translation of the ancient Hebrew. “The Holy One, blessed be He and His Presence”, “Master of the Universe”, and “The Holy Spirit” (or “Divine Spirit”) would all be historical terms that still bear meaning in today’s world but are based in the ancient texts and traditions.
I enjoin the General Synod and Bishop Michael Ipgrave, the vice chairman of the Church’s liturgical commission, to stay true to the traditional understandings of God’s inclusiveness of all gender (and time) rather than to limit God’s infinitude by placing modern trends of gender identification on to the Divine. I implore the Church to decide to either use the translations of the traditional terms, and/or to use the actual Hebrew phrase of “HaShem” rather than to demonstrate a willingness on the Church’s part to water down theology to pacify gender activists.
Rather than watering down the infinite majesty of God, we need to deepen our consciousness and awareness of our relationship with the Divine. Language is one of the first steps in changing consciousness, and the Church can choose to hold true to its values and use language to promote its theology. If it surrenders on the language issue around gender, it portends progressively deeper challenges to its theological foundation. In these times more than ever, we need to hold true to the wisdom of the ancient texts, and to relating to God as all time, space, and gender against the wave that wants to change that theological understanding to one of human based gender activists.
God’s name is male, female, future, present, and past. Let us keep the appropriate language, or we may end up with a Divinity that is defined not as infinite, but as nothing.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village, CA (www.NerSimcha.org), the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together”, and can be reached at Rabbi@NerSimcha.org
Photo credit: Belinda public domain